The Barbed Retort
Art and Politics, do they go together? Is ‘Guernica’ the greatest work of protest of the twentieth century, or merely high-class design hanging on the hook of tragedy? Is the Bennetton advertising campaign more successful at political messaging than any artist?
It has been argued that it is due to a failure of imagination on the part of artists that we no longer have an avant-garde; no-one has managed to move on from the breakthrough movements of the beginning of the last century. With postmodernism we don’t even try, we just play with styles ransacked from the near and distant past. An avoidance of political statement is more evident than engagement. It would be wrong, however, to entirely dismiss the artist’s voice and impact on the political climate of the late twentieth century. There has been a lot of political comment made on particular ‘issues,’ feminism, AIDS, and the signifiers of racial identity. The latter cause is evident even in the work of a celebrity artist such as Chris Ofili. Artists from non-Western cultures in particular have never given up on art as a tool for protest and political representation.
It is good to see David Garner given the opportunity to show at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. He perseveres in the quest to present his work and is hugely critical of the apathy and uninterest that he has encontered amongst curators and administrators in Wales. It is particularly important for work such as his to have a regular showing, more so perhaps than a painter’s work, which can more easily be shown in group exhibitions. This work needs viewing in the flesh; it needs experiencing en masse so that it can become burnished into the consciousness. Like theatre, which in many ways it resembles, it needs repeated viewing; new works- second, third acts- need to be seen before the memory of the first act dims. Failing a permanent contemporary art space for Wales, it is good that the regional centres of excellence such as Aberystwyth, take on the role of ‘national’ theatre.
I have a tendency to see the characteristics of an artists’ work as reflections of that artists’ cultural backgrounds, a tendency that has laid me open to accusations of ‘essentialism.’ Essentialism smacks of the fundamental, the absolute, those things we shy away from in our fractured postmodernity. As long as the essentialism, or nationalism, (another no-no word) is of the right order, when it suits the needs of the right people, then it’s OK, in fact there is no need even to refer to it in those rather loaded terms.
If I am talking politics it is because we are discussing the work of a political artist; I am passionate because we are looking at the work of a passionate artists; and I am culturally specific because I don’t believe you can take Blackwood and Ebbw Vale out of the making and shaping of this man nor his work. But an artist is of his time as much as of his place. My language is a direct response to this work, and essentialism is something that is strongly suggested here. There is no place for subtle artifice in Garner’s work. In a world of prevarication, evasion and doubt, he presents us with certainties, truth to material and the truth of moral outrage. The passionate sermon of the Welsh nonconformist pulpit and the radical socialist is his natural voice. The spiritual aspect of the divine comes a poor second to social and moral judgements in the religious order of these closely related movements of the south Wales valleys. Garner was born in Ebbw Vale in 1958, his father had worked in the coalmines for fifty years and retired only when the industry closed. He had encouraged his son to study, so that he could make a cleaner living away from the pits, but it was to the same area that Garner returned after a period of education in London, to ‘get his hands dirty,’ metaphorically at least, with his studio work. His wife is a local woman and his two daughters attend a Welsh medium school, regaining the linguistic heritage that Garner, like many, did not himself inherit.
In the centres of our civilisation, real issues of minority culture, of the working class, of displacement and cultural loss are not being addressed. Rather there has grown a culture that turns everything into commodities, thus silencing, or camouflaging the expression of the ethnically and socially diverse world. Rather than a so called Global Village of smiling multi-cultural tolerance, we are presented with a situation where art that refuses tacit conformity is displayed in the same way that tribal masks used to be displayed; dead and out of context. Ethnicity as commodity, difference as accessory, roots as trimmings. All eccentricities, such as stubborn Europeans minorities, are frowned upon and mocked whilst our cultural elite crow on about multi-ethnic realities. Don’t believe them; we are all being moulded into a ‘one size fits all’ suit, and that suit has ‘made in the USA’ on the label.
Artists have become preoccupied with establishing a distinctive ‘look’ for their work at the expense of ‘meaning.’ In this scenario which privileges a pursuit of novelty that borders on mannerism, to be aware of art history and convergences is dismissed as ‘copying’ or revered as ‘parody.’ The short-term benefit of acquiring a style is in the sense of ‘branding’ for the marketplace. Political viewpoints are eschewed since they are not good selling-points for a work of art.
There are interesting cases of cultural realignment taking place in a few instances, whereby famous works from the past, recent and distant, are appropriated to make telling politicised statements. Rasheed Araeen for example, parodies Richard Long’s line of stones by lining up animal bones in ‘A White Line Through Africa’ (1988). Thus the white hunter/colonialist rampage is evolved whilst also insinuating a parallel with Long’s original self-proclaimed apolitical stance. The suggestion is made that his art is also an act of marking out and claiming territory.
It comes as no surprise that it is predominantly artists from minority cultures who make political statements in their art, by dint of sympathy (often born of experience) towards issues and values overlooked by those artists from within the mainstream. It is evident, even when these artists are accepted into a mainstream institution like Tate Modern. On a recent visit there, the politicised art of Mona Hatoum (a long-time resident of the West, and once a Senior Fellow at Cardiff College of Art), and Doris Salcedo from Colombia, a country torn by civil war, stood out. Both artists use materials and make objects that induce a physical response before we make an intellectual connection with the issue. Hatoum’s use of cheese wire tautly strung, like an egg slicer, across the base of a stainless steel child’s cot in ‘Incommunicado’ (1993) needs little elaboration. Her references are vague but imply interrogation, suffering, torture, concentration camps, the massacre of innocents. Salcedo fills pieces of furniture with concrete, a wardrobe in this case with a chair back protruding from the sealed up mahogany. Again, it is a feeling that one gets. Knowing the artist’s origins helps us understand some of the references. The result in both cases is an evocative object rather than documentary evidence.
There is a similar telling use of materials in David Garner’s work, but the target of his ‘barbed retort’ is rather more directly invoked. I first saw Garner’s work in 1997; they were wall hanging tarpaulins, made up of a montage of workmen’s gloves and coats and then painted over. They smelt of coal dust and damp. They were obviously political; they were about the mining industry, the loss of work, and the loss of meaning. They were direct and they were about something he knew.
The influence of painter Terry Setch on students that passed through Cardiff College of Art from the 1970’s up until his recent retirement from teaching is often overlooked. By a process of osmosis, his influence can be seen to touch many artists now working in Wales, and Garner, particularly in his early work, is one of them. Setch is a painter of large expressionistic canvases, often un-stretched tarpaulins in effect. He is also motivated by environmental and social issues. Beach scenes painted near his home in Penarth incorporate oil form tanker spillages, polythene, plastic and cans collected off the beach, whilst he casts a backward look to Sisley’s studies of the same beach a century earlier. Garner’s earlier work utilises this same system of loosely hung canvas, and a similar depiction of a landscape despoiled, with added objects and materials chocking the surface. He moved on from gloves and coats to the electronic circuitry of the short lived ‘new’ industries, claiming a territorial stance on this landscape and commenting on the decline of ‘traditional’ industry with its concomitant sense of community, and the effects its passing has on the political and social landscape. Words are written across the surface, ‘Politics eclipsed by economics’ sums up the sloganeering of the Thatcher era.
Comparisons with the work of the German artist Anselm Kiefer are unavoidable. Keifer’s vast canvases salvage an idea of Germanic myth that, post-Second World War, had become an embarrassment. Again, the landscape is re-interpreted as a ‘field’ of meaning, often churned up and excavated, the surface of the work invaded by foreign objects, lead being a favourite addition. He is another painter whose paintings evolve through the gradual encrustation of objects into freestanding three-dimensional assemblages, and then into components of a larger installation. Garner might not have the finance available to Kiefer, but by begging and borrowing and salvaging has made a decent effort to move his wall-hung works in this same direction.
Salvaged school desks led to the large installation dedicated to the memory of the children killed in Aberfan when a slagheap buried the school. A tin bath, a bible, a telephone and a tap make up the smaller, trestle table-mounted homage to Capel Celyn. Stuffed animals, a hare and a sheep have made iconic appearances, with the help of a local taxidermist. Employing local labour such as welders has been a feature of these installations.
In ‘Memento,’ presented at Cardiff’s g39 in 2002, Garner concentrated on the emotional residue caused by his father’s death, a victim of the mining system, the death certificate notes simply ‘Industrial Disease.’ His father’s breathing mask, an X-ray of his chest, a mining jacket and a pile of coal make up the assemblage. The work bears the title ‘Do not to go gentle,’ referring both to the fight to hold onto life and the fight for recognition of the cause of death. Garner said, “I wanted my father to live more than his eighty-seven years. I wanted him to live longer than the Queen Mother to prove that privilege and wealth are not important.” On the top floor of the gallery he recreated a doorway and ash pathway leading to it. Entitled ‘History Lesson (what price for coal?)’, it is reminiscent of the back gardens and sheds of valleys housing, and a particular era of tin baths and backyards. It is literally a threshold, a point of entrance or departure.
In establishing a genealogy for this work, I might just as legitimately invoke the spirit of the late Paul Davies, who worked with objects in a similar if more anarchic manner. Were Garner to have emerged ten years earlier, there is no doubt that he would have received an invitation to join Davies’ Beca Group, which involved the production of political and social commentary.
The new works exhibited at Aberystwyth are essentially individual sculptural pieces, or assemblages, rather than installation proper, but placed as they are in the cavernous new gallery, they assume the overall effect of an installation. One thinks of an airport departure lounge, or some kind of warehouse used for storage. The empty spaces between the works, dramatically activated by the viewer, are as important as the seemingly haphazard placement of object. Three larger-than-life steel clothes rails or trolleys dominate the space; sharp hooks holding up bales of tightly packed clothes and suitcases, like meat in a slaughterhouse. The analogy is emphasised by having three bales laid onto wooden palettes, a recognisable contemporary sign of non-permanence and portability. The title of this work is ‘Production Line.’ The bundled clothes reappear in another piece titled ‘Displaced Family,’ set on chairs around a table, on which stands a silver candlestick. The candle wax has formed a question mark on the crumpled tablecloth, one that is mirrored in as assemblage of Lego bricks and small toy soldiers at the opposite end of the table. This was his young son’s contribution to the piece.
The titles are not obfuscating or teasing, ‘The More You Sing, The More You Risk Your Life’ is a bird cage with striped material, such as that used to make prison garb, lining the floor. Photographs of prisoners of conscience are attached to the bars and a naked light bulb is suspended inside. ‘Fear of Furniture’ is a chair with a jacket hung over the back, a carpenter’s sash clamp pins the jacket tightly to the upright back and an anglepoise lamp is clamped onto the clamp, its light shining at the space just above the jacket where a head should be. Cigarette burns in the seat of the chair are sprouting what looks like human hair.
‘End Product,’ the piece that gives the exhibition its title consists of a roll of paper with a male and female logo, the type you see on toilet doors, repeated on it. As the roll slowly unwinds, it is fed not into, but over a black ballot box and through a paper shredder, so that a continuous stream of paper strips cascade onto the floor. Garner estimated that 15,000 printed figures would be shredded during the course of the exhibition. This kinetic contraption is placed on an ordinary office desk, with an anglepoise lamp that lights up at each revolution of the roll, once every fifteen minutes.
The criticism often made about work like this is that it tends towards the literal, that its lack of ambiguity allows no recource to thought and imagination. If David Garner’s work lacks ambiguity it is because this artist has no time for it, things need to be said. If the work is ‘theatrical’ then it’s all the better to give impact to that which needs to be said, to make sure the viewer does not forget it. Those high priests of chapel and union knew that, as did the Millenarian, Iolo Morganwg and the radical dissenters of the Chartist movement coming from that same stringent corner of south east Wales. The work awakens anger; it is not a memorial but a call to arms.
But this is not to say that the work does not operate on a more subtle psychological level as well. The use of everyday materials, doing their usual thing, the sash clamp still clamps, the lamp still lights, but by their dexterous juxtaposition he draws a compelling picture. Inanimate ‘things’ become surprisingly powerful metaphors. A bundle of clothes becomes, yes, a dispossessed person. Whilst we may say that these metaphors are too obvious, even clichéd, their success comes from that very surprise we get when we find them so disconcerting in the gallery. We are shocked by our own capacity to feel these inanimate objects, these clichéd symbols. We are as shocked by our capacity to be surprised by these objects, (that are in reality only ordinary things) as we are by that which is ‘told’: torture, dislocation, loss. That is just it; it is the ordinariness of these things that echoes what has been called ‘the banality of evil.’ Yes, a man is as likely to be tortured in a commonplace chair in an ordinary house as he is in a suitably designed contraption in a designated room.
There may be nothing shockingly new about what we are told here, we have read and seen the news, but these works operate on a more tactile level of experience. Like the ‘act’ of a preacher in a pulpit (or a manic street preacher), they seemingly turn us into first-hand witnesses of history’s events. Even though we know we are in a theatre, the action is, for the same reason, live and not mediated. They force us to confront that from which we can shut ourselves away, in the comfort of out armchair in front of the television.
The work is forthright, not interested in artifice or ‘style’ and as such they remind me more of art from Africa and Latin America, Poland or Cuba, than of a refined mainstream Europe, even when that art tries to emulate ‘the poor mouth.’ The passion has not been substituted by empty conceptual statements, not tarnished by making the ‘authentic’ experience into a commodity, which invariably turns gold into shit. The anger is not dissipated by cynical manipulation. An honest response, an unfashionably righteous anger, turns shit into gold and occasionally even allows us the shadow of a smile. Because this works, though unrelenting, is not without humour, it is leavened with a dry, sardonic wit. We smile when we see the detritus- the fallout of the industries, the political decisions that caused the misery- used to make the barbed retort.
(The Barbed Retort was published in ‘here+now’ essays on contemporary art in Wales)
Iwan Bala is an artist and writer based in Wales. He has published numerous books, articles and essays on contemporary art in Wales, as well as presenting and researching television programmes, lecturing, and managing public art projects and organising and curating exhibitions. He is now senior Lecturer at the School of Creative Arts and Humanities, Trinity College, Carmarthen,West Wales.