Pippy Houldsworth Gallery presents an exhibition of work by Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant, Hans Haacke, Sharon Hayes, Mary Kelly and Carrie Mae Weems. ‘A Voice Remains’ will look at how artists have, in recent years, begun to address the renewed significance of history, perhaps driven by the need to preserve personal and cultural stories in the age of globalisation, to honour those that may have otherwise been left forgotten, or to simply learn from the past. Often politically charged, many of these works encompass formative events from history that have shaped the artists’ lives, as well as exploring the day to day reality of the world in which they now live. Whilst the memories and cultures they evoke may differ, each of the artists within A Voice Remains engages with history in order to better understand how the past informs the present, often revealing unexpected resonances across disparate periods of time.
The exhibition will coincide with Mary Kelly’s ongoing collaboration with Tate as part of the curated conversation programme On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Period of Time. This will culminate with an In Conversation event between Mary Kelly and Hans Ulrich Obrist at Tate Modern on 22 May 2015 in which they will explore what defines an era. The show will also take place at the same time as Hans Haacke’s recently unveiled commission Gift Horse (2015) for the prestigious Fourth Plinth programme in London’s Trafalgar Square. Gift Horse portrays a skeletal, riderless horse – a wry comment on the equestrian statue of William IV originally planned for the plinth. Tied to the horse’s front leg is an electronic ribbon displaying live the ticker of the London Stock Exchange, completing the link between power, money and history. Addressing the crossover between art and activism, Andrea Bowers’ work in the show contextualises an ongoing, political struggle currently shaping contemporary American history.
The diptych (2015) depicts two protesters from the Fight for $15 campaign, in which thousands of low-wage workers across the US have been taking a stand against low pay by demanding that the federal minimum wage is raised from $7.25 to $15 an hour. In both drawings, Bowers highlights that fast-food workers have been at the fore of this present struggle; the woman on the left is a worker at McDonald’s, whilst the boy on the right is the child of a fellow employee. Significantly, Bowers designed the political graphics on the t-shirts that both figures wore whilst marching. By isolating each person on the page, the artist highlights the implications of individual actions in collectively inciting social change. Rendered in photo-realistic detail, Bowers’ technique also serves to reiterate that both people, as well as the causes they are fighting for, are very much real. Sam Durant’s work in the exhibition England (National Geographic) (2010) addresses the historical geopolitics of the United Kingdom. Stenciled in spray paint, Karl Marx’s quote ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’ from The Communist Manifesto (1848) is branded onto a map of the British Isles in an ‘oblique indictment’ of Britain’s national identity and colonial past. Here, Durant suggests that the country’s history is all but forgotten.
Hans Haacke’s work Mission Accomplished (2005) stages an overt critique of George W. Bush and his historical legacy. The title of the work refers to a televised address in May 2003 in which Bush declared the end of major combat operations in the Iraq war. Reading the victory speech in front of a large banner that read ‘Mission Accomplished,’ it transpired that Bush pre-empted the end of the war by almost eight years. The image subsequently came to encapsulate the unrealistic goals of Bush’s administration. Drawing upon this event, Haacke’s work features a torn-in-half print of the stars which adorn the American flag; one segment is left downtrodden on the floor, and the other remains framed and intact on the wall. Symbolically, the disfigured flag suggests the impact Bush had on fragmenting the country in the name of militaristic patriotism.
Examining the crossover between politics, history and the language of twentieth-century protest groups, Sharon Hayes presents three works; O, M, N (2015). Each letter is a segment from a banner carried in the Women’s Strike for Equality on 26 August, 1970 that read ‘WOMEN OF THE WORLD UNITE!’. Whilst the work mimics the scale of the original banner, thus confronting the viewer at human height, the isolation of the letters alters the legibility of the original word: WOMEN. In so doing, Hayes serves to problematise the signification of the letters by manipulating the historical documentation of the event. My James (2008) is one of three works from Mary Kelly’s Vox Manet series in which the artist addresses the murder of three civil rights activists – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – that took place during a voter registration drive near Meridian, Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan on 21 June 1964. The works take the form of moving, fictional postcards which Kelly imagined were sent to the activists from their mothers forty years later on the occasion of their killer finally being brought to justice. Significantly, Kelly vectorized her own handwriting for the work to create awareness that the story is being filtered, and revived, through her own voice. Gathered over time from many hundreds of loads of washing, Kelly’s use of compressed lint to cast the individual panels of text also adds to the ephemeral nature of the piece.
Carrie Mae Weems’ Constructing History series (2008) reconstructs seminal moments from the past forty years which played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. As Mourning demonstrates, the scenes are based on well-known photographs or television footage documenting these particular events, including the assassinations of activists Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. Curator Kathryn Delmez from Frist Centre for the Visual Arts highlights that ‘the constructed nature of history – and our perception of it through the media – is underscored through the purposeful inclusion of the lighting tracks, pedestals, and cameras used on set.’ By revisiting these moments, Weems emphasises their enduring historical significance, both in terms of her own life and that of society at large. Weems believes that ‘through the act of performance, with our own bodies, we are allowed to experience and connect the historical past to the present—to the now, to the moment.’ Indeed, on viewing Mourning, one becomes aware that something is being witnessed.
Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant, Hans Haacke, Sharon Hayes, Mary Kelly, Carrie Mae Weems: A Voice remains – Pippy Houldsworth Gallery – 24 April 2015 to 30 May 2015