Art attack

With museums and galleries increasingly being used as a platform for political protest, Gareth Harris examines how artistic voices of dissent are being embraced
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Gareth Harris
“Artists should touch a nerve and be political,” says Sally Tallant, the director of the Liverpool Biennial, which put art and dissent on the agenda this year by invoking the tumult of global politics. The 10th edition of the biennial invited artists and audiences “to reflect on a world in social, political and economic turmoil” with the title Beautiful World, Where Are You?

The event, which ended on 28 October, featured more than 40 artists from 22 countries. The art on show in venues across Liverpool included The List, a work that documented the names of the 34,361 asylum seekers, refugees and migrants who have died trying to get to Europe since 1993.
The artwork was vandalised and torn down several times from hoardings on Great George Street, but Liverpool City Council helped to fund a reinstallation before the biennial ended. The project was supported by the biennial and London’s Chisenhale Gallery in collaboration with the Turkish artist Banu Cennetolu, who has distributed details of the refugee deaths since 2007.

“This is such a pertinent issue in the light of Brexit and the rise of the right-wing across Europe,” says Tallant. “But it has achieved so many other things: local artists have created works on the hoardings and it has led to a vibrant public debate. The city has described it as a memorial – what more could you ask for?”

The controversy has reignited discussion about whether artists carry weight as voices of dissent. They have been taking aim at political systems, leaders and prejudices for centuries, from Eugène Delacroix’s definitive image of the French Revolution, Liberty Leading the People (1830), to the radical anti-discrimination feminist collective Guerrilla Girls, founded in 1985, which “exposes gender and ethnic bias” in museums and galleries worldwide.

But against the backdrop of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the US president, artists’ protestations resonate more than ever.

The exhibition Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance at Nottingham Contemporary (until 27 January 2019), is timely in the wake of the #MeToo campaign and examines the role that women have played in resistance movements worldwide. A new large-scale wall drawing on show in Still I Rise by the Los Angeles-based artist Carolina Caycedo depicts more than 100 activist women ecologists who have lost their lives.

“While I don’t think artists need a licence to be vocal or activist, museums and biennials have been prompted to reconsider the roles they play and platforms they provide,” says Sam Thorne, the director of Nottingham Contemporary.

The work of Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, taps into the fraught sociopolitical climate. The group’s investigations into the Bedouin communities of the Naqab/Negev region of southern Israel are included in this year’s Turner Prize show at Tate Britain (until 6 January 2019), with videos and text exploring allegations of state and corporate violence.

But does this merit a place in a museum? “Their inclusion is symptomatic of the outer edges of art and indicative of how the art world accommodates transdisciplinary practices,” says Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain.

Artist or activist?

In these turbulent times, Tate curators could not have chosen a more apposite artist than Tania Bruguera for the Turbine Hall commission, which is at Tate Modern until 24 February 2019. In 2008, the Cuban artist’s Tatlin’s Whisper #5, a performance about police control with mounted police officers, took place in the space. Bruguera is unabashed about the politically engaged purpose of her practice.

“I don’t want art that points at the thing, I want art that is the thing,” she says. One of her new works at Tate’s Turbine Hall uses an organic compound to induce tears, provoking what Bruguera describes as “forced empathy”.

She founded the Arte Útil (useful art) movement a decade ago, promoting the idea that spectators should not just be passive observers, but directly address and become involved in pressing social and political activities. According to the Arte Útil manifesto, initiatives should “respond to current urgencies, [and] replace authors with initiators and spectators with users”.

But can activist artists make a difference and, more importantly, are museums and galleries taking notice? Alistair Hudson is a supporter of Bruguera. During his three years as the director of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art he led a new vision for the organisation as an accessible, community-based “useful museum” based on the Arte Útil manifesto.

In 2015, Hudson wrote in Museums Journal: “This is a proposal for art that goes beyond representation; for art that actually works in the world, doing specific tasks as part of civic society, as part of the world, on a one-to-one scale. This, as Bruguera states, is art as a verb, not as an object.”

Hudson was appointed director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery in Manchester late last year. Asked about his vision for the city and if he planned to implement an Arte Útil programme there, he says: “In short, yes; it is going to be an expansion of the concept.”

In 2014, Bruguera set up her Museum of Arte Útil at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland, asking visitors questions such as how could art change the way we act. “It was fundamental for laying the course of our subsequent activities,” says Charles Esche, the director of the Van Abbemuseum.

The Mexican artist Pedro Reyes is also involved in direct action. He is launching a campaign called “amendment to the amendment” in a bid to rewrite the second amendment of the US constitution that refers to the right to keep and bear weapons.
“We are launching an app and organising workshops where people will rewrite this amendment; their versions will be posted on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,” he says.

Another artist who has arguably turned art into an effective form of protest is Ai Weiwei, who often stages controversial interventions. In 2016, the Chinese artist posed as the drowned Syrian child refugee Alan Kurdi, recreating the tragic scene by lying face down on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos.

“The roles of the artist and the dissident are not in conflict,” Ai told the web journal The China Story. “When the situation calls for it, true artists can become dissidents at any time. As for artists who are bereft of a will to dissent, their creative work will not help to redefine their times. In short, there is no conflict between these two roles.”

Contentious content

In 2015, the Royal Academy of Arts in London (RA) hosted a retrospective of Ai’s work, which included the installation Straight (2008-12) comprising hundreds of twisted steel rods used to reinforce shoddily built schools destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (more than 20 schools collapsed, killing over 5,000 students). The artist and his team spent more than two years straightening the mangled bars.

“There were no ethical issues around showing the work,” says Tim Marlow, the RA’s artistic director who curated the show. “In fact, it would have been unethical not to exhibit it. The idea that it may have offended politicians or others in power is spurious.” The show would have gone ahead with or without sponsorship, he adds, though backers eventually came on board.

Clare Lilley, the director of programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), points out that prospective funders do sometimes quibble about contentious content. She organised a solo show of work by the contemporary Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar earlier this year, which included the installation The Garden of Good and Evil. It consisted of a grove of 101 conifer trees concealing nine prison cells, which referred to the black-site detention facilities operated by the CIA worldwide.

“Our audience reacted positively to the work and Jaar’s aims, but I can envisage that in institutions elsewhere in the world that are dependent on private philanthropy and corporate support, such a work might not be feasible,” Lilley says.

When Jaar proposed the piece, YSP had to consider its content in the context of its audience and stakeholders, Lilley adds. Crucially, she stresses that “when an institution agrees to present a work taking a political or social stance, the inference is that the institution upholds the artist’s point of view”.

The role of dissident artists creating edgy works in the global art market is an interesting one. How far can or should the art market absorb political actions?

Spanish artist Santiago Sierra is known for his provocative, polemical pieces. His work, Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain, was removed from the Arco contemporary art fair in Madrid earlier this year. A new exhibition of his works at Dundee Contemporary Arts, Black Flag, which is on display until 25 November – in collaboration with a/political, an organisation that partners with socio-political artists – touches on issues such as territorial control and border control.

Sierra told the New York-based Bomb magazine: “A banker who buys one of my pieces is like a newspaper that accepts letters to the editor. Self-criticism makes you feel morally superior, and I give high society and high culture the mechanisms to unload their morality and their guilt.”

Gareth Harris is a freelance writer.

There will be a session on dissenting artists at the Museums Association Conference in Belfast, 8-10 November, looking at practices that provoke and challenge accepted certainties and shift perceptions. The chair is Barbara Dawson, the director of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, and the speakers are Eoin Dara, Head of Exhibitions, Dundee Contemporary Arts and artists Amanda Dunmore and Seamus Nolan.

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