The Bluecoat is 300 years old. Miraculously, the oldest building in Liverpool city centre has twice survived the threat of destruction (post-war city planners thought it would be a great idea to replace it with an inner-city ring road) to become one of the UK’s oldest arts centres. Completed in 1725, after two centuries serving as a charity school, in 1907 the building was taken over by a group of artists determined to stimulate Liverpool’s artistic and intellectual life. Two years later they hosted the First Post-Impressionist exhibition that featured work by Matisse, Picasso and others. Today, the contemporary arts continue to be showcased in this Grade One listed building. I went down to have a look at Public View, the first in a series of events celebrating the Bluecoat’s first 300 years. Continue reading “Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat”
For an hour on Thursday evening it felt as if I’d been transported by time machine back to 1984 or thereabouts, and that I was watching the freshly-launched Channel 4. But no, it was 2015 and I was watching Chris Packham’s Natural Selection on BBC4, a one-off chatshow in which Chris Packham of Springwatch fame hosted a discussion in which his guests were the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller and activist George Monbiot. Continue reading “Chris Packham’s Natural Selection: designed to be intelligent”
Je participe … Ills profitent: Atelier Populaire poster, Paris, May 1968
Visiting Art Turning Left, the current exhibition at Tate Liverpool, feels more like being asked to read a doctoral thesis that has done its darnedest to impress by referencing a wide range of esoteric sources alongside the obvious ones. The exhibition subtitle – How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 – provides a hint that this will not simply be a display of left-wing art, rather that it is more concerned with questions about how socialist artists have tried (and still try) to change the way art is made and distributed in order to match their political and ethical principles. A fair amount of the art on display is of dubious merit, some of it ephemera of only historical interest or curiosity value. Nevertheless, there is much here to stimulate and intrigue.
Reinforcing the sense of attending a seminar, the exhibition (actually co-curated with Liverpool John Moores University) is not arranged chronologically, but thematically – divided into several sections that each begin with a question. The primary purpose of the art on display is to illustrate seven existential and philosophical questions about the relationship of art (and the artists who make it) to the struggle to change capitalist society.
At the outset the curators identify three core values common to left-wing ideologies: the belief in equality rather than hierarchy, the quest for social progress over the status quo, and the conviction that the benefits of collectivism and solidarity outweigh the advantages of competitive individualism. The purpose of Art Turning Left is to explore how these values have affected the way that artists committed to them have approached the way in which they make their work.
So … let’s begin the seminar.
Installation view: banner for The Worker’s Union, Holloway branch, ‘Solidarity of Labour’, after a design by Walter Crane, c 1898
Can art affect everyone?
Can art really be for everyone? The first thing you see as you enter the exhibition is an installation – dominated by a huge trade union banner – that suggests possible answers to this question. Like the rest of the exhibition it creates incongruous juxtapositions of media, time and place. Francesco Manacorda, artistic director of Art Turning Left, has explained how this particular installation attempts to show how the value of equality has led artists to utilise approaches like the:
Extraordinary use of public space (such as in the reproduction of Walter Crane’s images on union banners), by bringing art to a larger group of ‘users’ (for instance in the Bauhaus’ use of industrial production …), or using live performance and publications to stimulate the viewer as an active reader of art, as with Bertold Brecht’s theatre and poetry.
Walter Crane, whose design ‘Solidarity of Labour’ is incorporated in the banner for The Worker’s Union that dominates the opening installation, was born in Liverpool and was famous in the late 19th century for his illustrations for children’s story books. But he also illustrated socialist pamphlets and produced political cartoons for publications such as The Clarion. Like his friend William Morris he was a member of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Walter Crane, International Solidarity of Labour, 1889
Crane used his art for the advancement of socialist values and placed it at the service of the trade union movement. Crane’s design ‘International Solidarity of Labour‘, depicting workers of all continents united, was adopted as a symbol of international unity and the power of collective action, and – until the onset of war in 1914 – was incorporated widely into trade union banners, such as the one displayed here.
Bertolt Brecht is well known for his theatrical technique of alienation, designed to encourage the theatre-goer to become an active participant rather than a passive viewer of a stage spectacle. Alongside examples on video, this installation also features from several collages from The War Primer, a work which Brecht compiled during World War 2 and published in 1955. As in the theatre, Brecht aims to break the illusion of a standard photo collection by juxtaposing war photographs with poetry and captions that encourage readers to do more than glance at the images and to reflect on the brutality of war and its connection to capitalism.
Bertolt Brecht: collage from ‘The War Primer’
Among the selection from ‘The War Primer’ the curators have aptly chosen one collage in which Brecht has combined a photo of Liverpool, presumably taken from a German bomber during the wartime raids on the city. The caption reads: ‘Liverpool harbour, England’s second biggest, is well-known to be the target of many German aerial bombardments and took many direct hits. This photograph gives a clear picture of the harbour – the smoke at the top shows that it has just been visited by German bombers’. Beneath photo and caption, Brecht has added a few lines of poetry:
I am a city, but soon I shan’t be –
Where generations used to live and die
Before those deadly birds flew in to haunt me:
One thousand years to build.
A Fortnight to destroy.
Next to the Brecht we find examples of the work of the Modernist graphic designer, Gerd Arntz who was a leading member of the Gruppe progressiver Kunstler Koln (the Cologne Progressives), a radical group of artists who were active in the Weimar years.
Gerd Arntz, The Third Reich, 1934
The Cologne Progressives were active in communist trade unions, making prints and posters (usually from woodcuts or linocuts) that promoted worker’s revolution by calling for workers to abandon parliament and form worker’s councils. Their goal was to use art at the service of the revolution, and to that end Arntz and his fellow artists invented a visual language able to communicate ideas visually to everyone, avoiding art elitism and designed for mass distribution.
Later, in collaboration with Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath, Arntz developed Isotype, a universal, transnational visual language of repeatable pictograms that could be used to address issues such as social inequality, exploitation and war – the forerunner of modern infographics.
The Third Reich is a prophetic vision of the Nazi regime then in its infancy. Hitler is at the top of a pyramid, above capitalists, military and judges. At a lower level, SA guard the concentration camps and employees work in armaments factories where the Communists are trying to inform them. Produced in 1934, Arntz said of the print:
The fact that the whole composition is a bit crooked, gives a ‘falling’ impression, is on purpose. The Third Reich wouldn’t last very long, I thought then.
Several examples are displayed from Society and Economy, a series Gerd Arntz worked on with Otto Neurath from 1925 to 1949. In Strikes, against an abstract background of factories, raised red fists illustrate the post-war strike statistics for Great Britain, France and Germany.
Gerd Arntz, Strikes, 1930
In the photo of this installation (above) a gigantic photo of a man’s face stares out across the room. This is an image from a series made in the 1970s by Braco Dimitrjevic called Casual Passer By. The artist took photos of anonymous people which were then enlarged to monumental proportions and displayed in public places, such as on hoarding on public buildings. The idea was to give the common man a status normally accorded to celebrities of historical figures, and to highlight the fickle nature of a society which glorifies famous people.
Braco Dimitrijevic, Casual Passer By, displayed at Trinity College Dublin, 2011
Do we need to know who makes art?
Now here’s something I recall well! A left-wing student at Liverpool University at the same time as the May events in Paris in 1968, I was enthralled by the posters that came out of Atelier Populaire, established by art students and protesters in the Ecole des Beaux Arts on 16 May with the aim of producing bold, uncompromising graphic art that expressed the defiance of workers and students whose protests seemed to bringing France to the point of revolution.
A display of Atelier Populaire poster art
Hundreds of silkscreen posters – ‘weapons in the service of the struggle’ – were created anonymously and distributed for free. No one was allowed to sign the work and the gallery was the street where the posters were pasted for everyone to see. This was self-consciously art produced collectively rather than by a single person. The Atelier promoted the principle that everyone could come and produce art work. The silkscreen machines were there for everyone to use to express themselves.
A display of Atelier Populaire poster art
Just two years later, in our own struggle against Liverpool University’s links to South African apartheid, we used the same methods as the Atelier to get our message across.
Can art infiltrate everyday life?
This question is one that is uppermost in the minds of revolutionaries, especially after they have achieved power. In an ironic parallel to the utilisation of artists in the service of consumer advertising in capitalist society, the curators offer a response from avant-garde artists in post-revolutionary Russia. I must admit that Productivism was an ism that I hadn’t previously heard about – a movement of artists who advocated the move of ‘art into life’, arguing that the role of the artist was not to paint or sculpt, but to play an active role as co-workers in the factories helping to build a new world by designing objects which could be easily manufactured and which had a practical use in everyday life.
One such artist was Aleksandr Rodchenko who, in 1921, went into partnership with the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to offer what was, in effect, the services of an advertising consultancy to state enterprises suddenly facing competition from private enterprises that Lenin, in a reversal of Bolshevik policy triggered by food shortages and famine, had announced in the New Economic Policy.
Rodchenko and Mayakovsky designed posters or packaging for products such as cigarettes, bread, sweets and biscuits. Against those who condemned advertising as irredeemably capitalist, Mayakovsky argued that ‘it is necessary to employ all the weapons used by our enemies’. One example is displayed here: the design for an advertisement for the Moscow agricultural industry cafeteria, produced in 1923.
Aleksandr Rodchenko, design for an advertisement for the Moscow agricultural industry cafeteria 1923
A more interesting example of Rodchenko’s work was a series of posters illustrating the history of the Bolshevik party, incorporating archival images, excerpts from newspapers and other documents. Rather than imposing an overarching narrative, Rodchenko’s design encouraged viewers to immerse themselves in the historical material, sift the evidence and make their own assessment.
Curiously, though there many examples in the exhibition of artworks from the early years of the Soviet Union, the curators have made no mention of the fate of many of the avant-garde artists who at first enthusiastically supported the revolution. No mention, for instance, that towards the end of the 1920s, Mayakovsky became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking under Stalin, finally killing himself in 1930.
Alexander Rodchenko, History of the VKP(b), 1926
Does participation deliver equality?
If the ideal of creating art anonymously and collectively represents the rejection of the romantic and bourgeois notion that art is the the product of individual genius and self-expression, it follows that projects which encourage the widest participation in the process of making art must represent a means of achieving that ideal. Art Turning Left offers several examples of schemes from different times and situations that have pursued this goal – not all of them convincing. There is William Morris rejecting of mechanised production and establishing methods of producing beautiful things such as textiles and wallpapers which avoided worker alienation by fusing craft values and artistry with modern production techniques. And there’s the Worker Photography Movement which mobilised amateur worker-photographers to document the social evils of capitalism in the 1930s.
Art Turning Left offers several other examples of schemes that have aimed to widen public participation in the making of art. Judge for yourself how convincing they are.
Display of examples from Folk Archive, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, 2000-2006
Folk Archive is a mixed media presentation from an archive compiled over six years by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane documenting ‘the rich and varied visual culture that exists in the UK outside of the art world which would not normally be seen in a gallery context’. Items displayed here are from the sections of the archive relating to Home, Performance and Politics, and include graffiti, painted eggs, costumes for village festivals and protest images. The central banner was made by Ed Hall who made banners in his garage during the 1980s for trade unions and political protests.
Folk Archive was acquired by the British Council in 2007 and has been made accessible to the public in the form of a self-contained touring exhibition and through an online virtual exhibition.
Ruth Ewen A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, 2011
Ruth Ewan’s installation, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, consists of a jukebox that contains an ongoing archive of protest and political songs. It is presented as a participatory work in that visitors are invited to browse through the pages of the index and select and play the music of their choice (!) while, in addition, Ewan welcomes suggestions for songs to be added to the collection.
There’s a lady plays her favourite records
On the jukebox every day.
All day long she plays the same old songs,
And she believes the things they say. (The Kinks)
Arranged in categories such as, poverty, feminism, peace, civil rights, ecology and slavery are songs by a wide range of performers from different cultures and traditions. All of the songs address social issues, some directly political and related to specific subjects or events, whilst others are vaguely utopian or carry a universal message. Ewan describes her practice as being ‘conceptually led but socially realised’ with ‘audience participation and engagement’ playing an important part in the creation of her work.
As for me – I can’t see the difference between this and me making a playlist for my mp3 player and, like countless others, sharing it via social media.
My Room, 1982, created at the Black-E community arts centre
My Room was created at Liverpool’s Black-E community arts centre in 1982 inspired by Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, and begun during a week long celebration of the centenary of Woolf’s birth. Over the next six months, participants were invited to pick a space and create something to place in it which said, ‘This is my room!’
Hmmm… But then, I think, as I sceptically inspect this object, it was never intended to be an exhibit in an art gallery. The same is true for a great many of the other exhibits here: their authors did not intend their work to be displayed in this way – indeed, in many cases, utterly rejected the idea on political grounds. Which is what makes this exhibition such a curious experience, the thought constantly occurring that it would have made a better book.
William Morris, Rose and Thistle textile design, 1881
Can pursuing equality change how art is made?
From those pretty questionable examples, we move on to a more convincing set of exhibits that explore schemes to create equality of access to the means of artistic production and thereby increase the agency of ordinary people.
We’re on firm artistic ground with William Morris. But, lest we forget, Morris was a Marxist and revolutionary. In How I Became a Socialist he wrote:
What I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.
Morris believed that the most critical problem in capitalist society was the alienation of workers caused by the division of labour. Who can gain any pleasure from work if it involves the endless repetition of the same monotonous movements? How can a worker feel any sense of pride in the job if they have no sense of how their actions contribute to the final product? Who can feel other than cheated when the wage the boss pays isn’t enough to buy the thing you’ve helped to manufacture?
I accounted the greatest of all evils, the heaviest of all slaveries, that evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion, a toil which they shirk all they can– small blame to them. And this toil degrades them into less than men: and they will some day come to know it, and cry out to be made men again, and art only can do it, and redeem them from this slavery; and I say once more that this is her highest and most glorious end and aim; and it is in her struggle to attain to it that she will most surely purify herself, and quicken her own aspirations towards perfection.
– William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art, 1880
From the 1860s, Morris, at first in partnership with Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others, established his own company to create and sell hand-crafted stained glass, carving, furniture, wallpaper, carpets and tapestries. On display here is Rose and Thistle, a hand-printed design on cotton from 1881, and a wallpaper sample book from 1905, along with printing blocks.
The Morris Company was organised so that artists and craftsmen could work together with a common purpose, with every employee fulfilling their potential according to their level of ability. Morris explained the political thought that underpinned Morris & Co in How I Became a Socialist:
The love and practice of art forced me into a hatred of the civilization which, if things were to stop as they are, would turn history into inconsequent nonsense, and make art a collection of the curiosities of the past, which would have no serious relation to the life of the present.
But the consciousness of revolution stirring amidst our hateful modern society prevented me, luckier than many others of artistic perceptions, from crystallizing into a mere railer against ‘progress’ on the one hand, and on the other from wasting time and energy in any of the numerous schemes by which the quasi-artistic of the middle classes hope to make art grow when it has no longer any root, and thus I became a practical Socialist. […]
Perhaps some … will say, what have we to do with these matters of history and art? We want by means of Social-Democracy to win a decent livelihood, we want in some sort to live, and that at once. Surely any one who professes to think that the question of art and cultivation must go before that of the knife and fork (and there are some who do propose that) does not understand what art means, or how that its roots must have a soil of a thriving and unanxious life. Yet it must be remembered that civilization has reduced the workman to such a skinny and pitiful existence, that he scarcely knows how to frame a desire for any life much better than that which he now endures perforce. It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before him, a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread, and that no man, and no set of men, can be deprived of this except by mere opposition, which should be resisted to the utmost.
Morris’s ‘true ideal’ was set forth in the utopian vision of News From Nowhere, the novel written by Morris and initially published by his Kelmscott Press in 1893. There’s a copy here, open at the frontispiece to display its woodblock title page, ornamental lettering and typeface.
News From Nowhere, Kelmscott Press edition, 1893
The Worker Photography Movement began in Germany and the USSR in the early 1930s before spreading across Europe and the United States. The movement spread through Communist-affiliated groups, and encouraged worker-photographers to expose, in a ‘hard and merciless light’, the iniquities and social ills of capitalism:
Photography has become an outstanding and indispensable means of propaganda in the revolutionary class struggle.
AIZ Magazine, no 38, 1931: 24 Hours in the life of a family working in Moscow
The display presents examples, from Germany and the United States, of the kinds of photo essays which the movement’s worker-photographers produced. They reminded me of some of the best of the photo spreads in Picture Post magazine in the 1940s and early 1950s. I’d like to see more of this work.
How can art speak with a collective voice?
The curators respond to this question with examples of projects which have sought to express or document the collective experience, rather than that of the individual. The best-known example is that of Mass Observation, the British movement of the 1930s which aimed to produce a collective picture of British society which was ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. The pioneering social survey organization was founded by Tom Harrison, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings (who compiled Pandaemonium, the documentary history of the Industrial Revolution that, decades later, was the inspiration behind Opening Ceremony for the London Olympic Games, crafted by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce) with the aim of producing an anthropology of the British people and giving a voice to the under-privileged and often ignored working classes.
On show here is documentation from the project which among a wide variety of methodologies, asked people to keep diaries of their daily routines, and employed teams of anthropological observers instructed to observe behaviours such as:
the behaviour of people at war memorials; shouts and gestures of motorists; the aspidistra cult; bathroom behaviour; beards, armpits and eyebrows; anti-Semitism; the distribution of the dirty joke; female taboos about eating….
Humphrey Spender, This is Your Photo, 1937
There are examples of the photographs which Humphrey Spender took in Bolton for Mass Observation, including one of chalked graffiti in a wall, entitled This Is Your Photo. Mass Observation was interested in graffiti because it could be seen as a type of primitive art.
Then there are a couple of the paintings made by Julian Trevelyan while he was working for Mass Observation in Bolton. Trevelyan was the first artist to be recruited by Mass Observation in 1937. In Bolton Trevelyan recorded his observations of ordinary people going about their lives in photographs, water-colours and collage. In his autobiography, he recalled carrying with him a suitcase of scraps and magazines, scissors and glue to his chosen site. He would work on the spot, battling with the elements and often attracting attention of inquisitive passers-by.
Julian Trevelyan, Rubbish May be Shot Here, 1937
The locals commented that he had caught the mood of current anti-litter campaigns in Rubbish May be Shot Here and accurately conveyed ‘the worker versus royalty feeling’ of Coronation year. Most of the cut-out heads in this collage are taken from newspaper photographs of the coronation or represent successive generations of the royal family. The smiling child, however, is taken from a Shredded Wheat advertisement captioned ‘the food for general fitness’. Trevelyan contributed three paintings to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London 1936, and this collage follows the classic surrealist technique of combining different realities. Rubbish May be Shot Here is, the curators suggest, ‘revolutionary in both form and content: hierarchies are subverted, pomp and pageantry ridiculed.
The Office of Useful Art: rules to live by
In an adjacent small room is the Office of Useful Art which I learn promotes the new movement of Arte Util or Useful Art. The Office is not an art installation but a working room that acts as part of a long term campaign to develop a renewed understanding of art, as a process that plays a fundamental role in shaping the world; that has a real effect in peoples lives. The project is a collaboration with Grizedale Arts, based in the Lake District, and Liverpool John Moores University – part of a five year project with the Internationale Confederation of European Museums. The Office will function as a recruitment centre for the Association de Arte Util (Association of Useful Art), with the aim of developing an active community of people committed to art that works to effect change and is valued for what it does.
Are there ways to distribute art differently?
In her review for the Observer, Laura Cumming notes that Art Turning Left ‘asks whether art can find alternative distribution systems outside the market and gallery circuit, and then presents a wall of almost parodically obscure artist-run newspapers as if this was any kind of answer’.
True, but that frustrating room also contains the exhibition’s one true masterpiece which is presented also as a convincing historical answer to the question, ‘Are there ways to distribute art differently?’
Jacques-Louis David and studio, The Death of Marat, 1793. ‘n’ayant pu me corrompre ils m’ont assassine’: ‘they could not bribe me, they murdered me’.
Painted in the months after Marat’s murder, David’s work has been described as the first modernist painting, for the way it ‘took the stuff of politics as its material, and did not transmute it’.
Not by pleasing the eye do works of art accomplish their purpose. The demand now is for examples of heroism and civic virtues which will electrify the soul of the people and arouse in them devotion to the fatherland.
– Jacques Louis David
Created in response to the murder of the uncompromising political theorist and journalist Jean-Paul Marat in 1793, David’s painting became an iconic image of the French revolution. With the artist’s permission, the painting was copied in oil and reproduced in engravings that were distributed throughout the land. It is probable that the painting on display in the Tate is one of the copies, and examples of the engravings made of Marat’s head are shown alongside.
The Tate welcomes fellow socialists!
Seminar over and with my brain screaming, ‘Enough!’, I made my way down to the foyer where I noticed the Tate’s welcome sign. Has it been adapted specially for this show – or has it always had this radical edge? A relaxing lunch followed, and then I went to one of the film screenings that accompanies this exhibition. It was Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, directed by Alain Tanner and scripted by Tanner and John Berger in 1975. I hadn’t seen the film – which follows eight key characters, all in their twenties or thirties, and affected in some way by the events of May 1968 – since it first came out. But – more about that in my next post.
- Five key works from Art Turning Left (Tate)
- Art Turning Left: review by Laura Cumming (Observer)
- Art Turning Left: revolution in the head: review by Adrian Searle (Guardian)
- Art Turning Left at the Tate Liverpool: An ambitious but problematic collection of “left-wing” art (World Socialist Web Site)
- Art Turning Left: thoughtful review by Feeling Listless blog
- Great works: The Death of Marat, By Jacques-Louis David (Independent)
- Can music fight the power? Try our protest song playlist (Tate)
- Folk Archive: Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane (British Council)
- Posters from the Liverpool Atelier
- The Worker-Photography Movement
- Bolton Worktown: photography and archives from Mass Observation
- All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’
- Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder: Paradise Lost?
Photographs of anonymous female workers at Tredegar iron works in the 1860s
From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and
its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.
– Alexis De Tocqueville on Manchester, 1835
The 1851 census revealed the full extent of the social and economic revolution that had swept through Britain in the previous half century. Now, over half of the workforce were employed in manufacturing, mining and construction, while less than a quarter worked the land. The textile industry alone employed well over a million men and women. The number of factories, mines, metal-working complexes, mills and workshops had all multiplied, while technological innovations had vastly increased the number of machines and their capabilities. The economic and social consequences of industrial development were felt throughout the British Isles; the British had become ‘a manufacturing people’. Though these developments had not happened overnight, the most momentous had taken place within living memory. By the 1850s commentators were already describing this momentous shift as an ‘industrial revolution’.
In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air at Manchester Art Gallery, artist Jeremy Deller curates a personal journey through the Industrial Revolution, exploring its impact on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today. The exhibition is a sprawling, quirky, surprising and hugely stimulating mix of words and images, songs and video taking in along the way: Adrian Street, a young man expected to follow his Welsh mining forebears down the pit, but who rejected that destiny to become a flamboyant androgynous international wrestler; James Sharples, a 19th century blacksmith and self-taught painter from Blackburn; Tony Iommi, the guitarist with Black Sabbath who lost his fingertips in an industrial accident; Francis Crawshay, the industrialist who commissioned portraits of his employees at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks which are probably the only oil paintings of early 19th century workers – and plenty more besides.
‘Factory Children’, 1814 by Robert Havell
‘The Collier’, 1814 by Robert Havell
Entering the gallery, I was intrigued about what I would find. I knew Jeremy Deller as a Turner-prize winning artist with radical left politics who had created (if that’s the word) the disturbing installation Baghdad, 5 March 2007 that now greets visitors to Imperial War Museum North. Not long before my visit to Manchester my friend Frank had brought back from Venice for me a copy of English Magic, the souvenir booklet that accompanied Deller’s exhibition in the British Pavilion at this year’s Biennale. English Magic is haunted by the spirit of William Morris and his critique of industrialism’s impoverishment of the spirit:
We sit starving, amidst our gold
– William Morris, The Socialist Ideal (1891)
At the heart of the exhibition was a huge mural depicting William Morris rising from the Venetian lagoon and hurling aside the megayacht belonging to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
2013 Venice Biennale: Jeremy Deller’s ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’
Now, in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Deller investigates what remains of the industrial revolution in the present, touching on aspects such as our relationship to technology and the regimentation of time. Introducing the exhibition he states:
The society we have inherited, our towns and cities, the social formations, cultural traditions, class divisions, inequalities of wealth and opportunity – all derive ultimately from the Industrial Revolution.
The exhibition is, in many ways, complementary to Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings, the book compiled first published in 1985 and the inspiration in 2012 behind Danny Boyle’s electrifying Opening Ceremony for the London Olympic Games. Jennings’s book shares the same approach to its subject as Deller’s exhibition: gathering material from a vast array of sources to present an enthralling narrative that slowly reveals how industrialisation has shaped Britain’s national consciousness.
‘All that is solid melts into air’ is a phrase lifted from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto: it was their way of expressing capitalism’s need to constantly invent and re-invent products in order to satisfy desires superfluous to human need – so what is made one day may be disposed of in the next. Older, less materialistic ways of living and the traditions and values associated with them had to be displaced so that the forces of capitalism could be unleashed. Deller sees the phrase, too, as ‘a metaphor for how we have gone from an industrial to a service and entertainment economy’:
Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing.
Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far ….
Deller’s words express what lies at the heart of the exhibition: first there is the euphoric experience of radical social and economic change. Then there is the belated shock and dismay at what the revolution had brought in train: pollution of the environment, the growth of hellish towns, the transformation of peasants into workers shackled to machines.
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852
The exhibition is divided into six sections. The first, ‘The Industrial Sublime’, shows how contemporary artists were drawn to the terrifying beauty of the new industries. A terrifying beauty: around the time that John Martin painted The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the British parliament commissioned reports into living conditions in the new industrial towns.The investigators returned with devastating evidence of degradation and poverty. Photographers (wielding the latest technology) brought back from the industrial wastelands of Wales photos of labouring women swathed in filthy rags, staring numbly into the camera.
John Martin’s painting tells us much about the anxieties of the Victorian age – as the exhibition commentary explains, Martin painted the work in 1852, when the reality of what we were doing our environment, our towns and to the labourers condemned to spend their working lives in mines and factories was beginning to sink in. As Deller puts it:
Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing. Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far.
But Martin was also occupied with schemes for the improvement of London, and published various pamphlets and plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewerage, dock and railway systems. There’s an 1828 lithograph print here of his Plan of Hyde Park, Green Park and St. James’s, Showing the Proposed Canal, Together with Insets Depicting Views in the Parks after the Improvement has been Completed. Martin’s schemes were considered outlandish by public and Parliament alike, yet his plans in 1854 for a London Sewage and Marine company proved to be a visionary foundation for later engineers assigned to prevent any recurrence of London’s famous Great Stink of 1858.
A kiln for burning coke near Maidstone, Kent aquatint print, 1799
The lithograph A Kiln for Burning Coke, near Maidstone, Kent makes an interesting comparison with the widescreen allegorical terror of John Martin’s Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The contrast between gently glowing, tree-framed kiln and Martin’s vision of urban cataclysm mirrors the way in which industry moved from experimentation in rural backwaters into the urban hell of the new industrial towns. This mass migration of labour meant that, by 1851, for the first time, more people lived in Britain’s cities than in the countryside and their exponentially-growing populations, coupled with increases in poverty, disease and vice gave pious Victorians good grounds for truly believing in Martin’s vision of an impending biblical apocalypse.
Philip James de Loutherbourg and William Pickett, Iron Works, Colebrookdale, 1805
The book Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales has been left opened at a beautiful, hand-coloured engraving, Iron Works, Colebrook Dale. It’s a large format folio book, published in 1805 by William Pickett, a traveller’s guide to Great Britain that includes romantic images of industrial edifices alongside those of castles, caves and lakes. The iron works in Colebrook Dale have all the appearance of a classical ruin, fire exiting from chimneys more than a little reminiscent of classical columns bereft of their capitals.
Penryhn slate quarries, Bangor, Wales, lithograph 1842
Early 19th century artists were often compelled to express their sense of awe at the scale of the new industrial enterprises. In the image of Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor in 1842, the human figures are dwarfed by the scale of the quarry. ‘To me this is like the Welsh Grand Canyon has been produced by these slate miners,’ says Deller. ‘There was an element to the industrial revolution of great beauty and of change and people being quite impressed by it’.
A salt mine, Cheshire, coloured aquatint, 1814
The Black Country, engraving by G Greatbach, 1869
These images are punctuated by several album covers, including those of Slade, Happy Mondays and Brian Ferry, accompanied by each band leader’s family tree printed directly onto the gallery wall, stretching back to the origins of the Industrial Revolution.Deller’s intention is to mark the decline of British heavy industry and the turning of young, working-class people (whose ancestors commonly found work in factories or mills) to popular music as a form of self-expression and sometimes employment, by forming bands such as Judas Priest, Slade and Black Sabbath.
Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington, 2012, digital C-print by Dean Shaw
Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is the subject of Dean Shaw’s photo Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington (found in the ‘Health and Safety will be the Death of Me’ section at the end of the exhibition). Iommi lost his fingertips in an industrial accident in a Birmingham sheet metal factory in the 1960s before he joined Black Sabbath. This accident is credited with helping to create the distinctive Black Sabbath sound, as Iommi had to learn how to play the guitar differently from everyone else and modify its strings and tuning to suit.
Deller tracks Brian Ferry, Shaun Ryder and Noddy Holder through their family’s working history. All three hail from industrial working class backgrounds, and have become famous rock stars in a way that transcends their family lineage.
Noddy Holder was born in 1946 in Walsall and went on to be lead singer in Slade. His family tree reveals ancestors who were variously:
millwright, shoemaker, boiler cleaner, agricultural labourer, spin filer, washerwoman, curb and chain maker, buckle filer, key stamper, buckle stamper, chainmaker, coalminer, railway carriage cleaner, ironworker, puddler, forgeman, blacksmith
His father was a window cleaner.
The family trees of Bryan Ferry reveals 19th century ancestors that included agricultural labourers, blacksmiths, a cartman, colliery labourers, farm servants and coal miners. His father was a pit pony handler.
James Sharples, The Forge 1848
James Sharples (1825-92) was a self-taught English artist born at Wakefield in Yorkshire. He started work when he was ten years old as a blacksmith’s boy on the foundry floor. During his spare time he learned to read and write. His talent for drawing was discovered when chalking out designs on the foundry floor. He subsequently began to make figure and landscape drawings, and copy lithographs.
Sharples took up painting when he was eighteen. From 1848 Sharples devoted his artistic energies to designing and engraving. He ordered an engraver’s steel plate and made a press and engraving tools for himself. He started the engraving of The Forge in his spare time. It took him ten years.
Sharples was regarded as a prime example of the Victorian middle-class ideal of the self-improved working man, and features in Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, published in 1859.
Rules to be Observed – Church Street cotton mill, Preston, c 1830
The regime of the new factories is represented in Rules to be Observed – a notice that informed workers in a cotton mill in Preston that to give their notice they must do so on Saturday only, in writing and one month in advance. In contrast, the ‘Masters have full power to discharge any person employed therein without any previous notice whatsoever’. The same notice states that workers are to be at the factory from 6 in the morning to 7.30 at night, with half an hour allowed for breakfast and one hour for dinner. The ninth rule notes that ‘Any person taking cotton or waste into the Necessaries shall forfeit 2 shillings, 4 sixpence’ (the ‘Necessaries’ being the toilets, I guess).
Church Street Cotton Mill was the centre of the Preston Lock-Out and Strike of 1853-4, the longest and most expensive industrial conflict in the history of Preston. In 1853 cotton workers in Lancashire began to demand that a 10-20% cut in their wages made during the 1840s should be restored. The majority of manufacturers agreed to restore half of the cuts, but some refused and 25,000 workers went on strike. The bitter struggle lasted for eight months. Engels thought the revolution would begin in Preston.
The protest was peaceful and the town supported the workers, with a weekly collection made from working people, shopkeepers and the general public. The end came when another depression in trade forced the strikers to give in and go back to work.
One of Francis Crawshay’s Workers Portraits, 1835 by WJ Chapman
If I was forced to choose one exhibit from this mighty exhibition, I think it would be the selection that Deller has made from a series of sixteen oil paintings commissioned by Francis Crawshay of the workers at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks. Crawshay was a progressive industrialist who, when he was managing the Hirwaun Ironworks commissioned sixteen small portraits of his employees that he hung in his office. The subjects included workers as well as managers, all depicted in working dress and with the tools of their trade. It’s a unique group of images of industrial workers, probably painted by W J Chapman, an itinerant artisan artist who worked as a sporting and animal painter.
WJ Chapman, portrait of carpenter David Williams
WJ Chapman, portrait of mine agent, John Bryant
WJ Chapman, portrait of quarryman Thomas Francis
WJ Chapman, portrait of foreman, John Llewellyn
WJ Chapman, portrait of cinder filler David Davies
WJ Chapman, portrait of roller William James
W J Chapman, portrait of Thomas Euston, Lodge Keeper
The images are an astonishing revelation. No other such images of industrial workers of this period are known. Even more unusually, the names and job titles of these workers were recorded.
Just to make sure that we don’t get too sentimental or nostalgic about these lost times there’s a section that Deller has artfully labelled ‘The Shit Old Days’. It includes a series of photographs of women who worked at Tredegar Ironworks in South Wales, taken by local photographer William Clayton. Unlike Crayshaw’s portraits, the identity of the women is unknown and the elaborate studio backdrops serve to emphasise their class while in many of the photos the women appear drained and dispirited by overwork. This was their purpose, since they were taken to highlight the impact of heavy industry on the domestic life of female labourers.
Photographs of anonymous female workers at an iron works in Tredegar, Wales
Deller says of the images: ‘These are very early photographs of workers. I’d never seen anything like these before. I think we are lucky. By our standards they had appalling lives and those photographs are very powerful.’
Jeremy Deller with Jukebox
Next I encounter a jukebox. It contains a selection of archive recordings, including the working song Down the Pit We Want to Go sung by Roy Palmer, and Drop Valves and Steam Leak on Piston, the sound of a Dee Mill Engine operating in Royton. Music provided relief from the rigours of working class life, and the second section of the exhibition, ‘Broadside Blues’, explores the broadsides, printed copies of popular songs sold in streets and pubs of the new industrial towns which could be purchased cheaply and sung at home or in the pub. The subject matter of these ‘English blues’ ranged from romance to tales of loss, home-sickness and the strange new life among the machines. Often they were tales of hardship, an example of the latter being being Salford Bastille: ‘God keep all poor people that they may ne’er go, To do penance in Salford Bastille…’.
Stockport Viaduct, 1986 by John Davies
The physical remnants of the Industrial Revolution are still visible in the industrial towns of the north. The striking photograph by John Davies of Stockport Viaduct shows a formidable Victorian structure that is still in use, carrying the main railway line from Manchester to London.
Deller has selected images that reflect a changing landscape, too. Ian Tilton’s photographs of the Happy Mondays in 1987 picture the band on a photoshoot to promote a new album. They have been shot alongside the Manchester Ship Canal, and one image shows them outside the new Cannon multiplex cinema at Salford Quays, reflecting the very first signs of the area’s transition to a leisure economy in which old industrial buildings and spaces have been transformed to serve new functions in a post-industrial age.
Effects of Alston Brewery, pencil drawing with red ink, c1805
‘Unlike nowadays, people used to get drunk and then fight in the street’, the caption for this exhibit reads. It’s a drawing entitled Effects of Alston Brewery and was made in the early 1800s, presumably to promote a temperance drive. ‘I just think it’s funny that someone saw fit to draw this, and I’m glad they did,’ Deller says. ‘It shows that the world hasn’t changed that much, has it? That’s a Friday night anywhere in Britain.’
JW Lowry, Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory, Stockport, 1849-1850
JW Lowry’s elegant drawing of Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory in Stockport in 1849-1850 is an idealised image of a cotton mill. ‘It’s a beautiful engraving’, says Deller, ‘but the women all look like Greek goddesses. They’re dressed with their hair up and with these dresses… Of course we know the reality would have been somewhat different.’ Deller has deliberately placed this image near to compares it to a 2011 photo by Ben Roberts of an Amazon warehouse (or ‘fulfilment centre’) the size of nine football pitches, with shelves stretching into the distance.
Ben Roberts, from the series Amazon Unpacked, 2011.
This section of the exhibition is titled ‘How’s the Enemy?’ and is concerned with the way that the industrial revolution altered conceptions of time and impacted on working class life. Time became an oppressive force in the workplace through the need to maintain a constant work rate over long working hours. Meanwhile, leisure time shrank, disappointing in its scarcity.
Double-dial Longcase Clock from Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield (c.1810)
Two exhibits separated by 200 years make the point about the management of our time very powerfully. Sometime around 1810, the managers of Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield installed what looks like a grandfather clock but is actually a means to measure their workers’ productivity. The clock has two faces, one that kept time by normal hand-winding, the other by means of attachment to the factory’s rotating water wheel. The time kept by the latter could be compared at a glance by the efficiency-conscious managers to that of the hand-wound clock. Any shortfall had to be made up by the workforce at the end of the day.
Near to the clock, Deller has installed a Motorola WT400 attached to a mannequin arm. His purpose is to demonstrate that the target-driven culture of 1810 is still with us, and has even more terrifying power to control. Unlike the clock, this device is used to calculate the productivity and speed of work of an individual worker – and warns the employee if they are not up to speed. This is the sort of device is worn that workers at Amazon fulfilment centres are required to wear. In the same room Deller has displayed Ben Roberts’s giant photograph Amazon Fulfilment Centre, Towers Business Park, Rugeley (2013), which powerfully conveys the soulless nature of the Amazon warehouse, its vastness dwarfing the workers.
Here, too, is an exhibit commissioned as an original work by Deller: a banner bearing the text, ‘Hello, Today you have day off’, the words of a text message sent to a worker on a zero-hours contract. Deller says that in retrospect he would have liked to use this message as the overall title for the whole exhibition.
Adrian Street with his father at the pithead of Brynmawr colliery in Wales, 1973
Adrian Street’s life reads like a Dickens novel. Born into a South Wales mining family, he briefly endured the hardship of the pit before, at the age of 15, he escaped to find fame and fortune in London where he hung around Soho, starting out as a body-builder, before gaining fame and fortune as a wrestler. He left the mine in 1956 to the jeers of his co-workers. Then, in 1973, he returned to his village and posed, in the show’s most remarkable image, with miners covered in dirt from the pit. They included his own father, with whom he did not get on. In Deller’s words:
Seventeen years later he returned, prophet-like, to show the coal serfs what the future would look like in a post-industrial entertainment economy. Whilst William Blake did not have Adrian Street in mind when he wrote Jerusalem, he might have had visions of him.
Street had become famous for his glam-rock style and for teasing his audiences’ perceptions of his sexuality. For Deller, Adrian is a character who transcended his environment through sheer will power and self-belief. Now 73, he still wrestles. ‘He is a phenomenon, a one off,’ says Deller, and yet he is also a symbol of people’s own ability to challenge the status quo on a very personal level:
He’s a great cipher for change. The image of him with his father is a metaphor for the changes going on in Britain. [It shows] what Britain was [and] what Britain will be: this shiny, clean, fame-based economy. We were the first country to industrialise and also the first country to de-industrialise. Adrian is like a one-man band, just doing it on his own. He and his dad had a terrible relationship. His dad was a prisoner of war of the Japanese [and] then he came back and went straight down the mines. He had been traumatised and was quite brutal with his son. So this is the image of Adrian returning to show his father, the miners, and Wales ‘this is what I’ve made of myself’. He’s a totally self-made man.
Like rock bands such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Happy Mondays and Slade, Adrian Street was the product of the industrialisation and migration from rural to urban living of the early 19th century, of family trees that feature generations of miners, metal-bashers, millwrights, weavers and servants.
We may have changed in myriad ways, Deller seems to say, but the Industrial Revolution, which transformed Britain before any other country, was a traumatic event that formed and shaped our lives. We live in its shadow still.
Jeremy Deller’s video: So many ways to hurt you, the life and times of Adrian Street (excerpt)
Jeremy Deller’s video: A Prophecy For 1973
Oh dear, Oh Dear, what things you will see
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
No government laws we shall have, it is true
There will be no Magistrates, no Bobbys in blue
To charge ‘Ten bob and costs’ when a man’s been on the spree
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
Everyone will be rich, there will be no need to beg
Nor stump up and down with an old wooden leg
If your limbs are blown off with a bullet or breeze
The doctors will replace you new ones with ease
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
Young lovers you’ll see them in dozens and crowds
Courting by moonlight on the top of the clouds…
This video, produced in collaboration with BBC Newsnight, is featured in the exhibition. Members of the public, including those on zero hours contracts, read accounts of life and work during the industrial revolution, and a pop video is made for a Victorian futuristic broadside, A Prophecy For 1973, illustrated with home movie footage shot in a Butlins holiday camp in 1973, illustrating that the reality of 1973 was somewhat more mundane than the author of the broadside had imagined.
Watch the video (16 minutes) here.
Deller has produced an excellent catalogue to accompany the exhibition which, after Manchester, travels to Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle. At the end of the exhibition there was a display of books drawn upon by Deller when gathering material for the show. They included Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings and All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity by Marshall Berman, first published around 1980, and now regarded as a classic text on the subject of modernity. Berman charts the development of the modern industrial process and explores how development is portrayed in literature and other art forms.
- Jeremy Deller’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air: exhibition film (BBC)
- Glam rock, wrestlers and our family trees: Jeremy Deller finds art in an industrial past (Observer)
- All That is Solid Melts into Air: blog post by Ben Roberts, whose photos of an Amazon fulfilment centre are featured in the exhibition
- Contemporary Art and War at IWM North: featured Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007
- The Art of War: more on Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007
- ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’: illuminating blog post on Deller’s Venice Biennale installation
- Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’: class and taste run deep
Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’
It wasn’t intentional, but at 11am, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month I was at Imperial War Museum North, taking a look at their brilliant and provocative new show Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War which contains exhibits that range from the wittily satirical to those that are disturbing or deeply moving.
The exhibition – which consists entirely of works from IWM’s collection of twentieth and twenty-first century British art – explores various artistic responses to war since the first Gulf War in 1990, and sets out to find answers to an interesting question: what do artists contribute to our perceptions of war and conflict in a time when our general understanding of conflict is increasingly shaped by the media and the internet?
Many of the works displayed here are by artists who were commissioned by the IWM to respond to recent conflicts. The first British official War Artists’ Scheme was set up by the government in 1916, during the First World War (Paul Nash and Christopher RW Nevinson were among those commissioned then). A larger scheme was established under the War Artists Advisory Committee during the Second World War, resulting in over 3,000 commissioned works being given to the Imperial War Museum (by artists such as Laura Knight, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland). Building on this tradition, IWM has been commissioning contemporary artists since the early 1970s, at first to create documentary work, but more recently shifting towards encouraging more personal artistic responses to conflict.
The IWM suggests that, ‘working outside the pressures of journalism, artists can propose ideas, urging the viewer to think deeply about what war is, about its immediate impact, its long term repercussions and how we remember it’. Viewing the response of the artists displayed here, there’s a clear critique of the way in which war and conflict is presented in the media. While at the time of the Vietnam war it seemed that TV news crews and photo journalists had opened up a new space for critical argument and debate about the war’s objectives and the means by which it was being pursued, now the media are more tightly controlled in conflict situations, and there is a growing emphasis on the media spectacle and instant coverage of events as they unfold. This leaves little room for more critical or thoughtful perspectives.
This exhibition looks at how artists have questioned and confronted the way in which the media tends to cover conflict in the last 25 years or so. Some mock the style and methods of the media, while others produce art that rejects the mainstream media’s need for spectacle.
Paul Seawright, ‘Camp Boundary’, 2002
In 2002 the IWM commissioned Paul Seawright to respond to the war in Afghanistan. Seawright was particularly interested in how an artist might engage with the conflict in a way that was different to the dramatic spectacles of photojournalism, and the photographs he made of minefields are radically opposed to that tradition. They show a seemingly empty landscape, which in reality is both lethal and inaccessible. Seawright says that he had ‘always been fascinated by the invisible, the unseen, the subject matter that doesn’t easily present itself to the camera’. The Museum suggests that Seawright’s work ‘highlights the changing nature of contemporary warfare with its increasing emphasis on remote technology and hidden enemies’.
John Timberlake, Another Country XV, 2001
In his series Another Country, John Timberlake combines well-known Romantic landscapes by Turner or Constable with nuclear mushroom clouds, taken from sources in IWM’s archives. He’s interested in exploring the idea of the ‘sublime’, used by the Romantics to describe scenes both terrifying and awe-inspiring, in a modern context. These qualities of scale, drama, shock and spectacle are features, he implies, that are increasingly a feature of the contemporary media’s portrayal of conflict. The Museum caption suggests that ‘the cloud is both toxic and fascinating, almost beautiful. The multiple layers in the work remove us from the event, leaving us as passive spectators, simultaneously seduced and disturbed’. I thought of how we all watched those planes smashing into the towers on a September morning, the sky a beautiful blue.
Trio, ‘Olympic Games Sarajevo 1994’
Trio is a graphic design group made up of husband and wife Bojan and Dada Hadžihalilović with Lela Mulabegović Hatt. Trapped in the four year siege of Sarajevo and disheartened by the lack of worldwide interest in the conflict, the group produced darkly humorous postcards (later remade into posters) satirising icons of pop culture such as the Coca Cola logo or (as here) the famous image of US soldiers raising the US flag at Iwo Jima to raise awareness. Their image references the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, which drew huge numbers of visitors to the city. A decade later the city’s residents felt abandoned by the world.
David Tartakover, ‘United Colours of Netanyahu’, 1998
Another example of this satirical approach is provided by David Tartakover’s poster, United Colours of Netanyahu. Tartakover is an Israeli artist and political activist who uses the medium of the poster, often satirising or re-appropriating visual symbols to present a politically provocative perspective on Israel. Here he uses an image of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, posing for a press call with his family, in a re-make of a United Colours of Benetton poster. It is a clear criticism of Netanyahu, and his resistance to the peace process with the Palestinians. The poster suggests an Israel, security-conscious and militarised, maintaining the illusion of a united, happy family.
Taysir Batniji, ‘GH0809: Houses #3, #9, #20’, 2009
Taysir Batniji offers another example of this satirical approach. He is a Palestinian artist, born in Gaza, but currently living in Paris. His work reflects on the situation in Palestine, but avoids the dramatic, drawing our attention instead to irrational aspects of the situation. GH0809 is a tongue-in-cheek comment on the situation in Gaza, portraying houses bombed by the Israelis in 2008-9 in the form of estate agent information sheets that present the home-seeker with desirable residences, offering the usual mundane details such as square footage and the number of rooms. But the sheets also also quietly state the number of former residents for each house. We do not know what has happened to these people, but the ruined homes shown hardly need a commentary.
John Keane, ‘Death Squad’, 1991
In 1990 John Keane was commissioned as the IWM’s official recorder in the Gulf , just before the first Gulf War began in January 1991. What could an artist add to our understanding of a conflict given extensive coverage in the media? Free from the responsibility of producing an official record of the war, Keane responded to events in a more personal and subjective way.Keane writes on his website:
I am interested in the process of painting, and I am interested in why human beings want to kill one another for political ends. These two apparently diverse preoccupations I attempt to reconcile by smearing pigment around on canvas in an effort to achieve a result whose success can be measured by how well it disguises the sheer absurdity of the attempt.
The first thing that crossed my mind looking at the ambiguously titled Death Squad, depicting a group of soldiers carrying a body bag, their sunglasses and masks concealing any emotion or expression, was the story of the Royal Marine found guilty by a military court only a few days previously of murdering an injured Afghan insurgent. But you can read this image in an entirely different way: a group of foot soldiers doing an unpleasant job, clearing the dead from the field of battle. It’s pertinent that Keane offers this quote on his website from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Then I reach what is perhaps the iconic image of war, and the revulsion felt by millions at the decision of the British government, led by Tony Blair, to go to war in Iraq in 2003, in the face of widespread public protest: Photo-Op by kennardphillipp.
kennardphillips, ‘Photo-Op’, 2007
Peter Kennard and Cat Picton-Phillipps have worked together since 2002, initially to make art in response to the invasion of Iraq. Their work has been shown online, in galleries and on protest marches. They describe their work as a direct means of communication: ‘the visual arm of protest’. Photo-Op, a collage depicting Tony Blair taking a ‘selfie’ in front of a huge explosion was produced in response to the personal anger the two artists felt, and to create something that reflected and validated the enormous public opposition to the war, which they felt had not been reflected in the media.
For me, though, the most moving and powerful works in this exhibition are those in which the artist seeks to explore the legacy of violence and the meaning of memory and loss. Much of this work looks at the links between violent events and the landscape in which they have occurred – and the memory that still resides there. Something of that sort would not lead you to immediately think of the homely landscapes of Britain.
Chris Harrison, ‘Sites of Memory: Sheerness’
But that is exactly what Chris Harrison’s project, Sites of Memory sets out to explore. It’s a series of photographs of First World War memorials that Harrison took as he travelled across Britain. They have a non-committal and unsentimental appearance, frequently (as is the case with the Tesco store in ‘Sheerness’ on display here) highlighting the incongruity of the juxtaposition between past and present. The monuments are surrounded by more recent buildings, overgrown greenery and street furniture – all emphasising the passage of time. Often the banality of the surroundings sits uncomfortably with the gravity of the events memorialised, suggesting the fading of collective memory and dwindling recognition of these once-resonant structures.
There were two works on display in the Museum which I had seen once before – on television, in a documentary about the art of war presented by Jon Snow. One was Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country, a work that commemorates the British service personnel who died during the Iraq War.
Steve McQueen, Queen and Country, 2006
Queen and Country was created by Steve McQueen in response to a visit he made to Iraq in 2003 following his appointment by the Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee as an official UK war artist. During the six days McQueen spent in Iraq, he was moved and inspired by the camaraderie of the servicemen and women that he met. He proposed that portraits of those who have lost their lives during the conflict be issued as stamps by Royal Mail.
An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals. The stamps would focus on individual experience without euphemism. It would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.
While discussions were under way with Royal Mail, McQueen made the Queen and Country installation – a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets bearing multiple portrait heads, each one dedicated to an individual, with details of name, regiment, age and date of death printed in the margin. The images were chosen by the families of the deceased. You engage directly with this work, sliding out panels that bear the sheets from the wooden cabinet, and contemplating the endlessly repeating images of the dead. There is something here that questions ideas of sacrifice, community and nationhood.
Jeremy Deller, ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007’
The other exhibit – not in the exhibition, but in the main gallery space – was a piece by Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller entitled Baghdad, 5 March 2007. It consists of the wreckage of a car salvaged after suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives, devastating Mutanabbi Street, a historic street of book stores and coffee shops in a mixed Shia-Sunni area of Baghdad.
World Trade Centre steelwork
Perhaps deliberately, the Museum’s organizers have place nearby a piece of twisted steelwork that once formed part of a window section in the World Trade Centre, destroyed in the attack of 11 September 2001 and extracted from the ruins at Ground Zero. To one side a poem by Simon Armitage is displayed that follows the structure of a poem by Thomas Hardy with the same name:
The Convergence of the Twain
Here is an architecture of air.
Where dust has cleared,
nothing stands but free sky, unlimited and sheer.
Smoke’s dark bruise
has paled, soothed
by wind, dabbed at and eased by rain, exposing the wound.
Over the spoil of junk,
rescuers prod and pick,
shout into tangled holes. What answers back is aftershock.
All land lines are down.
Reports of mobile phones
are false. One half-excoriated Apple Mac still quotes the Dow Jones.
Shop windows are papered
with faces of the disappeared.
As if they might walk from the ruins – chosen, spared.
With hindsight now we track
the vapour-trail of each flight-path
arcing through blue morning, like a curved thought.
And in retrospect plot
the weird prospect
of a passenger plane beading an office-block.
But long before that dawn,
with those towers drawing
in worth and name to their full height, an opposite was forming,
still years and miles off,
yet moving headlong forwards, locked on a collision course.
Then time and space
contracted, so whatever distance
held those worlds apart thinned to an instant.
During which, cameras framed
moments of grace
before the furious contact wherein earth and heaven fused.
Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’
For me, there was no doubt which was the most moving and most powerful work in this exhibition. Ori Gersht’s film Will You Dance For Me is projected on two screens. On the left we see Yehudit Arnon, now aged 85, rocking in and out of the light. Arnon was a prisoner in Auschwitz who, when ordered to dance at an SS officer’s Christmas party, refused and was was forced to stand outside, barefoot in the snow for hours. She swore to herself that if she survived she would devote her life to dance. As she rocks, a windswept snowscape – a field of stubble reminiscent of simple wooden crosses in a graveyard, a distant line of trees – appears on the right hand screen, alluding to the place of her memories.
Yehudit Arnon did survive. She went on to become an internationally renowned dancer and choreographer, and in 1962 founded the Kibbutzim Dance Company. Aged 85 when Gersht filmed her, she had limited mobility, but in the rocking chair she was able to dance one more time. She died last August, aged 87.
My own personal liberation – it was as like death. We were made to stand in the courtyard. Suddenly we saw there were machine-guns there. And the Germans… It was clear to us that this was the end. We did not know the date. We did not know that in reality this was the last day. Instead we stood there and waited for the end. It was so extreme, the change, from the moment when I thought to myself “this is the end” – and then suddenly freedom… I could not even grasp it.
When the Germans … asked that I amuse them over Christmas – that was the first time in my life when I could say “No”. And at that moment I didn’t care if they would have shot me, because the conditions were so difficult, that it would not have mattered.
I was not shot. I was punished, and made to stand in the snow, I do not know for how long. And then I decided, that if I survived, I would spend my whole life working with dance.
Will You Dance With Me: 90 second clip from the 13 minute video
Stepping outside after viewing Gersht’s film of Yehudit Arnon, I recollected that the IWM North building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, a Jewish architect whose parents were Holocaust survivors. He designed it to resemble a globe shattered by the violence of war, from which a few fragments have been put back together rather chaotically. Once shattered by war, though things might be pieced together, nothing is ever quite whole again.
Gallery: Daniel Libeskind’s IWM
Poet Ahmed Abdel Sara recites a poem as part of a protest by artists and writers against the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street
Built to enshrine free thinking and public access to knowledge, the John Rylands Library in Manchester is an appropriate place to see An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street, a project conceived by poet Beau Beausoleil and artist Sarah Bodman to ‘re-assemble’ the ‘inventory’ of reading material that was lost when a car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, on 5 March 2007 – an attack in which more than 30 people died and many more wounded. Outside, Deansgate thrums with city traffic and office workers urgently seeking a brief lunch; inside, there’s a cathedral calm in a place that feels like a temple to the book and the word.
When a suicide bomber exploded his truck on 5 March 2007, Baghdad’s historic street of book stores and coffee shops in a mixed Shia-Sunni area was devastated. Mutanabbi Street is named after a leading 10th-century poet Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, who was born in what is now Iraq. With its book stores and outdoor bookstalls, cafes, stationery shops, and tea and tobacco shops, Mutanabbi Street was regarded by Iraqis as an intellectual hub of the Arab world, and became over the decades a meeting place for writers, artists and intellectuals from across the capital.
I was there. I was on Mutanabbi Street the day it was bombed. The stationery store on Al-Mutanabbi where I worked exploded in flames, and my boss was immediately killed. How I survived, I do not know. I lay in the stockroom and could smell the books and newspapers burning. I could taste the smell of burning hair and flesh on my tongue. Lying on the ground, I watched the entire street turn hot and black with smoke and then, after a few minutes, stared up at the hole in the roof and saw thousands of small grey ashes—pieces of paper, books, newspapers—floating down from the sky. I will never forget that day. It changed us, changed my country forever.
– Mousa al-Naseri
A man stands amid rubble just after a suicide car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street.
The inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street was as diverse as the Iraqi population, including literature of both Iraq and the Middle East, history, political theory, popular novels, scholarly works, religious tracts, technical books, poetry, mysteries; even stationery and blank school notebooks could be purchased on the street, as well as children’s books, comics, and magazines. Arabic was the predominant language but there were books in Farsi, French, German, and English on sale, too.
For Beau Beausoleil, a San Francisco bookseller, poet, and community activist, the assault on Al-Mutanabbi Street touched a deep nerve. As a bookseller himself and a purveyor of ideas and culture, the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi made an immediate impact and in July 2010, he and artist Sarah Bodman put out a call for book artists to join An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street, a project designed to be ‘both a lament and a commemoration of the singular power of words’. Book artists from around the world were asked to produce works which reflected both the strength and fragility of books, but also showed the endurance of the ideas within them, in response to the attack on the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community:
We are among the pages of every book that was shredded and burned and covered with flesh and blood that day.
And to those who would manufacture hate with the tools of language . . .
Those who would take away the rights and dignity of a people with the very same words that guarantee them . . .
And to anyone who would view the bodies on Mutanabbi Street as a way to narrow the future into one book . . .
We say, as poets, writers, artists, booksellers, printers and readers,
That Mutanabbi Street starts here.
What has now become the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition has evolved to include an anthology of writing and a growing number of artists’ books (several hundred so far) from contributors all over the world, constantly being added to the travelling exhibition that is An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street. Each artist, poet or book designer has created a work designed to show the commonality of al-Mutanabbi Street with any street, anywhere that has a book shop or cultural meeting place, emphasising that this attack – the latest in a long history of attacks on the printed word – was an attack on us all. When all the books are finished the Coalition will donate a complete set to the Iraq National Library in Baghdad.
In the quiet of the Ryland’s reading room where people study beneath the vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows of what has been acclaimed as the best example of neo-Gothic architecture in Europe, exhibition cases display over 150 of the books created for the project, with more arriving by the day.
A book can carry ideas that are accessed by learning to read. First words then sentences that can be rearranged to make new meanings. We experience the freedom of turning thought into text. We can share ideas with others. We learn. So how do we arrive at a place where words are so threatening as to provoke such atrocities?
Gallery of some of the books in the Inventory
(Click an image to enlarge it)
Al-Mutanabbi Street book designed by Suzanne Vilmain
This is not the first time that the Mutanabbi Street has inspired an artwork. Before it closed for renovation, the Imperial War Museum in London had put on display a piece by Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller entitled ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007’. It features the wreckage of a car salvaged after the bombing of Mutanabbi Street. A witness, Naeem al-Daraji, describes the scene on the museum’s website:
Papers from the book market were floating through the air like leaflets dropped from a plane… Pieces of flesh and the remains of books were scattered everywhere.
There is no evidence of human remains in the car and it was unlikely it was occupied. The car was exported from Iraq in May 2007 with the permission of the Iraqi government, and was donated to the New Museum in New York which commissioned the artist Jeremy Deller to turn it into an art installation.
Deller insists that the bombed-out car is not a work of art. It is what it is – a bombed-out car. It represents the charred remains of people that cannot be shown. For Deller, the remains highlights that it is civilians and not soldiers who are increasing the victims of conflict. At the beginning of the 20th century, 10% of all casualties in conflict were civilians, now that figure is 90%.
One day there will be a museum dedicated to the conflict in Iraq. Until then we have to imagine what it might contain. A car destroyed in a suicide bomb attack is a familiar image in the Western media, often a convenient replacement for the human form (or a corpse to be more precise). This particular car was destroyed in an attack on the crowded book market at Al-Mutanabbi street in central Baghdad on March 5, 2007. Thirty eight people were killed and hundreds injured. And only recently has the market reopened. Al-Mutanabbi street is a cultural and social hub of Baghdad, and the attack was inevitably interpreted as an attack on contemporary Iraqi culture itself as opposed to the ancient culture of museums and historic sites.
The vitality and destruction of Al-Mutanabbi Street were also captured in a prize-winning documentary shot before and after the bombing called A Candle for the Shahbandar Café:
The rubble in Al-Mutanabbi street was quickly cleared, and today the street is recovering. But many Iraqi writers, scattered into exile by continuing sectarian violence, have not returned. A local resident quoted in a recent news report stated:
Mutanabbi Street has nothing to do with the reality of Iraq – it is an isolated island, the Iraq of our dreams. While outside we are confronted with violence and silly politicians, the Iraq of our reality, here we have the Iraq of our dreams. Now, Mutanabbi Street is bustling with activity on Fridays, its narrow expanse crammed with street-side vendors and musty stores packed to the brim with literature. What makes us happy in this place is the lack of intolerance and hatred. Mutanabbi is the best of this country’s culture.
Mutanabbi Street in 2012
Mutanabbi Street in 2012
I Dare You is my hymn to each and every page, person, symbol, codex, mural, tapestry, scroll, carving and oral account throughout history that has been banned, shamed, destroyed or subverted. Each collaged image is a surviving piece of a work or a culture or a tradition whose destruction was attempted or achieved. Somehow, always, these pieces survive or are remade.
The cities and dates spoken in the film are sites at which books were burned or otherwise destroyed throughout known history. I wanted to not only link them, but to point out that these attempts are not ends. That such targeted works and ideas do in fact continue on, even if they take different forms. So, destroy this book. Drown it. Question its legitimacy, relevancy, need. Strike a match and light this book aflame.
- Baghdad’s ‘Street of the Booksellers’ is reborn in Manchester: Guardian review
- An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street: project website
- An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street: gallery of images with artists’ explanations
- Al Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad: photo essay (Qantara.de)
- Baghdad marketplace oasis holds Iraq of dreams: Your Middle East report, 16 March 2012)
- It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq (Jeremy Deller’s project)
- The Rylands Library: the architecture
- John Rylands Library: Wikipedia