New Art Gallery Walsall
19 July - 22 September 2013
Review by Anneka French
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s epic poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ (1819), an outraged contemporaneous response to the Peterloo Massacre of non-violent social reform protesters, was last month vividly performed for the Manchester International Festival. At almost the same time opened ‘The Hecklers’, an exhibition of recent British art practice with an overt political tone. Currently showing at New Art Gallery Walsall, the exhibition flags an increasing trend toward the politicised discourse of art and ‘political primitivism’, bringing together artists using different disciplines to articulate their political fervour to varying degrees. Curator Cedar Lewisohn describes their standpoint as, ‘throwing pebbles into mainstream culture’, a description that infers the threat in their seemingly playful actions. The exhibition is characterised by youthful energy, integrity, intelligence, wit, and a clear violent anger toward governmental subjugation that can be seen in light of international anti-capitalist movement Occupy and other activist groups. Many of the artists here make and display work outside of the established gallery framework, and embrace other platforms for protest: printed media, the street and the internet. Despite this, the exhibition, which seeks to facilitate and semi-unify their voices under the banner of its title, is viewed from within the ambivalent context of the gallery itself.
A loud whistling from Ruth Ewan’s video ‘The Cutty Wren (Fred)’ (2011) marks the gallery with a sense of irreverence from the beginning. Its tune is a traditional English folk song attributed to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. This challenges the monarchy through a violent hunting metaphor (the wren being the king of birds), here told through the simplistic drawings of a child and afforded extra significance by the recent royal birth. Elsewhere, Tod Hanson’s large-scale painting spreads across wall and floor and can be walked on by the exhibition visitor, Alexis Milne’s installation ‘Your Eyes are Dead’ (2013) is a site for underground dance performance, and music permeates the space from several works forming a soundscape for dissent, action and critical thought. The visitor is encouraged to actively engage, becoming one of the group of ‘hecklers’ rather than remaining a passive voyeur.
Social dereliction and violent disturbance is emphasised in works by Milne, Max Reeves and Laura Oldfield-Ford. Reeves’ photographic slide-show ‘King Mob’ (2013) shows documentary-style images of London’s riots and continuing unrest, whilst the monochrome photo-collages by Oldfield-Ford are far more sombre. These dystopian works depict ‘troublemakers’ amid scenes of poverty, neglect and symbolic violence: litter-strewn alleyways, gloomy bedsits and the burning of flags. Their faces are erased and people are denoted by their own absence: ‘unpersons.’
Contemporary political concerns (Iraq, Afghanistan, the financial crisis) are also addressed via references to historic social and political contexts. A tableau of alabaster sculptures by Joel Gray, ‘Stones, Bones and Mobile Phones’ (2013) is shown on plinths of the same material, and arranged as monuments in mock-tribute to the history of man and the history of art. Evocations of missiles, iPhones and MacBooks are reduced to a pile of rubble and human remains. Similarly, Andrew Gilbert’s paintings such as ‘The Emperor Will Kill Everybody (Emperor Andrew)’ (2013) chart his dark ‘personal obsession’ with Imperial oppression. These pieces, urgent, gestural, scribbled and slick with blood, explore issues of territorial propaganda, war crime and disturbing political fantasy. Despite their diminutive scale within the exhibition they are perhaps the most visceral and patently violent works on display.
More opaquely, Shaun Doyle and Mally Mallinson’s large immersive installation ‘Wash your Mouth Out’ (2013) presents the viewer with a room that appears as a bedsit for anarchists or radicalised politicians. Battered wooden stools and plastic chairs are raised on breeze blocks like cars with stolen wheels. The furniture is transformed into grotesque light fittings, topped with fringed lampshades via limb-like structures made from rawhide bone-shaped dog-chews. The furniture supports a number of large amorphous lumps suggestive of skulls, directly linking the works to Gray’s marble sculptures. These objects become politicised signifiers for the room’s absent inhabitants. Provocative and oppressive Orwellian messages (‘without me ur nothing’) loom from posters, and feature images of aliens, skulls, a cathedral and couture advertising. Grisly, playful and subversive, this work is endowed with an atmosphere of ambiguous political urgency and the macabre.
This disconcerting tone is heightened by Edwin Burdis. His adjacent sound piece contains menacing footsteps. These lead the listener into a dub-step baseline that samples fragments from financially oriented speeches by Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron. At once deliciously creepy and repellent, there is no escaping their all too familiar voices. Cameron also features in ‘Study of a Head III’ (2012) by collaborative duo kennardphillipps who describe their work as the, ‘visual arm of protest.’ His portrait, printed on to Financial Times pages, is ripped through to reveal a man walking down a working-class street right in the middle of his face.
If the works on display present the viewer with a series of burning political issues to be confronted, ‘The Urge’ posits a possible means with which to do this. Written by BAZ, a ‘semi satirical think-tank’ based in Birmingham, this text sets a more light-hearted tone from within the exhibition’s accompanying zine. Reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1729), BAZ present nudity as a form of political primitivism for artists to attract and retain the attention of the cultural authorities. This is a superbly witty portrayal of potential political primitivism in relation to the local and wider art-world contexts. It critiques bodies of cultural power and the tools that perpetuate these entrenched systems: the gallery, the curator, the glossy art magazine, whilst wryly acknowledging their worth (we stand in a gallery, after all). The text is a manifesto for an alternative mode of art-political activism. Despite its humour, the text serves as a reminder that we do have a choice about how to behave, consume, interact; how to adapt to the world around us and survive it, offering a solution (of sorts) rather than simply an illustration of the issues at hand. Don’t let the **** grind you down.