Saturday, 5 November 2016

The art of protestation.

On a rainy Friday afternoon I trudged down City Road to the Victoria Miro gallery. I'd been to some interesting solo shows here but I can't remember attending a group exhibition.

Protest, which finishes today, is an exhibition of historical and contemporary works by artists concerned with the socio-political issues of their day. They aim to question the status quo and power structures found within societies and explore the potency of the language of protestation. Victoria Miro have put it together with the help of Reprieve - an organisation dedicated to helping the world's most vulnerable people by fighting extreme abuses of human rights.

Spread over two floors there's no particular route you need to take around the show. You're free (appropriately enough) to just wander about taking in whatever attracts your attention. In the downstairs room that'll definitely be Elmgreen & Dragset's Prison Breaking/Powerless Structures Fig.33 which fills the bulk of the room. The Danish/Norwegian duo who once placed a rocking horse on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth have gone for a mocked up, smashed up prison cell suggesting, hinting at both freedom and disaster at the same time.

Much like Yayoi Kusama's Prisoner's Door (1994) it's probably more impressive to look at it than it manages to address any particular deep theme of protest or human rights. Kusama is a very strong visual artist and I've enjoyed her mirrored rooms greatly in the past. Politically I'm yet to be totally convinced she's offering much. Doug Aitken's Free, made of high density foam, wood, and mirror, seems a bit too obvious on first viewing. The word FREE written on shattered mirrors as if to say 'but are we really?'. Where it works is when you walk around and the light plays on the mirrors' shifting perspective. I doubt it's as deep as it thinks it is but it's diverting enough.

Before you go upstairs there's a warning about the adult nature of some of the works. This clearly doesn't refer to Sarah Sze's series of heavily edited, completely blacked out in most part, newspapers. The message about censorship is clear enough. Blunt even.

Pennsylvanian Alice Neel's Nazis Murder Jews is the most powerful thing in the whole exhibition. Having been made in 1936 it would have been a brave work at the time and it still stands up now. Again, the message could be considered blunt, but the thirties, looking back at them, don't seem to be a time for sending mixed signals or being cryptic.

Not that that's always a bad thing. Vlassic Caniaris' 1959 Homage to the Walls of Athens 1941-19... has seen the artists paint the letter E on to a combination of burlap and wood. The E stands for Eleftheria (freedom), Ellas (Greece), and EAM (the National Liberation Front) who were the main movement of the Greek Resistance during the Axis occupation of World War II. As the work was made after the war Vlassis has been able to reflect rather than react. The juxtaposition of this with the nearby Neel canvas probably does the most to fulfil this exhibition's remit.

I'm not quite sure exactly how Richard Prince's vaguely pornographic untitled ink jet works fit in. Clearly the juxtaposition of heated demonstrations with erotica have a striking visual effect and the sheet of A4 paper you can pick up on entering the gallery claims "meaning itself is something to be stymied and subverted as a Dada-esque act of protest". Fair enough but it still felt a little weak after Neel and Caniaris.

Nobody could argue Wolfgang Tillmans' NICE HERE; but ever been to KYRGYSTAN? Free Gender-Expression WORLDWIDE from 2006 doesn't belong in an exhibition about protest. Tillmans sought to highlight disparity of freedoms enjoyed, or endured, in various countries. He's certainly succeeded in this but this print would probably work better if it was contrasted with some of Tillmans other work.

Another artist who's not brought her very best work to show is Kara Walker. Her series of pencil and collages, Tell Me Your Thoughts On Police Brutality Miss "Spank Me Harder", although impressively drawn and sketching a line between the American Civil War and Black Lives Matter, lacks the power of some of the other stuff of hers I've seen in the past.

A rare blast of colour is provided by the French-American Jules de Balincourt's Study for Idol Hands in which a throng of people hold aloft banners. Do they contain images of idols or are they the faces of disappeared people that you see in contemporary protest movements of Latin America?

There's an Isaac Julien film, WESTERN UNION:Small Boats (The Leopard), from 2007. You can watch it in a closed off area at the back. It's, in places, a little drawn out. But it is, at times, incredibly powerful. Using African music and scenes of boats crossing the Mediterranean to reflect on the current plight of migrants, refugees, or, the term I prefer, people. It's definitely worth sticking with it as the pay off is as affecting as it should be.

They've really squeezed the works in as there's a few in the office/bookshop area. It can feel a little awkward trying to take these in as staff are going about their work but as a conscientious blogger I needed to look in.

Wolfgang Tillmans' EU campaign posters make the case for a Remain vote in the recent referendum as strongly as many other things. As we all now know though lies and fear sadly won out. Perhaps that's why they're here? To reflect on how, sometimes, protest remains utterly impotent. Or even to show how some protests can be whipped up, say by UKIP and the right wing of the Tory party, to serve their own ends whilst kidding the protestors they're doing something to help themselves or even, for instance, the NHS.

I'd seen Wangechi Mutu's Panties in a Bunch at the Camden Arts Centre earlier this year so, on the surface, you'd find it hard to imagine her work has much in common with Tillmans' posters but this show is nothing if not a mixed bag. The Kenyan born artists' performance stills here pertain to the act of throwing things as protest. The works are a little too poorly lit to really get this but with the aid of my camera phone one of them did result in a rather pleasing tableau vivant affect.

As you leave the gallery Chris Ofili's Union Black, 2003, hangs outside the entrance. It's inspired by David Hammons' African-American Flag which based on the colours (red/black/green) Marcus Garvey had suggested for a pan-African flag. Those colours represent blood, skin, and natural resources.

The fact it hung rather limply should not be taken as a metaphor for a more hit than miss, free, exhibition which, if failing to provide a comprehensive overview of protest in art (which would be nigh on impossible anyway), certainly shone some light on a group of artists working away from the narcissistic confines of much contemporary work. For this alone they should be applauded.

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