43. ‘ … Mouthfuls of Silence’

The dark atmosphere that has of late pervaded the interior of your soul and mind persisted this week. You are still in limbo, lost between the busy joys of Summer School teaching and the start of the next undergraduate year. The pains in your back were partly alleviated by the chiropractor and some yoga, but feel strangely permanent, as if now hard-wired.

When you gave details of your home and working life to the chiropractor she said: “Oh, so you are a contractor!” Sad but true, you honestly believed 10 years ago that you might be referred to as a ‘professor’ by now but the fact that you have to survive in London on an array of contracts and not a steady job -despite 17 years of loyal service to London’s leading art colleges; despite a PhD and despite 20 years of high quality art publishing and annual exhibitions – really is the root of both the back problem and the attendant summertime blues.

Deep down you feel used and abused, insulted, disappointed and unjustly treated. It’s nothing personal but a symptom of the state we are all in. You suspect that class difference, nepotism and other forms of cavalier practices are what has kept you locked out of the slightly easier (more consistent and reassuring) work-life balance that you see many peers and colleagues enjoying. But every time you have tried to formally express or correct the perceived injustice it has always backfired, leaving your conditions, status and income in an even more precarious state.

The difference between a job and a contract is not merely to do with consistency, reassurance, the ability to plan periods of stressful work, creativity and rest, it is also the difference between feeling marginal, more like highly qualified necessary labour than recognised as a loyal member operating within the ‘teams’ you currently work alongside as a nervous outsider, despite the significant quantity and quality of your very creative, informed, impassioned and generous contributions.

Thus you remain, for the most part, silenced, save these brief weekly expressions and your avid use of social networks, which, for all their crassness, still seem to you to offer some hope that even those without the ‘right’ contacts, friends, old schools, financial resources etc. can still create our own small oases of power and possibility in this increasingly barren and unbalanced world.

Use of contracts, and of worse forms of contracts, is growing exponentially according to the twisted logic of a new phase of hyper capitalism / neoliberalism / globalisation. Contracts are a mode of quasi-employment that leaves you queasy. They don’t even try to disguise the fact that they are all about ‘use’ in the most one-sided way, while, by comparison, those ‘real jobs’ so often appealed for by Left thinking politicians and unions, are relatively respectful, mutually beneficial long term agreements that give employees a greater sense of dignity, status, respect and belonging, plus opportunities to really develop a career and a corresponding way of life.

A Tory government caps all of our ‘aspirations’ to lead effective, moral lives as part of a constructive and cohesive society Today, looking around at the parlous state of UK society after five years of Tory and Tory-led government there is no doubt that Conservatism is innately divisive. Architect Barbara Weiss this week gave a brilliant talk on Radio Four about London’s bombastic building boom, carefully demonstrating the carelessness of the voracious greed virus rapidly creeping over your city, set-free and fed by the Tory mayor and Tory chancellor’s combined policies.

Profit is all, people are nothing, unless they are mega-rich, and London is being hastily trashed and rebuilt (all surreptitiously rubber-stamped by Boris Johnson) for everyone and anyone but those ordinary Londoners, like yourself, who have, in one way or another, devoted their entire lives and careers to it but who can now barely, or no-longer afford to live and work in it. (see: Barbara Weiss ‘Saving The Skyline’)

How the view along the Thames from Vauxhall might look

The week has also seen the controversial arrival of the new Labour leader in parliament, attended by crude, merciless and murderous mockery by the loony right-wing press. But Jeremy Corbyn gives politics per se new hope by finally widening what has been for too long a hopelessly narrow political playing field, and thus reminding a broad public that Tories do not, by any means, ply a ‘common sense’, center-right politics to which there is ‘no alternative’, but in fact pursue a pernicious, hard-right, ideologically-motivated economic policy, swathed in mendacity and with disastrous outcomes for anyone not of their creed – and thus, in the long term, disastrous and divisive for society as a whole.

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Despite the ‘black dog’ that has been hounding you, you responded to your friend and colleague, the innovative, committed and politically conscious curator and gallerist Bea Herhold de Sousa’s invitation to see and comment upon her most recent project. And so you ventured out one evening in the rain to a corner of Aldgate where you located the exhibition ‘Two Mouthfuls of Silence’, presented by the Balkan Artists Guild in the semi-derelict basement of a banal looking office building. The Balkan context is something of which you have to admit you know little, other than that which you once gleaned from Tony Judt’s excellent modern history book ‘Postwar: A history of Europe Since 1945.

The show is also titled and as it were signed-off by poet Paul Celan, creator of the title’s evocative words. His is also one of those names you have long wanted to investigate but as yet have not, and so you resolve to emulate your cockney grandmother and ‘take things as you find them’, while exercising the kind of ‘radical empiricism’ you discovered during your doctorate.

The building provides shelter from the rain-soaked city streets as simply printed A4 signs direct you down into a dark, basement revealing the derelict trappings of what might have been a slightly tacky corporate disco. Huge bass speakers are set aside unused; the ceiling’s snazzy 70s design looks equally redundant; and the plaster on one wall has been repeatedly attacked, inadvertently leaving a strangely attractive pattern of violent brick-pink flashes contrasting with the purple painted surface. Everything feels a little like the aftermath of a war zone, as if the space had undergone some form of emergency.

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At the bottom of the decorative staircase that leads you in, the curator has carefully chalked, in meticulous handwriting, an extract of Celan’s poetry that ends with the words chosen for the title of the show: “… two mouthfuls of silence’. Nearby, the work of Lana Čmajčanin  and Adela Jušić closely corresponds with these few, frighteningly bleak words (‘ah!’, you think, ‘the wonders of poetry.’)

The piece, titled We Will Never Talk About The War Again (2011) consists of a plinth-mounted cube-shaped video monitor with headphones. On the screen we see the artists repeatedly speaking, whispering, and shouting, in ever-varying tones and modes of address (occasionally confrontational, sometimes conspiratorial) the work’s title.

For those with little knowledge of the region and its history any encounter with ‘the Balkans’ may nevertheless come associated with war, and a strangely, newly mediated war at that. It now seems as if, in the 1990s, right on what were then the EU’s borders, war was necessarily muffled and denied, so that its true scale and horror could only be released and exposed slowly over time.

Throughout the 1990s you were living like a hermit in a studio, hoping to straighten out some of the distortions you had suffered in the 80s. You were making art, writing poetry and prose, returning from walks to the park with a cleansed heart and flower petals bulking out your notebooks. Until the seismic British shifts of UK politics in 96-97 you were barely conscious of current affairs, but you do recall, while visiting North Carolina at the very end of the decade, hearing, on a cheap kitchen radio, one bleak afternoon, the grim news that Nato had begun to bomb Belgrade.

Čmajčanin  and Adela Jušić here strive performatively to exorcise themselves of the language of war, the ‘war’ that begets war, and that laces our very beings with memories of wars that are undeniably formative of our current societies and economies. Silence seems to be what they desire, but we suspect that what they wish to no-longer talk about will remain with them, even when they have closed their mouths. War leaves a disgusting aftertaste, as well as the ‘Catch 22’ of a moral dilemma wherein to speak or to not speak of it may render us equally culpable.

In fact we need to speak of war every day of our lives, vigilantly monitoring our politics, politicians and societies for signs of the divisiveness, carelessness, brutality and crude thinking that might lead us back to war. Looking at Europe today you can see all the potential -fragmentation, defensiveness and aggression – that might just make possible for Europe what millions of refugees are currently fleeing in North Africa, the Middle-East and Afghanistan.

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Sadly, our reigning, intrinsically divisive economic system treats us so brutally and crudely that it can rapidly create conditions of inequality and injustice so great that they override the necessary checks, balances and mechanisms that make a modern democracy. The artist Stefanos Tsivopoulos made his wall-projected video Geometry Of Fear (2012) by entering the Greek parliament during the 37 days in 2012 when government was suspended – for the first time in Greek history. His camera pans repeatedly over the proud furnishings of democracy, contemplating ranks of abandoned seats and microphones and drawing attention to the peculiarly mechanistic manner in which our politics are habitually, ritually and repetitively conducted.

You see democracy sans demos, democracy bereft of the people whose debates and judgments should embody and deliver democracy, and you begin to recognise (as you might also see in minimalist Robert Bresson’s last great film ‘L’Argent’) that human agency and intelligence is not always able to rein-in the devices it designs. Our governing processes, once up and running, can run out of control, leaving us flailing and failing behind them.

Tsivopoulos’ film also reminds you (as did Yanis Varoufakis when he came to speak in London this week) that the Greek social, political and economic crisis is far from over; that the statistics remain ‘eye-watering’ in the most real and human (not merely journalese) sense of the phrase. Meanhwile, this film starkly marks a significant historical moment (akin perhaps to what T.S. Eliot called ‘…the still point of the turning world‘); a time and place of profound absence when and where democracy is suspended and superseded, here momentarily replaced by silence, but all too often and all too possibly by the worst of sounds, the noise of violence, that at the time the film was made was already roaring out in nearby Syntagma Square.

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Aside from the video works that operate very effectively in the dark underground space the curator has bravely included two spot-lit paintings by Gazmend Ejupi. The sombre tone of the show persists in their almost nauseous hues of dragged paint, which seems to melt (in a Bacon-esque manner) the figures they aim to represent. In one canvas, Pristina (2015), a dog looks out from beyond the human realm, as if asking you to consider its own and our own capacity for gentleness, loyalty, obedience and savage brutality. Within the murky ground you vaguely discern sketched buildings reminiscent of George Grosz’s barren, 1930s line drawings of German cities where a protesting proletariat were being systematically brought to heel by fascist mastery. In a second contribution by Ejupi, titled Memory ( 2015), a skull-like face, vaguely reminiscent of Munch’s bleakest imagery, emerges, as if previously latent, from a similar process, as more unpalatable colours are entropically pulled down across the surface.

A piece by Iz Östat, titled We Are On The Same Boat… (2013) involves video but takes on sculptural form as the ‘screen’ on which it is projected is a canvas sail, tautly tethered, top and bottom to the architecture and thus unlikely to help us travel far. Here the image, though moving, eschews narrative, to become, rather, a singular sign. All we see is the movement of a vaguely oriental decorative fan held in an inconspicuous hand, occasionally making the kind of deft flick which, as you have long suspected, derives from some ancient semiotic system, akin to the always meaningful wink of a human eye. Thus Östat reminds us that we communicate, not only with words and sounds but also, as and when necessary, with subtle, silent gestires. In times of impending darkness, it may be best, or simply inevitable, to revert or resort to these, perhaps less equivocal means of communication, whereby we sense that we know what is meant by the sign, despite the absence of words to guide, underline or explicate.

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The final piece you encounter is another wall-projected video, this time titled ‘SPRING, four poems for a voice and various sounds’ (2012) by Damir Očko. Here you experience obscure juxtapositions of sound and image, as speakers, installed high on a shelf along with the projector, wail and chant in witchy voices, as if some curious coven or ethereal chorus were commenting obliquely on what you see. The video shows male and female gymnasts twisting and balancing their bodies in a darkened, spotlit space akin to the one in which you too are standing. You see volcanic sparks and other evidence of chthonic forces in the form of mysterious steam rising from vents in rocks. The male gymnast swallows an illuminated sword as the voices focus and begin to coincide more directly, referring physiologically and taxonomically to organs and regions of the body related to the throat.

Finally you have come, clearly, explicitly and literally to the ‘mouthful’ referred to in the exhibition’s title, but in truth the curator’s careful choices mean that the poet’s haunting imagery subtly pervades the entire show. For you, Celan’s unfamiliar words cannot help but invoke the most undignified of burials, the kind that happen in lawless war zones where there is either no time, no will, or no facility to bury the dead with appropriate dignity, or where there are simply too many to be buried. Hence, for you, the ‘mouthfuls’ become ‘shovelfuls’ and the ‘silence’ becomes simultaneously the dirt that fills and silences dying mouths. And by entertaining this monstrous image you also admit the bleak evocation of all those who are and have been buried while still living, and you are thus led to consider silence as the voice of the dead, the production of sound as a signal of persistent life.

Dark indeed, silent yes, but this exhibition delivers an important, if unwelcome message as it urges us to focus not on crass, brash media and dazzling headlines but to pay attention to the groaning and grumbling forces of history currently coalescing just beyond the range of our habitual sensory apparatus.

Bea de Sousa’s brave and challenging curatorial experiment is in purposeful contrast to the dazzling, bright media-friendly clarity of many contemporary art shows. It literally and metaphorically draws us down and into a broken, abject space coexisting with the proudly bristling workaday City of London. It also takes us down and into the depths of a necessarily poetic response to our human failings; failings of the past, the present, and warning of the likely or possible failings of our near future.

When you return to ground level and walk out into the cold, September evening, the rain has greatly intensified, and so you scurry homeward, a threatened creature, seeking shelter, solace and recuperation from the stark, vaguely recognisable trauma that you have just witnessed courtesy of contemporary (mainly) Balkan art.

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