Can the Turner turn us on to politics?
It will take more than prize-winning arty videos to kickstart public life.
Can artists do a better job than politicians at portraying politics as appealing? This is a question posed by the four contenders for this year’s Turner art prize at Tate Britain. After the debacle of the war in Iraq, the farce of the American elections and to cap it all, UK home secretary David Blunkett embroiled in a sex scandal, surely artists cannot do worse? Or can they?
Yinka Shonibare was born in Nigeria in the 1960s but educated in Britain. For years he has been dining out on the same story, told and retold in a myriad of versions. A favourite African dress material is batik; in fact, it is so popular that it has come to be seen as essentially Africa. Yet the design originated in the East Indies and, as often as not, was manufactured in Lancashire for export to African markets.
Shonibare uses this microcosmically to depict his own life experiences, and macrocosmically to encapsulate what he conceives to be the hybrid, eclectic relationship between the West and the Orient. His art is deliberately cryptic, whether it is twentieth-century spacemen garbed in the garish batik cloth or, as in his current display at Tate Britain, a enigmatic blend of French rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s ‘The Swing’ (1766), suitably beheaded, plus a video of a masked ball replaying the assassination of an eighteenth-century Swedish monarch.
Unfortunately, his underlying political message is more reminiscent of the thoughts of Forrest Gump: unless we learn to respect each other’s cultural diversity, it’ll all end in tears.
Continuing the theme that contemporary artists should be likened to Cassandra – prophesiers of whom no one pays any heed – Langlands & Bell take us on a video tour of a grubby Afghan house once occupied by Osama bin Laden. The irony lies in the fact that such technology is typically used by architects to display iconic buildings such as London’s Gherkin, which recently won the Stirling prize for the building of 2004. The point? It’s poverty that prompts terrorism, innit? (and there was I thinking that bin Laden was a multi-millionaire). Langlands & Bell provided the Turner Prize with its controversy this year by filming an interview with a warlord. It had to be pulled out for legal reasons, since the guy was on trial and lawyers felt the jury would be influenced.
Far more elegiac is Langlands & Bell’s memorable display of the NGO (non-governmental organisation) acronyms that flooded Afghanistan in the aftermath of its Western occupation. The proliferating parade of these signs evokes the advertising billboards that line American highways, making for bizarre avenues devoid of trees.
God’s own country is the theme addressed by this year’s prize winner, Jeremy Deller. A Londoner who turned native, touring the countryside to seek out vanishing folk customs, Deller came to fame with his Channel 4 film of the Battle of Orgreave. Unlike English Civil War re-enactments by outfits like the Sealed Knot, many of the actors in Deller’s film were actual participants in that legendary clash between miners, scabs and police in Yorkshire during the 1984 strike.
In ‘Memory Bucket’, his entry in the current Turner show, Deller goes to Texas to meet some of the good old folks of the Lone Star state. He shows us that virtually the same people who joined the fundamentalist Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, whose base was blitzed by Clinton in 1993, now backed Bush in his successful second bid for the White House. Deller’s documentary was sufficient to persuade august Sunday Times critic Waldemar Januszczak of ‘the obvious truth that fundamental Christianity and fundamental Islam are different coats cut from the same cloth’ (1). Yinka Shonibare, please note.
Deller’s theme is that the values of all fundamental religions are essentially materialistic, which leaves art carrying the torch for the spiritually minded. This made Deller especially favoured by the London cognoscenti. Bill Drummond, formerly of the 1980s/90s band KLF, claims of Deller: ‘Most people end up producing things for wealthy people or institutions to buy. He resisted that commodification.’ The KLF last caught the public’s attention when, on a similar anti-materialistic mission, they burnt thousands of pounds of their own money earned from record sales. So what are you going to do with the £25,000 you’ve won, Jeremy?
Unfortunately the political vision left after this bonfire of well-heeled vanities is pretty vacant. Continuing this spiritual theme, the fourth contender, Istanbul-born Kutlug Ataman, filmed a fragmentary (rather than a documentary) of several people from the Turkish-Syrian border who believe in reincarnation.
Political art has a tremendous heritage, from Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (1830) through the Soviet art of the Bolshevik era to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1936). Political art will amaze us all again, hopefully. What is objectionable to me about these Turner Prize contenders is not the idea that they could join the exalted ranks of great political artists. Instead, I reject the cultural establishment’s contention that politics can be rejuvenated by a splash of paint or an arty video slot.
(1) Sunday Times, 7 November 2004
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