Thursday, 15 September 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 8 Jeremy Deller

Bats - Still from Memory Bucket 2003
So far in my Top Ten Contemporary Political Artists (which should really be called 10 Contemporary Political Artists as it is non-hierarchical), I've covered a political painter in Wilhelm Sasnal and an installation artist in Thomas Hirschhorn.  Jeremy Deller is essentially a performance artist, who makes videos to document the acts.  He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004, an extremely political year for the Turner Prize, which was won by Langlands and Bell who made work about Afghanistan.  I remember seeing them in the Tate and was surprised that they were documenting their work themselves!  One of their main pieces, Zardad's Dog, was withdrawn as it was considered that it might be in contempt of court - a trial involving Zardad was going on in London at the time (you can't get more relevant than that - look out for Langlands and Bell in future posts!). Yinka Shonibare was also shortlisted and his work deals explicitly with post colonialism.  The 2004 Turner Prize was seated very much in the wake of 9-11 but Deller's work looked farther back.  His main piece "Memory Bucket" is a collection of interviews of residents from Waco and Crawford Texas.  Deller was doing a residency in Texas at the time.  Waco embodies an overaggressive state.  The BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) believed that the Branch Davidians were molesting children, stock piling arms and running a drug factory.  They stormed the complex using machine guns and attack helicopters.  The Branch Davidians responded with an act of collective suicide - burning themselves to death.  The BATF then bulldozed the whole site - even though it was a crime scene.  They later, in court, produced a rifle "from the scene" which was brand new, wooded butt still intact with no sign of fire damage. Deller's work is often about history and how we remember history.  He reminds us that history is written by the winners, and when the winners are the State, they have total control over how and what we remember.  Almost total: Deller interviews a survivor of the fire who has constructed a visitor centre on the site of the massacre.  He believes that he needs to tell everybody about the event, and then the second coming will occur.  Memory Bucket ends with an apocalyptic scene of thousands of bats flying out of a cave, a dark cloud that hangs over America's pro-Bush enthusiasm. 

The exhibition Life/Live continues with the theme of historical collective memory.  Deller curated  Life/Live in 1996/7, it featured portraits of the infamous including the drug dealer associated with Leah Betts' death and a stalker of Princess Diana.  This reminds us of how (seemingly) important events are quickly forgotten or fade to the backs of our minds.  Everything's an emergency on 24-hour news channels (it has to be to grab our attention), but because it's 24-hour it needs to be constantly updated and superseded by the next emergency or catastrophe. 

Deller's work is often about civic pride (and snobbishness), parades, and re-enactments. 
In another piece shown at the Turner Prize he draws out connections between
Brass Bands and Acid House music: Colliery bands, Thatcher crushing both warehouse raves (the criminal justice bill) and miners, brass instruments looking like apparatus from the industrial revolution and Acid House being digital music (part of the next revolution - the digital revolution), both forms of music being popular in the North of England and back to Civic Pride.  The project culminated in a series of concerts where northern Brass Bands play Acid House music. 

Battle of Orgreave 2001
Perhaps Deller's most famous work is The Battle of Orgreave (Commissioned by Art Angel 2001).  In this work Deller brings together the conservative (small "c" and capital "C") English Historical Re-enactment Society and ex-miners (an interesting mix) to recreate the pivotal battle between the Miners and Thatcher.  This is genious, just by doing the re-enactment he has brought together two very different parts of society - in a non-judgmental way.  Imagine the conversations, imagine the legacy left through the conversations they will continue to have with others about "when they re-enacted the battle of Orgreave".  If the artwork never even made it to film it would live on, in memory.  This, I suspect, is the point.  These two sets of "actors" were brought together with general volunteers and former Police officers were advising on the military style tactics used.  Deller states quite clearly that this was a public event first and a video, as documentation, second.  One of the most moving parts is when a policeman emotionally recalls that he first joined the force because he "wanted to do something for the community" and "thanks to Margaret Thatcher, I did: I helped to destroy it".  The copper is nearly reduced to tears as he now believes that he was used.  I'm sure there are many policemen who are unrepentant: he was local but many officers were brought in from London and the South, this was North vs South, a class war, a sequel to the English Civil War that the Historical Re-enactment Society are more used to re-enacting.  Orgreave, just like Waco is an example of an overaggressive state.  "The first casualty of war is the truth" Tony Ben tells us (in Deller's film) as he recalls a retired policeman assaulting Arthur Scargill at a rally (it was later reported in the press that Scargill was assaulted by a disenchanted miner).  Deller clearly questions our collective memory and that of the truth.  His memorial to Brian Epstein highlights how an important Briton can be forgotten and "not memorialised".  Orgreave Memory Bucket are events in the wake of 9-11, and how we should question what we are told.  Memory Bucket shows us examples of American civic pride and this contrasts with Deller's depictions of England where pride has been lost and how we now ridicule remnants of a past age - like the Brass Band or three ducks on the chimney breast.  But Deller isn't romanticising a proud past, Memory Bucket draws our attention to the dangers of such pride - where people without passports who know nothing about, and care little for, the outside world can be incredibly proud patriots - celebrating their towns status as being number one for something meaningless - like number turnip producer in the US (not a real example of Deller's film). 

Deller's work is about people, societies and history - and that is political. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 9, Thomas Hirschhorn

Substitution 2 (The Unforgettable) 2007
In 2011 S.M.A.K. and the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent joined forces for a James Ensor retrospective entitled Hareng Saur: Ensor and contemporary art to celebrate 150 years since Ensor's birth (1860-1949).  The exhibition aimed to rediscover Ensor's work by comparing it to contemporary artists including Francis Alÿs, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Marlene Dumas, Thomas Hirschhorn, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Schütte, among others. 

For the exhibition, S.M.A.K. selected Hirschhorn's Substitution 2 (The Unforgettable) described by Lisa Bradshaw in Flanders Today as an...
"...astonishing large-scale, mixed- media installation... which mixes photographs of war victims - bodies torn asunder and heads half missing - with magazine cut-outs of soldiers and average people blown up to life-size, numbers perched jauntily on their heads like hats, references to the number of dead.  Staged in the beautiful rotunda of the Fine Arts Museum, the installation is surrounded on an upper balcony by Ensor's series of the seven deadly sins. Hirschhorn's work is a visceral masterpiece..."
 Substitution 2 was previously shown in its entirety at Stephen Friedman in 2007, at the same time that Mark Wallinger's State Britain was on display at the Tate.  A full review of the Stephen Friedman show can be found here.  It includes the following quote from Hirschhorn when interviewed by Hannah Duguid, The Independent, February 2007.

"I want to invite people not to turn their eyes away from the non-positive"
If there was a question mark over Sasnal's political intentions (in my last post) there is no ambiguity here: Hirschhorn is an overtly political artist.  Hirschhorn (who has lived and worked in Paris since 1984) used to work for Grapus, a Communist aligned Graphics agency who rejected assignments from commercial or government clients, preferring to work with community groups, theatre groups, educational causes, social institutions and the Communist Party itself.  
They were also known for their technique called “detournement, the rerouting of a message through acts of visual vandalism,” in which they brought together various artistic mediums such as drawing, painting, photography, text, etc. After receiving the French Grand prix national des arts graphiques, the collective disbanded due to differing opinions as to an assignment with the Louvre.
Das Auge (The Eye) 2008
In 2008 Hirschhorn made Das Auge, which was first shown in Vienna (Secession 2008) and in 2011 it was used to represent Switzerland in the Venice Biennale.  In Hirschhorn's own words:
Das Auge [The Eye] does not see everything – but it sees everything that is red. Das Auge only sees the colour red. Thus it can only show red, it can only name red, and it can only ‘be’ red.” 
Both Substitution 2 and Das Auge use the artist's signature materials: packing tape, cardboard, mannequins, and graffiti-like text reminiscent of handmade placards.  In November 2008 Hirschhorn gave a lecture at the Royal Academy of Arts (London) entitled Doing Art Politically: what does it mean?  in which Hirschhorn explained his position regarding making political art.  For Hirschhorn a) where you stand, what your position is and b) how this relates to others is central to making art (and for Hirschhorn this is making art politically - it is the political).  He talks about "touching the negative" (subject matter) and how, therefore it is important for an artist to remain positive: there's no point an artist complaining when they can "make a creation" (why contribute negativity?).  Hirschhorn believes that an artist has to make decisions.  Not choices like 'A' or 'B', 'Left' or 'Right' but "decisions".  Hirschhorn has decided that his work should 'touch' the four following areas at the same time:
  1. Love
  2. Esthetics
  3. Philosophy
  4. Politics
and he claims that while Love and Philosophy are positive, Esthetics and Politics could be negative.  It is unlikely that any one work of art will touch all four with the same intensity. 

For Hirschhorn Art is a tool used to confront reality, encounter the world we live in: a tool (or a weapon).  It is also a platform where contact can be made between the artist and the viewer: how do you reach the other? By using a door, a window or a hole.  This gives us a clue as to how we might read his work.  He also emphasises the importance of materials: he says that the artist makes the decision to use their materials and therefore must love their materials (without becoming kitsch, sentimental or obsessive). 

Hirschhorn also uses enigmatic guidelines.  Examples include:
  • Less is less, more is more
  • Quality no, energy yes
  • Panic is the solution
  • Better is always less good
  • To be responsible for everything that touches his artwork
  • To be the first who has to pay for his artwork

He claims that having guidelines helps to make art politically. He claims that he makes work for "the other" (not for the majority).  For Hirschhorn "the other" could be someone you don't know, someone you're afraid of or the other self that you have and he claims not to make art for himself but "for Art first" and then for "his art".

Hirschhorn's work looks naïve, it is anything but.  His installations are built up layers of narrative.  As Hirschhorn says (in the quote above) he wants to invite people not to turn away from the non-positive.  In this Hirschhorn

Monday, 5 September 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 10, Wilhelm Sasnal

Is Wilhelm Sasnal a Political artist?  I've always assumes that he is. His recent show at Sadie Coles HQ didn't appear as political as some of his previous works though.  There were statues evoking Socialist Realist sculptures (Untitled, left) but the press release tells us that the work has more to do with motherhood.  Here's how Hauser & Wirth describe his earlier work:
He references political events.  But then again, he references other things.  Is Sasnal political, or is he referencing the world he lives in, the world he has grown up in?  I can't remember when I first became aware of Sasnal's work, but I definitely saw him in the Hayward Gallery's 2007 show The Painting of Modern Life.  This would further suggest that Sasnal can be seen as someone who just paints "Modern Life", his modern life.  In the exhibition catalogue Sasnal talks about painting photographs:
"I tried to make the process of transferring a photographic image onto canvas as emotionless and mechanical as possible...the reworking of a motif provides an arena for interpretation and this is what interests me most....When it comes to choosing the source image, there really are no strict most cases the image finds me...". 

So, there we have it.  Sasnal is not political.  He chooses images randomly from books, while browsing the internet, or from film stills. It just so happens that he grew up in a communist country and therefore many of the images he finds from his childhood are seen in a political light by us in the West.  He surely is from a generation bewildered by the transition from a dearth of imagery during the Communist era to an influx of advertising imagery post Berlin Wall and the proliferation of internet based images.  This did happen quickly and merits some consideration.  But isn't the mere selection of images to paint political?  He may not be telling us his opinion on the political events he chooses to depict but by raising them to our attention is surely to give them importance.  His selection of images in some way memorialises them - sometimes taking a throw away image that might have been forgotten and imortalising it by rendering it as oil on canvas.  But his reasons for selecting the image are just as likely to be compositional as political.  Sasnal's work is about interpretation of images and the reductive process that occurs when painting a photograph.  Now, of course, interpretation is political.  Perhaps we need to find out what Sasnal has left out in order to discern his political stance.  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps this is the real potential for Sasnal's work to address the need outlined in my last post, that of imagining alternative possibilities.  Perhaps by not taking a stance, or not knowing the stance of an interpreted and altered image does "provide an arena for interpretation" as Sasnal purports to do.   His painterly grammar of drips and swirls allows us to enter into the image in a dreamlike fashion and in doing so allows us to imagine an alternate world.  Sasnal's paintings are spaces full of potential.  The source material is disparate and random.  Sasnal tells us that the work is about interpretation and the reductive process of painting photographic images - and we see this in many works where the paint swirls and drips take over the source image.  But there's just one thing bugging me: ultimately they are political though, aren't they?