Shifting and Shaking: the work of David Garner
From David Garner:
A person's specific period of work, especially the portion of the day scheduled as a day's work when an industry operates continuously.
The amount of time that a worker must work for an agreed daily wage; days, afternoons or nights. A group of workers that relieve another on a regular schedule.
To move, or cause to move, from one place or position to another.
The displacement of rocks, layers or seams in mining, at a geological fault.
The colliery spoil was tipped over a stream and eventually slid down the mountain engulfing the school.
A change or transfer from one place or position to another.
Manufacturing transferred overseas.
As the local industries have gone, so too have the apprenticeships and jobs. Previously productive regions and classes are cast adrift, we've lost a whole generation.
The de-industrial revolution.
To alter (position or place).
The economic crisis has forced many Welsh speakers to seek work outside Wales, where the strength of the language is not measured. But despite all the statistical gloom, it’s certainly the case that the Welsh language is thriving on the social networking sites frequented by young people.
A change in (political) direction.
From Hugh Adams:
Shift: to alter an attitude, or an intellectual opinion – the Germans employed an essentially agrarian image for the role of the artist in effecting social and cultural change: it elides the image of upsetting by harrowing – that is of digging and throwing up the earth – with shifting and overthrowing what is generally accepted, in order to effect new orientations, particularly cultural ones.
Obviously, David Garner is a harrower in both senses of that word. He seeks to upset; he seeks to change. An accomplished artist of the most serious and substantial kind, his message is clear and unequivocal, his craftsmanship superb. With his subjects spanning a broad spectrum of historical and modern concern, his art has a profound moral and even spiritual, dimension. His really is the most powerful political art, besides which social realism has to be regarded as “mere”. I have no reason to revise my long-held opinion that he is a serious and substantial artist and that his work is of international museum quality. And, of that, one hopes Wales’ galleries will be sufficiently resourceful (and resourced) to get hold of the seminal works while they still can but as what follows may explain, there may well be reasons why they will not!
Garner’s works’ titles are an important element; even a skim through them is sufficient to reveal the breadth of his concerns. Often amusing and in many cases even poetic, many, though not all, provide significant clues for understanding and in this respect he is not averse to a little mischief now and then. His work reminds me forcibly how some complex ideas can be expressed simply; some simple ideas expressed in either simple or complex ways but that some complex ideas can only be explained through complex means. Garner’s work, to my mind, falls into the first category. It is economical, with nothing superfluous to distract from its message. This expressive sparseness is his hallmark – with absolutely no more and no less than is necessary for comprehension and appreciation. Of course, some of his pieces may well be so ideologically dense, that a proportion of viewers may never appreciate their full dimension but these remain enjoyable, simply for their consummate craftsmanship and formal qualities. Overall his offering needs quiet thought and time to assimilate. His references are accessible with a little effort and he makes his points logically and quietly, flirting with, yet avoiding, total austerity. His works have massive presence, possessing all the gravitas of classicism. In this respect it supports considerable radicalism and though from the polar opposite of the political spectrum, his calls Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work to mind. Like him Garner also manages to maintain a sense of humour (a major contributant to his never seeming shrill) and a dimension of play. There are other similarities too, for that play frequently is of a species and character of a war game. In both there is considerable ethical, ideological and emotional steel.
In a world in which cogent criticism of a greedy and corrupt political entity is glibly dismissed as “hysterical”, “humourless”, “extreme” etc; a world in which a super-rich, in all its vulgarity, consumes far in excess of what it objectively needs and one in which those in need are characterised as “losers”, a world where governments condemn human rights abuses, whilst simultaneously conspiring to deny them and a world in which trade unionists are forced to rejoice at receiving armaments contracts, knowing the result will be death and enslavement for other human beings, it is surprising that more of art isn’t political.
I have written previously about David Garner’s work(1), of the “land and people rape”, which has so characterised his and my native land and which has consistently formed such an important context for much of his work. Now, although his work embraces a much larger canvass, social concern remains its principal leitmotiv. Garner has been one of the very few artists able to tackle the effects of industrialisation in Welsh visual art without romanticisation and such work as A is for Aberfan and Last Punch of the Clock can plausibly be considered the visual equivalent of Wales’ Literature of the Scars of the People(*). Here, even with all the greening and the “heritage parks”, such subjects for the artist’s outrage continue, in newer, subtler manifestations of social injustice – in LNG tanks, gas pipelines, wind turbines and aesthetically and socially unacceptable road works ripping apart communities, bringing traffic, grinding out pollution metres away from the windows of the powerless. Not much to comfort the concerned or the powerless in the wider world either and Charles Saatchi may well gaze from the terrace of his London home and “see nothing wrong with the world” from his point of view but such a vision is brutal in its selfishness and dearly bought. Increasingly, it will need assiduous defending, as the enormous growth of the security industry and gated communities attest.
The purity of David Garner’s stance stands in contrast and opposition to such things as the gross greed infecting, in ever grosser form, the upper strata of our society and the obscene socio-cultural, media-led engineering, which renders the lower strata inert, kitsch-consuming and a-political. Admittedly, this is an international syndrome but one more pronounced and sad here, in Britain which is the effective colony and hip-joined cultural twin of an ideologically bankrupt U.S.A. Its resulting manifestations are particularly painful to recognise in Wales, where formerly, political awareness maintained in almost every social group and where they existed the shoddy trashiness of pop culture were eschewed, rather than, as now, uncritically embraced.
Censorship and self-censorship now abound (Garner has had shocking experience of it in Wales). In the media and even some galleries, anything approaching radical protest is omitted, dismissed, or marginalised. Via a vocabulary and rhetoric rendering ‘politics’ a dirty word, the expression “too political” is enabled, to be employed as an acceptable form of criticism. In this context it is interesting to consider the demonization process. Its victims are obvious, if not legion - Benn (“too eccentric”); Redgrave (“too shrill”); Ken (“too ‘Red’”); Mark Serwotka (“too articulate”!). Predominant in all media, very well-educated presenter lackeys, abandon expensively inculcated critical skills and embrace success as bread and circuses “personalities”/”celebrities”, regularly relegating articulate thinking folk to the bins of eccentricity and peevishness. Artists suffer disproportionately and though some respond obligingly to their unwonted role as “celebs” (was I the only one to squirm at recently seeing Tracy and the sun-kissed Blairs fawning over each other at some brain-numbing fashionistas’ reception?), some – such as Grayson Perry even managing to exploit the froth to get his personal, very radical, message over – the more dissident and radical (and less colourful) frozen out, speak to the desert air.
We need sharp awareness of the nuances of historical and contemporary contexts in approaching both David Garner’s career trajectory and his work. Indisputably, we have in him an extremely accomplished artist, the value of whose work has been amply attested by well-qualified commentators, which provokes the question of why, in terms of conventional success, his progress has not been quicker and his career not gone far further than it has? I do not believe that the answer lies in the former perception of the cultural and geographic remoteness of a Welsh art scene, far from art world centres of publication and power, for Welsh artists are nowadays enjoying conventional success worldwide. I do however feel a substantial part of the reason is the mimsiness of a suburbanised post-politics engendered by Thatcher/Blair “pull-the-ladder-up-Jack” tendency. Whilst art critics perceived as ‘left’ and artists too, were being quietly dropped from British metropolitan newspapers and galleries during a period of craven self-censorship after Thatcher’s accession, in Wales they had barely existed. As hinted at above, this consensualism was largely the result of unaccustomed personal affluence and comfort among a fairly newly-arrived and thus particularly insecure, middle-class in Wales, has increasingly resulted in aversion to any kind of political, or even social, activism popularly viewed as ‘extreme’. Indeed, for British Art in general the result has been dire: a market elite basking in hermetic self-regard, onanistically validating itself and flourishing by conjuring frisson through sex, faux violence and sharks. To paraphrases Tom Wolfe: the public was never plausibly invited. Such marginalisation is ironic in Garner’s case and I now realise the mis-characterisation innate in my earlier(2)too-easy description of him as a “political artist”(3), recalling Michael Billington’s Guardian interview with Vanessa Redgrave last summer, in which she chose to redefine herself as “post-political” and a “humanist”, rather than a “political activist”. I feel this rather curious hair-splitting and perhaps even indicative of the dangers of over categorisation. Garner, I am confident, will survive such clumsiness as mine, for humanist he certainly is, as certainly as “post-political” he is not. And as for his activism, however he might exercise himself otherwise than in art, he most certainly is an “activist” – for that is embedded and totally intrinsic to his praxis. In the current pavane of empty consumerist blandness lies a tacit conspiracy between media (general and specialist), museum directors, collectors, dealers, private foundation galleries and various species of “friends” organisations (increasingly swamped by “corporate” and the “charitable”, aka the tax-avoiding super-rich). There are few mavericks, so that even the rare dissenting voice (one thinks of Brian Sewell, or David Lee) with which one might not always agree, comes as a breath of very fresh air. Nowadays, artists who have consistently expressed social and political concern since the Sixties, find their work collected for its historic archival, or curiosity value but rarely, even in public galleries, exhibited as intrinsically worthwhile. For a number of obvious reasons obvious to any reader by now, I do not see Garner representing Wales and certainly not Britain, at the Venice Biennale and even less featuring in Wales’ other enthusiasm, the sad, bland, international curator-club dominated Artes Mundi, any time soon but naturally I should be very pleased to be proved wrong. Meanwhile, the lionisation and accordance of pop-star status to the Hirsts, Hockneys, Emins, G and Gs, and Chapman Bros, reduces the socially critical and political artist – the Brisley’s and Atkinson’s are still with us – to plaintive tugging on an indifferent critic’s sleeve.
So, whilst one might regard Garner’s work as basking in the Redgravian glow of existing above and beyond ‘mere’ politics, this is an incomplete picture. His concerns clearly indicate and increasingly, an affirmation of our humanity and our common responsibility for striving, against increasing odds, to maintain it, but with him it is practical and he leaves the rhetoric embedded in his work, or to others.
Above all David Garner is a considerable narrator: his objects’ stories are tragedies – of events, situations, feelings, strivings and usually, failings. Someone once wrote of Art as “our flounderings shown” and he indicates our – only at times innocent – floundering. More frequently he shows society’s deliberate inhumanity, its clear, deliberate and cynical viciousness. He points to things tantamount to crimes, crimes ranging across boundaries and across cultures, crimes subverting traditional narratives and orthodoxies, crimes of quite breathtaking proportion and cynicism – ‘local’ crimes, of such as those who chose to ignore the creeping danger inherent in an Aberfan coal-tip, global crimes such as those of the descendents of Holocaust victims who now, less than sixty years after, reconfigure torture, death and genocide, high walls and razor wire in Palestine and thus threaten the peace and stability of the entire planet. In a milieu in which the arts in general play such a large part in international diplomacy, it is also a crime on the part of Art and its institutions, to fail to subject such things to such objective scrutiny as Garner’s. It is piquant that, in his work Olive Branch of 2011, he employs the wood of the tree most symbolic of peace for the handles of one of our most prolific contemporary killing machines, the AK47. Wood moreover from Bethlehem – natal place of the “Prince of Peace” and one of the world’s most un-pacific places. Such points are often rather lyrically made which, with the refinement in his presentation, serves to point up the violence even more. Another example, 846, consists of a simple field of very pretty, small origami tanks, made from leaflets harvested in Tahriri Square, after the first Egyptian revolution. Eight hundred and forty-six is the number of those killed there. It is a point gently made but its criticism is no less vicious for it.
So why, with few honourable exceptions, are artists failing as scrutineers and protesters, when artists’ images such as Philip Jones Griffith’s Bandaged Vietnamese Female, Eddie Adams’ Saigon Execution and Miss Amerika, by Wolf Vostell, are held to have been such significant factors in stopping the Vietnam War and when, in the past even exhibitions, I think of Margaret Harrison’s Rape for instance, have proven so effective in radically altering public attitudes, policing and even the law, here?
The story of the incorporation by artists of “non-art” (“found materials” and “non-art” objects) into art is a major thread in the history of art since Duchamp. The name Garner is apposite: for he gathers materials and objects not usually regarded as being within the ambit of Art, and employs, sometimes replicates, them to further his artistic ends. But this is not evidence of post-Duchampian sensibility, because Garner’s objects have highly specific associative targets and the minimum of ambiguity. Each has its own story and alone, or harnessed with others, points to a narrative of actual events and as cool and detached, engineered, or clinical as they may appear, in his hands, they conjure strong emotions. The materialisation and de-materialisation of the (generally common) object during the last hundred years too has been a haunting phenomenon, one which in successive waves has held public, galleries and markets in thrall. Its meanderings from Synthetic Cubism right down to Tracy’s tent, Damien’s sharks (and latterly, no object at all), infuriating all those who persist in equating art with physical, rather than mental, effort and fetishise craft-skills, rather than any informing idea. Garner’s oeuvre is austerely classical, according to well-established canons and when I compare his output with what is presented as Installation Art in most galleries nowadays, I find the latter wanting, facile, opportunistic and in general ideologically bankrupt tat.
Garner acknowledges his interest in Arte Povera (its initial stance against the art market presumably a part of its appeal for him) but the differing degrees to which he either simply selects and uses, or destroys/cannibalises his earlier works to create successors, places the result at a considerable remove from the merely found object. A Case of the Great Money Trick supports this ‘select and use’ approach: a section of parquet flooring, like that many of us sat on in primary school, has long lain awaiting its time for use in his studio. Now, with a seven foot height measuring pole – another schooldays memory – placed vertical to it, what is being measured is a book. It is a seminal one, particularly for those curious about un-romanticised labour history: Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which tells of the brain-washed dispossessed’s unwitting support of its “betters”. Of other works, one marvels at the lengths to which he goes to identify and acquire requisite objects, for instance Beware when the gloves are off comprises vintage porcelain glove moulds, with great persistence tracked down and then purchased in Germany. This surely confirms an entirely different motivation from Duchampian artist-priesthood? Sometimes an object having past associations is his target and (as with his clocking-in machine) he relentlessly pursues it, sometimes with a ‘constant knocking’ approach, persuading reluctant owners to part with things. Rarely does he employ a single object as found, more usually he combines or modifies – amusingly sometimes, as with Last Punch of the Clock, in pursuit of even greater “verisimilitude”. Such found and modified materials are invariably extraordinarily finely crafted and labour-intensive. For the clocking-in machine of Last Punch he went to the length of having facsimiles of authentic cards made and himself laboriously hand-punched thousands of them. Such physical effort whether consciously or not, seems almost an attempt at replication of his father’s working life, in order to represent its length and tedium. This evident simultaneous horror at and sympathy with, the physical efforts of his subjects is akin to a performative element and although clearly not strictly necessary, is indicative, of a personal austerity and an awareness of and perhaps the desire to share, if in smaller manner, the suffering his works are describing.
Definitely Garner, even among his artist contemporaries, enjoys great respect. He was recommended for inclusion in my book Imaging Wales by several of the country’s most distinguished artists. Yet he retains something of the loneliness of the prophet, which is possibly due to his persistent voice and an art establishment in Wales prone to be antipathetic by and large to his message. He will, I believe come, if only in retrospect, come to be regarded as one of the most important British artists of his time. Were he more concerned with acceptance, fashion and the plaudits of the general, his art would be different, the blood out of it and perhaps it would not even be art.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinions; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”(4). That, for me perfectly describes David Garner, who with talent and craftsmanship displays his concerns to the world, in order to awaken the dormant consciousness. This is what Shift does, but no shift for Garner himself, for he is above all else consistent and as the evidence of this exhibition again demonstrates, continues with commitment and energy to engage in what the cynics will conveniently characterise as tilting at windmills.
Hugh Adams © 2013
٭ Newport and its hinterlands provided an enormous amount of raw material for such writings and eventually, the world famous films based on them. So, it is ironic that at the time of writing, it seems as if this exhibition will be seen in the town at precisely the time when it is abandoning its historic commitment to improving the quality of an impoverished community and the lot of its workers via education and is closing down its library, museum and art gallery for “lack of funds”. Newport’s Labour-run council, in the most dull, uncreative way, is abandoning a widely admired temporary exhibition programme, which, staff included, costs only £40.000 per annum, whilst granting precisely that amount to a snooker festival, which will last one week! Is the council justifying this with the evil baroness’ “There is no alternative”? One would have to go very far in the world to find a place having pretensions to being decently provided town, let alone a city, with the paucity of cultural provision being proposed
1)Imaging Wales, contemporary art in context Wales Arts International, 2003
2)Memento an edited and revised version of a lecture given in 2002 at G39, Cardiff, 2013
3)I have to say that I am in agreement with the American writer and critic Richard Nonas, who said that any word hyphenated, or used to qualify Art, such as public, community etc. represented the diminution of the special quality of Art. See: Richard Nonas essay The Snake in the Garden in The artist Outsider ed. Hall, Michael D. and Metcalfe, Eugene D. Smithsonian Press, Washington D.C. 1994
4)Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Spiller, Robert et al. Harvard U.P. 1971
Hugh Adams has written extensively on the arts and cultural matters for over thirty years, contributing to many publications, including Art and Artists, The Guardian, Modern Painters, O Independente, Artforum, Raw Vision, Art Monthly, Studio International and Flash Art / Heute Kunst, New Welsh Review and Planet. He has worked in higher education and arts administration and was first Director of Oriel Mostyn, the first "Art Critic-in Residence" at a British University, Chair of Cywaith Cymru, a member of the visual arts steering group for the Senydd building and the advisory group for Wales at the Venice Biennale. He has a particular interest in marginalised creativity and an important part of a collection he formed with his partner Rogelio Vallejo, has been acquired by the University of Sydney as the core of a collection, gallery and research centre which focuses on Outsider Art.