State Britain - Tate Britain
The day after seeing this work, I bumped into our local Labour MP David Lepper on the train and told him I had seen him mentioned in an art installation at the Tate. His name was on a list of MPs who had voted against the war on Iraq. The installation was Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, a messy line of banners, posters and paraphernalia of protest. Parliament passed a rather strange law banning protest within one kilometre of parliament. This was weirdly directed at Brian Haws who had been camping out there since 2001. Interestingly, the Tate Britain happens to transverse this one kilometre radius.
We’re guilty What did I make of it? As a thing-in-itself it is messy and brutal. The photographs of dead babies are sad and depressing. The sloganeering was standard stuff but I liked the BLIAR word and the Banksy graffiti! But in-itself it’s really a poke in the eye for the people, including myself, who go to see it. We’ll gladly travel to the Tate, but most of us walked on by, without paying much attention, when he was out there fighting for his right to protest. At this level it’s accusatory and we’re guilty.
All context no content? Wallinger is famous for his supposed exploration of boundaries and, on reading the one kilometre rule, there’s cleverness in the idea, but cleverness isn’t enough. It’s almost as if the objects themselves are irrelevant. The work is really an act, the act of moving it from one place to another, but it’s not particularly brave or exciting act. He has access to the art world, has an idea, and hey presto it’s in the Tate. Imagine for a moment the originator of the work, Haws, phoning the Tate with the same idea – they’d have hung up. At this next level it’s all context, no content.
Art and boundaries
OK let me come at this again. It’s possible to see the work as exploring the boundaries of art itself. Neo-Wittgensteinian aesthetics plays to the idea that art has fuzzy boundaries and that works are related by family resemblance and that art is an open enterprise that escapes capture and closure. Like Wittgenstein’s fly in the bottle analogy, referring to the boundaries of language and thought (the fly bounces off the walls but has no idea what lies beyond) it explores this conceptual boundary.
This reduces, ultimately, into an exploratory exercise in aesthetics unless one accepts that our perceptions of art have to be changed. This is the line taken by Carey in What Good is the arts? Anything can be art. If that is so there may be no boundary. The art establishment may be setting their own limited boundaries (the institutional theory of art). The problem with any institutional theory is that it doesn’t really answer the question What is art? It simply says IT is defined by experts. It’s a circular definition.
So do artists like Wallinger advance the arguments? If the point of art merely becomes escaping capture and closure, then this is also self-referential. It becomes an exercise in dialectically avoiding the obvious and places less and less emphasis on the art object and more on the process of evasion. This is just cleverness taken to a new level.
Another interpretation is to see it in the light of interrogative theories of aesthetics, where the purpose is to engage the viewer rationally and emotionally, even physically in the art object. Here we have a theory which fits Wallinger’s strategy. The above discussion was induced by the work and what I have gained are reflections and insights that have come from this catalyst. I think I have.
One last point. I can’t help feeling that art would be better served if it had been set up outside within the one kilometre limit as an official act of protest. Or if the Tate were more explicit about whether it is within the one kilometre limit. It’s a very timid act to put it into an establishment context like a national gallery.