ESSAY: Moiré (strange bedfellows) (2011)

Text to accompany Josh Whitaker’s exhibition Moiré (Stages/Taxed) at +44 141 Gallery, Glasgow

07/05/2011 – 28/05/2011

Art and politics make, to borrow a neat phrase from political commentary, strange bedfellows. There is certainly a version of politics – emphatically with a lowercase ‘p’ – at work in all art: the manipulation of material and concept; the management of visual presentation with audience perception; and, perhaps most importantly, the conflict of results against intention, of the limitations of production against the desire for an ideal. But overtly political art, that is, by my own indistinct definition, art actively attempting to deal with political issues rather than merely expose or display them, often suffers from a severe case of academic anaemia, becoming studious, dry, bureaucratic, and civil; becoming, in other words, too much like politics and not enough like art. Josh Whitaker draws from political source material but does not make overtly political art. The apparent subjects of his work operate on a different level to the means and material by which they are presented. Out of dead imagery and dead ideologies he has built an architecture alive with immediacy. Vibrant and curious, the works co-exist without co-dependence, they add colour to one another, and nudge and prompt like actors on a stage.

William Morris, the 19th Century socialist, poet, author, editor, painter, translator, textile designer, and sometime architect, is a key player on Whitaker’s conceptual stage. Useful Work vs. Useless Toil (banner for the exterior of an institution) takes the unbracketed part of its title, as well as its immediate message, from a speech Morris gave to a group of London workers; the phrase later becoming the header for one of his many agrarian left-leaning political essays. He was, by all accounts, an engaging and eloquent public speaker and was known to give impromptu lectures on street corners and toured working men’s clubs across the country, pamphlets and a soapbox as his only marketing tools. Whitaker freely quotes the makeshift aesthetics of civil disobedience and industrial action, of the strike and the sit-in. His constructions – the sawdust, the scaffold, the cheap carpet tiles, the banners, the found segments of peeling billboard – seem well suited to such fugitive agitprop ventures. One imagines them quickly disassembled and thrown into hiding should they garner unwanted attention from the law. As a gesture of protest – especially a distanced, adopted stance of protest – the works generate a feedback loop of sorts, questioning their own questions, their own right to question.

The feedback becomes most evident in the titles, particularly: Hotel D-D-D-Diagram versions (1…) to (1…2…3…4); and Stage, Re-Stage, Stage (Evo) and (Yukio). The brackets, prevalent in all the titles, show these works as indefinite articles, parts of an on-going series, where other versions, could, should, and do exist, with more, perhaps, still on the way. With Stage, Re-Stage… the feedback is an echo – an action absorbed into the surrounding landscape, but one losing quality each time it is repeated. Evo Morales and Yukio Hatoyama – respectively the President of Bolivia and the Prime Minister of Japan – are at the forefront of an unforeseen extension of meritocratic democracy. These World Leaders, fully absorbed into the celebrity media apparatus, have moved significant places in political polls thanks to their dress-sense, or lack-of. Neither statesman follows the current International Style – smart designer suits in black, blue, or charcoal. But, whereas Morales’ casual threads – his jumpers in particular – have won him support at home in Bolivia, Hatoyama became an object of great derision in Japan, due, in no small part, to his penchant for loud and somewhat effeminate shirts. Whitaker, channelling Morris the textile designer this time, has made faux-fabric wallpaper from these items of accidental political potency, turning fashion into décor, and individual style into mass-market availability; a melodrama of dress is swapped for an apathetic ambience, a message for a mood. Their clothing has come to symbolise their strengths and weaknesses as leaders. Evo is seen as a man of the people, not a distant aristocrat who bought his way into office. Yukio, on the other hand, is seen to be losing it, lacking the strength of character that Japan so needs. I’m reminded of a Max Ernst collage from 1920, a jaunty number that has morphed into prophecy over time, its title: The Hat Makes The Man.

In A Strange Place I Know So Well (portable document format), the flight of time’s arrow has, this time, caused the death of a prophecy. One sees that the symbols of past-political and military power have become details of design – a curved wooden shelter for picnicers looking to avoid the rain or the sun or who just like to sit and eat at a table. And even that – that quasi-poetic use of symbol as shelter – even that has been killed, becoming aestheticized so an image is all that remains. Computer files in Portable Document Format – PDFs – have been ‘flattened’ and ‘fixed’ so that their content cannot be easily altered. The format was designed for the easy exchange of documents over the internet. PDFs are
usually complete documents – finished, so in some ways already obsolete. Whitaker cloaks a stark, powerful image – the Soviet Hammer and Sickle – in nostalgia and humorous flippancy. The work offers the viewer a sweet idyll, a place away from one’s present concerns. But this, like much present in the show, could only ever be a backdrop, a prop, a temporary solution, and, at best, a faint fading dream.

In closing, I offer a partial cast for Whitaker’s stage, a scrambled script, and an almost-narrative:

SETH PRICE. Something new, and something else, and something something. Here come a lot different varieties of strategies and arrangements, all interesting, all interlocking, mutatis mutandis.

GUY DEBORD. First of all we think the world must be changed. We want the most liberating change of the society and life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that this change is possible through appropriate actions.

ED RUSHCA. The idea of Hollywood has lots of meanings, and one – to me – is this image of something fake up here being held up with sticks. That, to me, had more in meaning with the term ‘Hollywood’ than any other usual associations. I looked outside my window and saw the sign ‘Hollywood’ and it became the subject matter for me. It only lasted for a while so the actual remnants of the sign are not not even important to me. I don’t even think it should stay; it doesn’t even mean ‘landmark’ to me. It might as well fall down. That’s more Hollywood – to have it fall down or be removed. But in the end it’s Hollywood to put it back up, see?

DON DELILLO. He saw billboards of Hertz and Avis and Chevy Blazer, for Marlboro, Continental and Goodyear, and he realized that all the things around him, the planes taking off and landing, the streaking cars, the tires on the cars, the cigarettes that the drivers we dousing in their ashtrays – all these were on the billboards around him, systematically linked in some selfrefering relationship that a kind of neurotic tightness, an inescapability, as if the billboards were generating reality.

ALISON LANDSBERG. Memory is not commonly imagined as a site of possibility for progressive politics. More often, memory, particularly in the form of nostalgia, is condemned for it solipsistic nature, for its tendency to draw people into the past instead of the present. Private memory is an obstacle to collective politics.

MARGARET ATWOOD. We wish to be as the careless gods, lying around on Olympus, eternally beautiful, having sex and being entertained by the anguish of others. And at the same time we want to be those anguished others, because we believe that life has meaning beyond the play of the senses, and that immediate gratification will never be enough. Thanks to our uniquely structured languages, human beings can imagine such enhanced states for themselves, though they can also question their own grandiose constructions.

ASGER JORN. All the elements of the cultural past must be ‘reinvested’ or disappear.

PHILIP DRAKE. What we call the past is accessible only through private and publicly articulated memories, narrated through the perspective of the present. David Lowenthal has termed this memorial knowledge, knowledge of the past based upon selective and strategic remembering in the present, and suggests that this is made up of a mixture of personal memory and public memories that over time become fused and indistinguishable.

GERTRUDE STEIN. The trouble with looking was that in regard to human beings looking inevitably carried in its train realizing movements and expression and as such forced me into recognizing resemblances, and so forced remembering and in forcing remembering caused confusion of present with past and future time!

ROLAND BARTHES. All of a sudden it didn’t bother me not being modern.

MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ. The world has need of many things, bar more information.

PIERO MANZONI. There is no question of forming, articulating; one cannot have recourse to complicated, parascientific solutions, to graphic compositions, to ethnographic fantasies, etc. Each discipline possesses in itself elements of solution. Expression, imagination, abstraction, are they not in themselves empty inventions? There is nothing to explain: just be, and live.

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Download the orginal poster

NOTE: A passage from this text was republished by South London Gallery as part of their events series ‘The Conch: A Froum For Critical Discussion’