The Art Kettle? Mark Wallinger’s State Britain revisited…

I’ve been reading The Art Kettle by Sinéad Murphy from Zero Books. Discussing examples from the British art world, Murphy argues that, “in its simultaneous monopolizing of the creative impulse and designation of that impulse as necessarily extricated from any purpose, as for nothing, what we call ‘art’ has rendered un-real the possibilities for ‘free thinking’ and for resistance that are supposed to lie at the heart of our political system” (p.5). Murphy argues that, in limiting the meaning of art as the sphere concerned with that which is proper to art (a self-referential discourse within which the main question is always, “But is it art?”) and divorcing it from the criterion of usefulness (“What is it for?”), art as it is currently constituted in Britain (the focus of the book) serves to keep matters that might be political contained within the confines of the aesthetic. Art today functions primarily as a mode of social control: ‘the answer to “What is art for?” is: “To keep us all in good order” (pp.4-5).

The book is doubly interesting to me because it leads off with the example of Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, a 2007 installation at Tate Britain for which the artist was awarded the Turner Prize. State Britain was a painstaking recreation of the anti-war protest assembled by Brian Haw on Parliament Square, which he began in June 2001 in response to the effects of sanctions on Iraq (rather than the decision to invade Iraq, as Murphy writes). Comprised of a thirty-metre long collection of anti-war placards, photos, text, art works, newspaper extracts, personal effects, mementoes and knick-knacks, alongside which he lived, the protest confronted MPs entering the Houses of Parliament, and was often described as an ‘eyesore’. In May 2006, acting under new powers introduced as part of the Serious and Organised Crime and Policing Act of 2005, powers that many believed had been introduced specifically for the purpose, police cleared most of Haw’s assemblage from the square. Aware of its impending removal, Wallinger went down to Parliament Square and took hundreds of photographs. Fabricators were employed to recreate it in every detail and it was installed in the Duveen Galleries, the grandest and most prestigious space at Tate Britain.

The SOCPA powers applied to a notional one-kilometre exclusion zone around Parliament (the actual boundaries followed street lines), where specific advance approval for protests would now be required from the police. Tracing a circle around Parliament, Wallinger claimed that the zone ran through Tate Britain and laid out a strip of tape on the gallery floor, bisecting the installation.

Murphy writes, “Wallinger’s art work, though indiscernible from Haw’s protest, was not dismantled by the police. Haw’s protest, become art, had ceased to make itself heard” (p.2). Murphy suggests that the transfer of the protest from the street to the art museum “merely enacts the extent to which the political commitment to “freedom” as a regulative ideal tends, once it begins to operate at the level of form rather than content, to reduce political action to a mere performance of action, to remake it as an “installation” with merely aesthetic import, and thereby to manage very well its scope and its effects” (p.3). Murphy links this with a broader argument, about the way in which the tolerance of protest, whether on the streets or in the gallery, is upheld as a mark of the liberality of the polity, effectively sanctifying its decision to go to war or restrict freedom. Art and protest are caught in a liberal loop.

It’s true that Wallinger’s work did not spark a new wave of anti-war protests, it did not lead to the suspension of the SOCA powers, and it did not lead directly to the withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan and Iraq or the prosecution of Tony Blair. In the booklet accompanying the installation, Wallinger distanced himself somewhat from the anti-war focus of Haw’s protest. And rather than seeing State Britain as a direct political intervention itself, the Tate’s curator likened the work to history paintings that enabled viewers to reflect on the meaning of politics (“navel gazing” in Murphy’s view).

At the same time, I think State Britain is a bit more complex than Murphy allows. Murphy’s thesis runs implicitly counter to two lines of argument advanced by Jacques Rancière, who seeks reframe the potential of the sphere of art in relation to politics. First, Rancière suggests that critical art tactics and actions in the field of politics proper cannot substitute for each other, but may exist in a relationship of corroboration. Rather the logic is perhaps one of borrowing, resonance and traffic between the two spheres. Following this line of argument, if ‘political’ art in Britain seems so weak and easily recuperated, then this is not just down to artists and art institutions, but a sign of the extent to which it lacks corroboration by strong social movements. Rather than a kettling of a citizenry that would otherwise be vibrant, State Britain might be read as lament for the state of protest in Britain. But this would I think still be too pessimistic, overlooking other critical practices and how art interventions can sometimes draw even the most elite art spaces into the realm of politics.

Here we can turn again to Rancière, who suggests that indeterminacy as to whether any particular intervention constitutes ‘art’ can be politically productive. Effective critical art, Rancière suggests, operates in a grey zone between ‘politics’ and ‘art’, borrowing from things that are supposedly proper to politics and thereby proposing or enacting an alternative ‘distribution of the sensible’. There are several parts to this, of which the stated intentions of Wallinger and the Tate comprise only one.

We can also look at the production of the work. It seems that Brian Haw welcomed Wallinger’s intervention, seeing it as an extension rather than a taming of his protest. Seasoned peace and anti-war campaigners who had supported Haw were also involved in facilitating the work. There was thus a process of mediation by which the work was translated from the street to the gallery; it was not simply dismantled into an artwork, as Murphy writes. Rather it was the result of a series of consciously intended acts, a literal borrowing of political tactics within the field of art. While the role and even existence of the artist, agency and intention have been much debated, here the rhetoric of ‘functions to’ does much to obscure what people did and why.

Then there is the reception of the work. My take is that rather than ceasing to make Haw’s protest heard, State Britain was seen as dramatising the extent to which democratic politics was being threatened by intervention overseas and the securitarian management of public space at home. As I see it, the question, ‘But is it art?’, which is invariably raised at Turner Prize time, was conspicuous by its absence regarding State Britain (though it was raised with reference to the film Wallinger showed for the Turner exhibition itself, in which he roamed a German art gallery dressed in a bear suit). Rather than marking the recuperation of protest, State Britain was received less via an experience of aesthetic distance than as an indictment of the Blair government and the condition of politics under a state of war. This is rather different from what Murphy suggests, claiming that there were only two options for viewers: to consider the work art/not art (in keeping with the dominant discourse of art), or to be captivated by a work that manifested the liberality of the British polity (in sync with Tony Blair); and that the illegal invasion of Iraq disappeared from view. I think this assumes too much. I don’t think it only offered these options, and I don’t think the issue of the invasion quite disappeared (although the question of how it made Iraq visible in British politics is an important one, touched upon by Peter Campbell, the LRB’s late art correspondent. More on this later).

To turn the argument around, maybe the fact that Wallinger got so much politics into somewhere like the Tate was a reflection not of the establishment’s comfort with the work, but of how fractured the British establishment had become by this point. In this sense, the work perhaps played upon and maybe even intensified a shift in the structure of feeling surrounding the British state that was already under way and which led to the departure of Blair and eventual British withdrawal from Iraq (State Britain needs to be seen as just one of a series of critical artistic responses to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror that emerged in 2007, of which also more later). While this should not be overplayed, it might also be seen as forming part of a shift towards a renewed politicisation of gallery and museum space, a shift that has seemed to gather force with the Occupy movement (and which challenges the anaemic conception of politics forwarded in Nicolas’ Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, of which Murphy is also critical). In this broader context, State Britain is perhaps significant in ways other than those that Murphy allows for. (As an aside, I was much more persuaded by her reading of the 2010 Turner Prize ceremony, which happened while student protests took place outside).

For Murphy, the way out of the predicament that she describes is to break with the discourse of art about art, and to reconnect with practices of craft and the creation of art that is of use in transforming the world, and she discusses a number of historical examples to develop this. But as far as the present is concerned, in focusing on the Tate, a state-funded institution that is very much part of the establishment, and on the way that art education tends to encourage a distanced appreciation of art as art, Murphy doesn’t engage much with politically engaged work that does seek to problematise and challenge the developments she critiques, enacting ‘art’ and ‘politics’ simultaneously, sometimes seeking to occupy the gallery or museum, sometimes not. What about work that is beyond or at the margins of the gallery system, or which emerges from activist interventions and social movements as much and as well as art theory and practice? The Art Kettle presents a telling critique of the art system in Britain today, and while it begins to formulate an alternative agenda, the task of evaluating or affirming other, actually-existing (rather than historical) critical practices between art and politics remains.

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