Bringing to life both Ai Weiwei’s Foundation (2012) and the Lisson Gallery where it is currently on display, In Defence of the Demos was a sorely needed response by the art world to the ‘real’ world.
Foundation, which is collection of pillar bases taken from old Chinese halls and installed into a wooden platform, is meant to recall both the Greek agora and the social media with which Weiwei is so actively engaged.
This evening of rapid-fire talks and performances from artists, curators, filmmakers and activists – though a relatively small affair – succeeded in activating Weiwei’s work as a political space, but also in extrapolating the discursive structures it represents to a living situation, exposing their inherent flaws and thus confirming the artistic and political value of the work.
The night got off to a provocative start with JJ Charlesworth – online editor of the Art Review and co-host of the event – declaring himself ‘possibly the only person in the art world who supported Leave’, before clarifying to largely benevolent booing that his support was for the ‘good leave’, not the ‘bad leave’.
The night’s other events were not exclusively responses to Brexit, but all seemed to tap into the same global malaise of which it is – depending on your stripes– symptom, cause, or both.
Artist Jeremy Hutchinson invited a pro-leave and pro-remain voter each to write a slogan on the gallery’s wall in black paint, only with the same brush, and at the same time. The result, appropriately, was incoherent.
In a similar vein, Legacy Russell of Glitch Feminism gave expression to the common and contradictory responses to this and other recent events: in a poetic, moving, and sometimes comical performance she and a partner each described successive and antonymous qualities of grief with increasing emotional intensity: ‘grief is public/grief is private’, ‘grief is collective/grief is lonely’, ‘grief is a riot/grief is a parade’…
There were several responses to the concepts of borders and margins, both political and personal. Sue Clayton’s short films addressed specific emotional aspects of refugee experience in Europe; a short talk by curator Fatos Ustek invited the audience to consider the night’s events and experience itself in more intersubjective terms; and architect Sam Jacob, in an original and fascinating talk, explored borders and globalization through the eyes of the architect, as a design project for the 21st century.
Two key pieces of performance art explored different approaches to the space and its function. In a striking piece Nigel Rolfe used his body as a site of stoic suffering, capturing an abstract but shared sense of grief and amplifying it for the audience without qualification. Richard Wentworth’s performance, however, appeared more concerned with the space itself, recalling his work with New British Sculpture as he ‘domesticated’ and implicitly muted it by covering every pillar with an object: doormats, planks and a boiling kettle.
To the great credit of JJ Charlesworth and the event’s other organizer and host, Ossian Ward, the range of voices given a platform was diverse, with several more critical and radical contributions.
One of the highlights of the evening was a nuanced and thoughtful talk by Michaela Crimmin of Culture and Conflict, which gave an excoriating but even-handed critique of contemporary art as it relates to political life. Representatives from the group Keep it Complex also approached the intersection of art and politics, insightfully calling for an art that is political in its practice and not merely its representation.
The evening was both an experiment in creating a discursive democratic space and an attempt to activate a work of art, and wherever it met with difficulties in the first endeavor it excelled in the second.
Not being a panel discussion the debate was necessarily linear; the initial Brexit provocation was, for example, responded to several times without deepening the discussion for lack of retort. There was also, of course, a clear distinction between speakers and audience, active and passive, those with microphones and those without.
Considering Foundation’s function as a metaphor for social media, however, this is no criticism, but rather exposes the difficulties of using any discursive space in a truly democratic way.
Ultimately, the space was not one of debate or discussion, but of generation. Speakers and performers did not, for the most part, present objective or prescriptive truths, but rather the germs and fragments of alternative perspectives. No answers were given, but questions were raised, and we rarely arrive at the former without the latter.
A successful evening by all accounts, and according to rumour perhaps not to be the last, let’s hope the discussion, or rather the questioning, continues.