Activism - Art - Activism

IssueMarch 2007
Review by Gareth Evans

“... time was not a single river but something always branching into every possible outcome; time was a tree growing at infinite speed to produce infinite branches, so that there were many pasts and more presents and this very moment is begetting many futures.”
Rebecca Solnit, writing about the Merced River, Yosemite, USA

Place: London, Tate Britain and Parliament Square; Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran... centres of power and then where power acts; centres of resistance... Time: 2001; 2006; 2007; the long clock of injustice and its justice, now and ever on.

This is a partisan account.

Facts, begin with them

You start by arriving. With a sleeping bag and a stick of painted signs, the word on card board, damp. Parliament Square, 2 June 2001. Blair will be in again, just days later, and then all the years we now know to have come. It's too familiar now, too close to a kind of franchise of despair, but even then, in that almost “golden age” summer before everything changed, Brian Haw, Redditch father of seven -- carpenter, merchant seaman, believer -- could see the way it was going, knew that extraordinary measures were required.

You sleep under rain and ice and snow. Under blows from roving, after hours Marines, under the sometimes very heavy hand of the Met. 24/7, for five years. And counting. But more than sleep, you make the disgust visible. In placards, pictures, information, more. And soon it follows, the wider noticing of your being, the building response; uncounted articles now, Sunday papers' photo shoots, Mexican radio, documentaries from Iran to CNN. You live on nothing except the goodwill of others, notes thrown down from passing cars. You win all the cases bought against you, in the High Court and the other halls of justice.

You are an orator of anger and straight sense, but more than that, you simply are. Your secret? You refuse to leave. You stand against the war on terror, and first it stops with you. You will not be terrorised. And slowly, you accumulate your own environmental time. Build it and they will come... You run the Square's length with a wall of words, the people's Commons, DU babies crying you to speak. And you so disturbed the “peace” of Parliament that swathes of them, livid for you, went all out to stitch up laws to oust you. So they craft the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), prohibiting unauthorised protest within a kilometre of where you stand, with clauses scripted just for you.

And more time...

Time 2: 23 May 2006. In the night they come. And they take it. They police you almost clear. They almost take it all. They seek a ground zero. The order of the old square again. Grass and pavement unsullied by reminders of what this State is doing, some-where else. In this way, you link our power players straight with Chile's Pinochet and all the squalid rest who lift a person from their life and never set them down again, in grave or cell or any system filed. They want you absent, distant, gone, they want you disappeared.

Time 3: 15 January 2007. In his exhibition State Britain, artist Mark Wallinger unveils an exact facsimile of your protest site, as it was before its almost complete erasure, in the high columned halls of Tate Britain's imperially funded Duveen Galleries, the very spine of the building, marking on its floor where the mile-wide protest cordon ends. Here, what you have made crosses the line it generated elsewhere.

Time 4: 10 February 2007.You are named, by people's vote, “the most inspiring political figure” of the year in Channel 4's poll. First you were a man in hisskin (you remain this through everything; it is the foundation of your great act of witness). Then you were a member of the public but, through certain acts, you became more so, more public, busy in the world. Now you have become your name.

A question of authority

The extensive media coverage of State Britain is overwhelmingly favourable to the work. It is fascinated by the tensions and questions such a siting raises. It ponders whether the replica is art, thinks hard on the fact that a state-funded gallery can show a display made illegal by that same state on the public street (and wonders whether the positioning enhances or neutralises its polemical statements: can a site of authority speak against authority?).

It places the commission in a fine tradition of artistic statements around both protest and historical events. It reveals the malicious, absurdist farce that is SOCPA, by making re-visible what the Act sought to erase. In this way, State Britain is simultaneously a demonstration, a folk archive, an altar, an elegy for something still living, a moment of history caught to remind that history is not over. It is one of the most remarkable, necessary, and demanded collaborations between artist and subject that one is likely to encounter.

A Zen parable

It lives on the line between presence and absence. Haw, apart from his making, yet in position still along the river. Wallinger sublimating his own original making into Haw's assembly, but curating his own interests through relocation. Just as Haw dissolves the boundary between life as it is regularly lived and the timetable of protest if its urgencies were truly felt, making the hour and place of his own body indivisible from his intention, so this duet of involvement between artist and activist, whether they are in exact agreement about the political realities of the age or not, seeds the possibility that Solnit describes above.

By separating Haw from a culminating moment of his own life, Wallinger brilliantly embodies him in the piece, in the way that the originating protest cannot be unanchored from the man. It's a kind of Zen parable, forty metres long, alerting us to what is not there. Protest, after all, is always a person, always people. Words and images are tools. A man made this, and then another man re-made it. They slept (if they could) then woke up, and made some more.

However, the mobius strip so made out of the two identities, the crossing of their paths yielding a single trail, does not ultimately inform a conversation about the creation, or not, of an art object. It speaks to the impact that any individual can make in the world, so long as they act. No person an island. No action an island. Haw acts and is seen. Wallinger acts in response and things are seen again. The possible grows. Do nothing and the journey stops. That is all we know for sure.

Strength of vulnerability

These are images that stare through, stare out, the exhaust fumes and downpours, the wind and walls of time. Viewed or not, they do not go away. State Britain is a work against abuse. The abuse of an individual, a nation, a collective humanity. Against the abuse of language and image by power for its ends. Against power's contempt for what is held to be just by that very majority in whose name it claims to speak.

It is a work about the strength of vulnerability. Of flesh against the machinery of power. Of ragged flags and torn placards against the cool stone of sanctioned space.

Finally, it is a plea for the authenticity of a faith. It is a service in silence, unfolding in one of the shrines of our secularage; a meditation on all the noise of conflict -- the planes, the bombs, the falling masonry, the sirens, the suspension after the blast. On the myriad, unheard screams all the continents away, and a single voice, amplified in outrage above the traffic.

I see you and believe you. In your right to be. And the rightness of your being. I look across the road. And there you are. Still there. Marches come and marches go, but Hawthorn, you remain.

Topics: Culture
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