Review by Catherine Spencer
On walking into Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast at the Whitechapel Gallery, I found myself immersed in a buzz of debate and discussion. Seated at the glass-topped roundtable that forms the installation’s centre, a group of people were engaged in lively conversation - questioning, qualifying, countering - forming, through the act of argument, connections and correlations between a range of issues and ideas. Behind them, emerging from the shadows at the furthest end of the room, hung one of the three tapestry copies that were made of Picasso’s Guernica, its dislocated, fractured imagery immediately recognisable, but nonetheless powerfully compelling.
The group was one of the many organisations that have responded to Macuga’s invitation to use the space as a forum during its yearlong installation at the Whitechapel. Against the backdrop of the Guernica tapestry, commissioned in 1955 by Nelson Rockerfeller and loaned to the United Nations New York headquarters in 1985, where it has been displayed in the Security Council Chamber as a deterrent to war, organisations as diverse as NHS Tower Hamlets and the University of East London, the Cass Business School and the Minority Rights Group International, have held meetings, talks, lectures and dialogues. The space is at once evocative of the Security Council Chamber, and the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, for which Guernica was originally commissioned to promote the Spanish Republic and condemn Nationalist violence.
Macuga’s practice is based on forays into archives and histories, which result in exhibitions - featuring objects from various sources placed in strategic relation - that blur traditional demarcations between artist, curator and collector, and between established hierarchies of knowledge and value. Her project for Art Now at Tate Britain, Objects In Relation (2007), and entry for her resulting Turner Prize nomination in 2008, saw her delving into the Tate archive to reframe the established histories of Paul Nash and Eileen Agar, creating a series of object arrangements that elaborated an alternative account of their private and creative lives based on their brief love affair. The Nature of the Beast continues this line of engagement, evolving as it did through Macuga’s detective-like sifting of the Whitechapel archives. From this she has created an arrangement of objects that establish a series of subtle trans-temporal resonances, between the original Guernica painting, the tapestry reproduction for the UN, documentary material relating to the Whitechapel’s history, a bust of Colin Powell, a commissioned rug featuring a design of Iraq invaded by occupying forces, and a film programme based around the Iraq conflict.
The project witnesses a development of Macuga’s artistic strategy, however, in that her archival intervention has been fused with the performative element displayed by her large-scale installation The Sleep of Ulro (2006) at the A-Foundation in Liverpool. For this earlier project, Macuga constructed an immersive environment consisting of ramps, walkways, platforms and corridors, which evolved from her interests in Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical text Dreamland and Somnubalism and set designs for the 1920 expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. As visitors traversed the space they encountered films, performances and talks. In The Nature of the Beast, material generated by the conferences held in the debating chamber will ultimately be fed back into the archive from which the project emerged. The only condition for use of the room by groups is that they provide documentation of their talk, so that the Whitechapel’s reference collection grows exponentially. In Macuga’s words, this process ‘creates the possibility for future narrative opportunities to be teased out by other artists / curators.’
Narrative potential is intrinsic to The Nature of the Beast. At the exhibition’s heart is the story of Picasso’s Guernica, and its first visit to the Whitechapel Gallery in 1939 at the invitation of the Stepney Trade Union, who wanted to generate support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Archive material relating to this campaign is laid out for perusal under the glass of the roundtable, where it rubs shoulders with a series of letters by subsequent gallery directors Bryan Robertson and Nicholas Serota attempting to re-stage the 1939 exhibition and bring Guernica back to the Whitechapel. Yet Macuga’s choice of this particular Guernica tapestry is more than an apposite coda to this narrative strand. Instead, by introducing a work with a history all of its own - it was notoriously removed from the Security Council Chamber when Colin Powell made his case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 - a new set of ramifications for the original work emerge. The sculpture of Colin Powell, executed in the Cubist language that Picasso used to such impact in Guernica, underlines the intimation that cycles of violence continue when the lessons of history are not heeded. This is further emphasised by the selection of films visitors can watch, which has featured Julia Guest’s Baghdad Stories (2004), documenting an attempt to set up the first impartial newspaper amid the chaos after the invasion.
Since its opening in 1901, it has been the intention of the Whitechapel ‘to bring the finest art in the world to the people of the East End’, and from the outset gallery directors encouraged local organisations, such as the Stepney Trade Union, to use the space. It remains a politically engaged area, and pamphlets from the Freedom Press, housed in the anarchist bookshop that predates the gallery and still operates in the neighbouring building, feature in Macuga’s vitrines. One personality that emerges with particular emphasis through Macuga’s archival selections, almost as a counter to the figure of Powell, is that of Normal King, a Whitechapel activist who represents grass-roots engagement with the structures of power. One senses, though, that Macuga isn’t particularly interested in romanticising Socialism, but more in the creation, through the gentle manipulation of museum methodologies, of an explorative, associative approach to history and politics, in which the personal and subjective have a place. The initiation of active debate by The Nature of the Beast is intimately involved in this aim, introducing a further network of knowledge exchange to the project that is, essentially, intangible. Born in Poland in 1967, Macuga has describes how the Polish history with which she was first educated has subsequently been rewritten, a relativism at once terrifying and liberating, and which has significant implications for her work.
Stacked unobtrusively by the door on the way out was a pile of exhibition leaflets, printed in the style of a protest newspaper. Takers were invited to leave a donation of £1, but there was no-one standing over you to check if you did; I fished a coin out of my pocket, adding it to the loose change lying on the floor by the stack and, as I did so, experienced a brief frisson of independent action, interaction and exchange - as one imagines Macuga intended the users of her roundtable to feel.’
It should be noted that although the title of this online magazine was inspired by the 1956 show held at the Whitechapel Gallery, we have no connection or affiliation with the Gallery.