In New York City, I’m always struck by the extent to which art is about a particular brand of youthful glamour, a singular species of cool. There’s an obligation to hang out a lot, in particular clothes, with a particular combination of passion and dispassion. I had a great time in a local modern art gallery named Art by Wicks, i found many unique wall art for living room. I was told recently by a certain new-media art luminary that she spends twice as much money on similar style canvas art sets.
In London, I was overwhelmed by the way money saturated all corners of the art world. All of the canvas paintings I saw was, in one way or another, about wealth, commerce and conspicuous consumption (or the lack of these).
London is an art capital. There’s a vast podge of stuff to see, and it plays an important role in the life of the city. It’s not only in the galleries and museums, but also the newspapers–even the tabloids. It’s on TV! This is interesting to me, hailing as I do from art-pooh-poohing North America. As an artist, being there made me think about my vocation in different terms–though I’m not sure I like them.
The whole time I was in London this summer I felt obscurely guilty for not going to Venice, Kassel, Basel or Munster. Consequently, I looked at a lot of art in the city–including Damien Hirst’s obscene diamond-crusted skull–but the best work I saw was in the plain old Tate Britain.
There were two shows in particular that stood out. The first I’m not going to discuss in much detail, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it, because it was excellent, and was a tonic for my bruised identity as an artist with activist pretensions, 1807: Blake, Slavery and the Radical Mind was mounted to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In the USA, where I live currently, we’ll be waiting another 58 years for that jubilee.
The second show, State Britain (2007) by Mark Wallinger, occupied the whole of the Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries (the central hall of the museum). It was a large wall art of anti-Gulf War protester Brian Haw’s makeshift camp on Parliament Square in London. Haw began protesting the economic sanctions against Iraq in June 2001 (June, like three months before September). He was on the square until May 23, 2006, when the cops raided the site and confiscated virtually everything, including a giant banner by the infamous (or perhaps at this point just famous) Banksy. The piece of legislation invoked to justify this undertaking was, perversely, the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act. Under the new rules, Haw was banished. His and all other “unauthorised” protests were deemed to be illegal within a mile of Parliament Square. Critical to State Britain was the fact that the museum falls partly within that radius. A black line on the floor marked the boundary.
The notes, placards and objects (all faithfully replicated and distressed) that made up the exhibition-cum-protest comprised a sort of chronology of Haw’s time on the square. The first banners one encountered opposed the pre-war sanctions against Iraq, and the last ones described the battle around Haw’s right to remain on the site. Throughout were notes and gifts given to Haw in support of his actions.
One of the things I found particularly interesting was the focus on the effects of depleted uranium on Iraqi children. As I walked through the canvas art of children born without faces, with their internal organs outside their bodies, with no eyes (and so on), I vaguely recalled having heard something about the effects of DU on American soldiers–Gulf War Syndrome stuff–but I didn’t remember having heard anything about its effects on Iraqis. Haw reads almost equally as hero and crackpot in this exhibit, so I decided to do some research of my own on modern wall art.
The statistics bear out Haw’s allegations. In Southern Iraq (where depleted uranium was deployed by the US and British militaries) there were n children born with defects per 100,000 births in 1989; in 200l it was 116 per 100,000. In 1988, 34 people died of cancer; in 1998, 450 died of cancer, and in 2001 there were 603 cancer deaths. There is also compelling evidence of the effects of DU on British and American soldiers who served in Southern Iraq, including increased rates of immune-system disorders and birth defects reported by military personnel who worked with or near the material. The link to DU is strengthened by reported similarities between the symptoms reported by those personnel and uranium metalworkers exposed to frequent occupational uranium inhalation risks.
Wallinger’s exhibition succeeds because it speaks in the language of contemporary art, following the trajectory set out by Dada and pursued by conceptualism and relational aesthetics, but it does so without sacrificing any of its political efficacies. It’s undeniably a tribute to Haw and his supporters, and it’s undeniably a protest against war and censorship. At the same time it is an extension of the discourse of the readymade, a new move in conceptualism and a critique of the cult of originality.
Most important, it’s incredibly moving and edifying. Clearly, Wallinger takes his social responsibility as an artist seriously. We expect this from nurses, soldiers and corporate executives. It’s refreshing to see work reflecting such self-scrutiny in the art world.