Every year you teach courses in art & politics, and you suspect that a lot of people may perhaps think of you as a political artist or a ‘political person.’ That is primarily, you think, because you came into the arts driven, not only by a need, as a youth, to find adequate and appropriate expression and form for the way you seemed to see the world differently, but also -perhaps you realised subsequently- because the arts offer the possibility of a kind of social mobility, a chance to escape working class conditions, that would have been otherwise unavailable to you.
But strangely enough, we could also call this un- or a-political, in that art, given such a scenario, might have allowed you, occasionally at least, to be something other than your ‘political’ self i.e. your socio-economic identity. Surely, whenever you make a photograph, a film, a piece of writing, a song, whenever you design a course or any engage in other artistic production, you do, indeed do this a-politically, un-politically while occupying an identity that is, momentarily at least, neither one thing nor another, but temporarily anything, anybody.
And that is what you most love about art, the seeming infinity of its possibilities, the way in which it seems to thrive on the production of possibility, keeping possibility alive, producing new possibilities, embodying possibility that might be found nowhere else.
So, are you a ‘political’ artist or person? Given the above, you don’t really think so, politicians seem to become quickly mired in something that a life as an artist seeks to avoid, the muck and dirt of the real, sleeves-rolled-up world. But that is not to say you believe in art’s ability to make a political contribution. Perhaps the difference is that art needs to do it while dancing gingerly, or making imaginatively around the edge of the dirty reality with which ‘real’ politicians more or less nobly directly engage.
So what is the relationship between art & politics? Thomas Hirschhorn, an artist whom, you suspect most of art’s aficionados wouldn’t hesitate to call ‘political’, also raises this question in the context of his current show at South London Gallery. What you see in the lofty, noble, philanthropic Victorian SLG space is a kind of ruin (the title of the piece is In-Between’), a scene of destruction that convincingly transforms the entire environment. However, ‘convincingly’ is perhaps not quite the right word. You see Hirschhorn’s signature poor materials in abundance, most notable sticky tape and cardboard, styrofoam and cheap torn cloth, and so, also being familiar with the SLG space you can see exactly what has happened, what has been done.
But another reason that ‘convincingly’ is the wrong word here is that the carefully planned look of this destruction has a simulacral feel to it. It is as if you had stepped inside a drawing of a planned stage set or movie set or a full-scale video game visualisation. And it is this simulacral quality that doesn’t even seem to set out to ‘convince’ you with a kind of realistic illusion but rather alludes to the sense of a ruined space as an mage. Sure enough, when, some time later, you read an interview between the artist and gallery director Margot Heller he does repeatedly refer to his interest, not only in ruins but in ‘images of’ ruins.
Jeff Wall’s ‘The Destroyed Room’ (1978) also comes, perhaps inevitably, to mind as a seminal work in which the whole idea that photography once concerned itself with the documentary reality of chance encounters was supplanted wholesale for a new generation with an uncanny simulacral sense of a world meticulously remade in detail for and by photography, as one reality sought to match pace and compete with other emerging realities in an increasingly mediated world.
Given that Hirschhorn’s new piece is so carefully simulated it does seem in a way to depart from the body of his work that we have come to know and love, all of which now appears more belligerent, more ‘political’, while ‘In-Between‘ is more ‘art.’ Perhaps Hirschhorn turned a corner, starting to steer a more mature path perhaps, in which ‘form’ (a world he repeatedly and enthusiastically uses in the interview) becomes at least as important, and perhaps even more important than political content.
Even a huge white sheet of a banner, containing a quote from Antonio Gramsci’s (one of Hirschhorn’s heroes) ‘Prison Notebooks’ is rendered as simulacral. And anything simulacral seems unable to inhabit the real world in which real political change can occur. And so these words hover, somewhere between realities (perhaps here the title of the work starts to make more sense?), occupying the same status in terms of reality as the carefully hewn and placed styrofoam shards made to resemble bombed concrete but which transmit no real sense of violence, threat, fear or death. What is the relationship between art and politics? For Hirschhorn, the evidence here seems to be that they are drifting inexorably apart, like pieces of of a fragmenting (styrofoam?) iceberg.
Hirschhorn’s piece, though painstakingly installed, doesn’t delay you for too long. It is, after all, one big image, a 3D photograph which you walk into, through, contemplate, and walk out of again, looking back and muttering evaluatively over your shoulder. But upstairs at SLG the gallery’s excellent international artist’s residency programme has produced a gem that detains you for far longer, and also makes greater demands on both your conscience and your intellect (the best video work can do this.)
Norwegian artist Ane Hjort Guttu has installed two films, but you will concentrate here only on the one that most captivated you and which you experienced in full. ‘Time Passes’ (2015?) appears to be a ‘fly on the wall’ style documentary focusing on a small group of students (and on one in particular) apparently passing through a rigorous critical Masters degree in Fine art at a college in Bergen, Norway. In small seminars, the students, along with one professor, push each other’s ideas along, trying to evaluate and refine each other’s brave speculations. The central character is a young woman who has focused on the poignant, perhaps crucial but commonplace event of being a comfortable middle-class person who experiences a greater or lesser disturbance of moral conscience whenever they pass a person begging on the street.
It’s a familiar conundrum (one recently highlighted by debate and changes to the laws on begging in Norway) and worthy of attention as a salient, apparently inconvenient and unanticipated consequence of a liberal, rich consumer society. the young art student chooses to sit with one ‘beggar’ (a Romanian woman) every day rather than pass her by every day and in this way she attempts to find a more adequate, appropriate and ethical response to their human relationship. Nevertheless, and perhaps predictably, she embroils herself in further ethical dilemmas, which her peers and professor at the art school are not reluctant to point out and she eventually finds herself propelled to the periphery of the institution and ultimately of art itself. She surrenders her opportunity to exhibit her work as ‘research’, decides that tutorials are pointless and comes to think of her so-called ‘work’ as simply life itself.
It’s a moving and thought-provoking film that holds your attention for its forty seven minutes length. On leaving the gallery, and before you later discover that the whole film is carefully scripted and enacted, you can’t help but compare it with the supposedly ‘political’ installation by Hirschorn in the lower gallery.
Formally and technically the two pieces are far removed. The documentary tradition in which the film is styled sits comfortably within a well-known form of 20th century art, in which a certain close-to-the bone realism often seems to have a greater power to affect us than more imaginative contrivances (i.e within the modern tradition of ‘moving’ realist documentaries you can discern politics – as it were- usurping art.)
At the same time, the huge manufactured installation, provided by Hirschhorn apparently as a primarily ‘political’ work of art seems to have become all art and strangely little politics.
But ultimately both turn out to be equally simulacral, leaving you to wonder if art & politics ever really had a relationship, or if a certain reality, necessary to bond the two together (perhaps lying within the knots of that central ‘&’ ) is a necessary, but now elusive, rapidly evaporating element in this relationship.