The newest work in Olivia Plender’s exhibition, ‘The Disgrace of Liam Fox: Proposed Monument to British Parliamentary Corruption, Circa 2011’ (2016), presents a strikingly current and cautionary tale of the persistence of political ambition overcoming the warnings of history. Plender’s accompanying sardonic notes describe how Liam Fox MP, after a middling career, was caught out in a scandal involving a consultant. In the old order of things, and after ‘spending more time with his family’, this should have relegated Fox to a career path involving appearances on reality TV. The looking-glass politics of Brexit Britain, however, have vaulted Fox back into the cabinet. Plender’s anti-monument, based on an unrealised monument by Sylvia Pankhurst opposing the arms trade, connects Fox and the Suffragette movement. The violence of the opposition to electoral reform and the Pankhurst family’s personal sacrifices contrast starkly with the meek acceptance of the perversity of contemporary UK politics as represented by Fox.
Projections of utopia have been a persistent feature of post-war British art, a consequence of the idealism of the 1951 Festival of Britain being hardwired in to national arts funding provision. Plender’s archivist approach to neglected or suppressed utopian models is a key theme of her exhibition and its excellent accompanying publication. Her architectural model ‘Empire City: The World on One Street’ (2009) is the centre piece of the exhibition – a disturbing vision of what might have been had the sun not set on the British Empire. Based on the largely forgotten 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, Plender’s model looks like it has been retrieved from the store room of a local museum and (embarrassingly) propped on a temporary trestle table. The Wembley exhibition’s transient city presented a pseudo-narrative of the Empire as an orderly procession of its diverse and ‘exotic’ subjects laid out for the education and entertainment of the British Public. Plender’s notes mention that some of the pavilions included ‘living exhibits’ (indeed, the fate of the women weavers housed in the Malaya pavilion is the subject of an entirely separate work by Erika Tan). The Wembley exhibition was conceived with no clear idea of its legacy. The stadium was a white elephant until by chance it began to host the FA Cup. In place of the stadium, Plender’s model presents her version of John Bunyan’s eternal city from ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, that with its fantastical domes and esoteric projections, also looks like the models by Albert Speer that Adolf Hitler drew solace from in his bunker – a strange salvation through fantasy architecture.
The corruption of Bunyan’s particularly English idyllic vision of honest labour is a reoccurring motif here. Plender’s fascinating work on the socialist Scout movement Kibbo Kiff is shown again. The backdrop to the Wembley model is an embroidered banner ‘Britannia Receiving Her Newest Institution’ (2012) on which an allegorical figure holds a model of the original Selfridges store. The banner’s cheerful Arts and Crafts design placed next to Pankhurst’s bomb model and the atrocities of the Wembley Empire display, mocks the idea that a socialist utopia could be achieved through better design. The proposition of the exhibition is sobering – namely that even the most extreme political positions appear tame by comparison to rampant consumerism.