Friday, 25 November 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 3, Nathan Coley

Some Context
If we look at the news today, what are the most striking political acts? In Britain we have the spectre of the 30 November Strike (which could be the biggest since the General Strike of 1926). We also have the ongoing occupation at St Paul's by the Occupy the London Stock Exchange movement. To pay for the bankers' bail out, we are told, we need to make cuts. These cuts come in many forms and will affect public spaces as we lose libraries, parks have to shut earlier and so on. This means that the public pay the bankers for their mistakes, the public lose their jobs (huge public sector cuts) and the public lose public spaces. The London Stock Exchange was not occupied because it is on land privately owned by the City of London Corporation. This makes a mockery of David Cameron's statement "I don't quite see why the freedom to demonstrate has to include the freedom to pitch a tent almost anywhere you want to in London." The point is they can't pitch a tent anywhere in London, public spaces are ever diminishing.  The protesters are then attacked for not staying the night (allegedly only 20% of tents are occupied at night time) "it's OK to protest, as long as you suffer!"  But when protesters do "fully" occupy they are branded as extremists or, as in the Dale Farm case, "professional protesters".  So, what do you do when you occupy a place like St Paul's?  Occupations of the type are notoriously well organised.  A bank account has been set up and is thousands of pounds in credit.  Sypathetic businesses provide food and drink.  Sanitation and health and safety issues are resolved.  There is even a "Tent City University" set up with a revolving programme of visiting speakers and workshops.  The onus though, is not so much on the visiting speaker but on a place where public debate can occur - often with no facilitation, just an open forum.  It is in the context that I began to think of Nathan Coley.

Tresspass and Loiter, 2011
Coley directly tackles such issues.  In his 2011 exhibition Appearances he "touches on themes surrounding institutionalised space vs public space, architecture and theology" (Haunch of Venison).  For this exhibition Coley made four spaces which he describes as the gallery, the church and the school or university - all of which come off a central plaza or public square.  These type of spaces share common themes: they are places where we gather to think and look, and where we are looked at.  Just how effective replicating such spaces, as thin poured concrete platforms situated in a gallery, is debatable.  As the show took place in Melbourne, I never saw it.  Perhaps the key lies in the text piece Tresspass and Loiter.  As with his other text pieces Tresspass and Loiter plays with power and authority.  It reminds us just how often we are encouraged to move along and I can imagine it elicits a kind of guilty pleasure when the viewer climbs up onto the concrete platforms: just as you're not supposed to touch the artwork, you are reminded that you don't belong in such spaces either.  The plazas remind us of minimalist sculpture but also serve as plinths holding, for example, a model church. Upon entering this plaza presumably one is supposed to reconsider the power of church as they tower above it.  In fact, these enigmatic structures also serve as plinths for a contemplation of the social congregating spaces of cities and people (ACCA, 2011).  The exhibition also features a hilarious video piece entitled Another Lecture which takes the form of a Power Point presentation narrated by an "architect".  In reality it shows disused spaces and makes us consider what as a society we have/haven't done to them. 

In an interview with the Tate, as part of his 2007 Turner Prize nomination, Coley  tells us he is interested in how we, as a society and as individuals, use architecture and space to articulate what we believe in.  Put simply, what your house looks like says a lot about you.  This, he says, has drawn him to religious and political themes.  He also talks about a space for ideas and public space.  His work Annihilated Confessions consists of three photographs of confession boxes which have been nearly completely covered in spray paint - in an act of what he calls censorship or "muting".  Coley is critical of the notion of formal confession and being absolved of sin after spending ten minutes in such a space.  He sees this as dangerous (hence the annihilation of them) and, more interestingly, outdated.  Coley wants these works to open up a debate about where confession exists now, in today's society of baring all on reality television or internet blogs and social media.  This draws interesting parallels between what is sometimes conveyed as narcissism and confession.  Another work from his Turner Prize show There Will be No More Miracles Here is directly critical of monarchy, and in particular how the monarchy sees itself in relation to God.  It also purports to draw to our attention the fact that our actions have consequences and that to rely on God or another person to change your circumstances is futile.  Coley is clear though that “I’m not someone who makes work about religion, I make work about how our values illustrate themselves in public or private space. The work deals with how architecture can symbolize the community’s beliefs. I’ve long been interested in how we occupy space.” (ACCA). 
I don't have another land, 2002

If there were any doubt to Coley's credentials as a political artist we need only look back to earlier works such as I Don’t Have Another Land (2002) which is a replica of the modernist Marks and Spencer building bombed by the IRA in 1996.  Only once the building was destroyed did the people of Manchester realise what it meant to them as a landmark.  The title is taken from an Israeli folksong but reminds me more of the current situation of the displaced Palestinians.  I Don't Have Another Land reminds us of the temporality of buildings and the human need to identify with a place. 

I started this post by asking what the most striking political acts are in the news today.  My answers were both examples taken from Britain.  As I write Tahrir Square is once again occupied on a grand scale.  Events in Egypt cannot be seen in isolation though.  Egypt's revolution came as a result of Tunisia's and Libya followed in what has been called the Arab Spring (not the spring failed in Bahrain, Syria and Saudi Arabia - the North African Spring doesn't have the same ring though).  Nathan Coley's work has an indirect link to the Arab Spring through his piece Lockerbie Evidence for which he created a replica of the witness box.  The witness box, "a veneered piece of sovereign Scottish territory constructed on Dutch soil to try a Libyan secret agent" (Frieze).  "Political sensitivities meant the trial was held in a specially constructed court, legally in Scotland, but geographically in the Netherlands" (Tate). Coley was court artist in residence for the trial. Strangely, all pictures of the Lockerbie Witness Box have disappeared from the internet - even the image to the front cover of Coley's book has gone.  Strange. 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 4, Los Casagrande

Berlin, August 2010: Chilean Art Collective Los Casagrande drop 100,000 bookmarks with poems by 80 German and Chilean poets from a helicopter over Berlin.  Berlin was, of course, the logical conclusion to their "poetry rain" project which had previously taken place in Santiago de Chile (2001), Dubrovnik (2002), Gernika (2004) and Warsaw (2009).  As the Guardian points out all cities which, like Berlin, have suffered aerial bombings during their history.

Warsaw Poetry Rain

But Berlin is particularly poignant given the Berlin Blockade of 1948-9.  After WW2, and before the Berlin Wall, Germany was divided in two with East Germany falling under the control of the Soviet Union.  Berlin, entirely in East Germany, was subdivided into sectors controlled by the Soviets (East Berlin) and the US, Britain and France (West Berlin).  In June 1948 the Soviets blockaded all roads and railways controlled by the Western Allies, thus making the Soviets the sole suppliers of food and fuel and thereby gaining effective control over the whole city.  In response the Western Allies organised the Berlin Airlift, dropping supplies by air into West Berlin.  In one year they made 200,000 flights and by April 1949 they were supplying more by air than they had by land.  The US and Royal Air Forces mobilised by dropping food and fuel (not bombs) as an act of (cold)warfare against the Soviet Union.

Subimos al helicoptero

Watching the Warsaw Poetry Rain (above) reminds me of a KISS concert I was at, in Donnington.  Paul Stanley made a rare speech concerning the political malaise before saying "... every now and then you owe it to ROCK N ROLL ALL NIGHT AND PARTY EVERY DAY!".  This was followed by the song of the same name and an explosion from which thousands of Rizla-esque pieces of paper fell from the night sky like a ticker tape parade.  The show won me over as a KISS fan.  The audience were gripped by a mix of Rock music and "ooh...ahhh!" moments derived from firework displays and, the ticker tape parade.  It was magical, it was fun.  Watch the video of the Warsaw Rain and you'll see the look of delight on the faces of adults and children alike.  Everyone likes a spectacle and everyone likes something for free.  But look closely and you'll also see middle-aged men studiously perusing the bookmarks.  The drop elicited two primary reactions: joy and intellectual reflection (what does this mean?).  In this way Casagrande successfully engaged their audience, their audience being regular street passers-by - not gallery going art lovers... and this is important.  Remember this: Casagrande's projects will not make them money (they rely on grants to realise them at all), they do not gain individual fame (as they are a collective), they do not seek approval or regonition from art-lovers (as they confront anyone and everyone).  It is a protest, for sure (against war).  It is organised distribution of art (poetry) and ideas.  I love the idea that someone today might be looking at their bookmark and fondly remembering the day they caught it, falling from the sky.  Or they might be driving or walking somewhere and think about it.  They might even re-read the poem and reflect on the current malaise.  The art lives on in memory - and in a book mark. 

What if you can't get hold of a helicopter?  In 2008 the Georgian author David Tursashvilli, part of the group GWARA (an acronym for Georgian Writers Against Russian Aggression) led a more low-fi protest against the Russian attacks on Tbilisi.  He took his children to the bottom of the garden with the intention of burning all the Russian books in the house.  He then changed his mind and decided to give them back to Russia, at the Russian embassy.  He "bombed" the embassy with paper aeroplanes made from the pages of the books.  You can read more about it here


Berlin Poetry Rain

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 5 Simon Starling

Simon Starling fashions himself as a kind of alchemist, an artist whose primary interest is in how he can change one substance or object into another.  But clearly he is a political artist.  The transformation of substances has an immediate and obvious link to ecological issues - GM crops for example.  He also serves as an ideal model for an artist who, through his actions, allows us to imagine unusual alternatives.  His work gives us hope, for change or hope that we can overcome current difficulties, but it is also satirical.  Starling's work shows up how absurd humankind's attempts can be - his work often focuses on the amount of labour needed to achieve humble results.

In Quicksilver, Dryfit (1999) Starling went to Suriname (a former Dutch Colony) to get aluminium ore from which he made a boat which was sailed down canals in Amsterdam.  The boat was then cut in half and Starling used the Aluminium to make counterfeit copies of the original lumps of aluminium ore.  This can be seen as a critique of Modernist notions of progress.  It is also a comment on (post)colonialism and the history of sculpture.

Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2) 2005
Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2), perhaps Starling's most famous work, is similarly a comment on progress.  Starling found a shed on the Rhine upstream from the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, in Basel, Switzerland.  He then dissembled it and turned it into a boat.  Not just any boat, one should say, but a Weidling - a type of boat indigenous to the local area.  Starling punted the boat down the Rhine to the gallery where it was transformed back into the shed for display in the exhibition.  But it's not the lack of progress that the viewer ends up dwelling on - it's the history.  Starling is clearly interested in history (as demonstrated in the specific type of boat he chose to make) and this history is evident in the final shed.  The end product is not the same as the original shed: it is scarred by the cuts needed to turn it into a boat; it is pitted with holes where bolts used to be.  Starling would love Chatham Historic Dockyard, where the buildings that were once used to make rope, sails, and all components of Royal Navy ships are made out of recycled Royal Navy Ships.  You can literally see the history in the beams and rafters of the buildings.  Notably, the title for Starling's retrospective at Tate St Ives earlier this year was "Recent History".

The Long Ton (2009)
In "Recent History" Starling exhibited The Long Ton (2009) - two massive chunks of stone: one a piece of marble from Carrara and the other a much cheaper, but far heavier marble from China.  After the long journey from China, the Chinese marble has approximately the same market value of the Carrara marble despite the fact that it is four times the size and despite the difference in weight the two hang in perfect harmony.  In the Guardian last February, Jonathan Jones questions whether Starling's works actually achieve his goals: to communicate big questions and issues explored through his research and journeys.  He does recognise Starling as "an artist of big ideas" but he claims the ideas lie outside rather than inside the work.  I disagree.  Starling's strength is that, by presenting artifacts or remnants of a journey or process, he asks us to consider what has actually happened and what has philosophically changed.  I doubt Starling would apologise for his work being challenging, not that I think it is all that challenging.  Take the example of Long Ton, it is actually quite easy to see the metaphor: that although something from China is much heavier, something from Europe punches above its weight.  You are quickly drawn into thinking how this might be: If Carrara marble is from Italy and the other stone from China, should we be thinking of Marco Polo? How does the balancing mechanism work? How do global markets work (today)? Are there dark forces behind this apparent harmony? What tips the scales in favour of the west?  What is the history behind such issues?  Surely that's the point. 
I'm not even sure that Jones is convinced by his argument which he seems to undermine in the same article.   Firstly, Starling's works feed off one another.  It comes as no real surprise that an artist who is investigating recurring themes will revisit facets of these themes in different works.  If the history behind the economic relationship between Europe (Italy in particular) and China was not evident in the Carrara marble and cheap Chinese stone then other works in the exhibition can help draw our attention to historical matters.  Archaeopteryx Lithographica (2008-9) is overtly about history, it is also made from a slab of stone - this time limestone into which Starling has imprinted a feather from the earliest fossilised bird.  Jones tells us that Starling has selected limestone from the same Bavarian quarry where the earliest, most primitive bird fossil was found.  I feel that Starling is giving us a message - all the facts and information are there but it's up to us how much we uncover.  And through uncovering and discovering for ourselves we are more likely to be touched and moved than if Starling were to merely tell us a story.  Also, through our own investigation we can come to our own conclusions and take ownership of the ideas we come to.  It's up to us how much imagination we put into the mix.  It's up to us to imagine where this might lead in future works, or in contemporary issues.  Jones ends his review by saying he has no doubts about the "Coup de grace" of the exhibition which is "discombobulating in every sense". For this piece Starling made a steam powered boat and sailed it on a Scottish Loch with a friend.  Still in the Loch, they began to destroy the boat by sawing it apart until it sank.  This event was recorded and exhibited as a slide show at the Pier Gallery in Orkney.  Starling then remade a full sized replica of the Pier Gallery for the Tate Show, literally at the other end of the British Isles, where he showed the slides again. 
Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006)

According to Jones:
"...the mad commitment of it all – building your own boat, sinking it, rebuilding a gallery in the Orkneys near to Land's End – is hilarious, lovable and compelling".
Life goes on.  Destroyed artwork lives on, remade and put into new contexts.  Through positive action comes new possibilities.  This brings my attention back to another piece Starling made before winning the Turner Prize in 2005: Tabernas Desert Run (2004). Starling overtly displays environmentalist concerns and credentials in this work by crossing the Tabernas desert in Spain on a homemade electric bicycle whose only waste product was water.  He then used the water to make a watercolour painting of a cactus.  According to the Tate:
Tabernas Desert Run (2004)
Tabernas Desert Run (2004)
"The contrast between the supremely efficient cactus and the contrived efforts of man is both comic and insightful, highlighting the commercial exploitation of natural resources in the region".

Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73)
 Starling's work itself is sometimes absurd, comical, and always seems to comment on the inefficiency of labour.  This reminds me of Ilya Repin's 1870-1873 painting Barge Haulers on the Volga.  In the painting eleven suffering men, close to collapse, drag the boat upstream, against the current.  Their pain and suffering is made worse by the realisation that there are alternatives.  Russia had horses, mules, oxen and such but also industrial technology was available by 1870.  This is represented in the painting by a tiny steam powered boat in the distance.  Not that this mattered, capitalism was born and human labour was plentiful and cheap.  Like Repin did at the birth of the Russian industrial revolution and the dawn of early capitalism, Starling points out the absurdity of our era of late capitalism and that there are alternatives available if we just use our imagination.