The new exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery sees six important artists grapple with varied strategies and approaches to the representation of political history. The idea that the past is fundamentally inaccessible, and that our knowledge of it is filtered through the contemporary lens, is nothing new. This terrain is explored here, in different ways and with much success. A specific focus on the history of leftist political agitation, with the idea that representations of past revolutionary moments can do more than fulfil nostalgic impulses or convert what was once radical into spectacle, that they might reactivate that moment, is present in some of these works, and it is these that give the exhibition its vigour.
Andrea Bowers’ unassuming pencil drawings address the individual in their efforts to affect change. If Carrie Mae Weems and Sharon Hayes engage with seminal moments in history – the episodes that history memorialises as turning points, Bowers foregrounds the individual actions that, although not likely to enter grand historical narratives, collectively function to effect change. This is, after all, how these seminal moments occur; they are not isolated incidents but the peaks of much larger waves composed of lots of small yet significant decisions by many individuals to challenge the status quo. In this sense Bowers’ work challenges the myth of the historical narrative, which enshrines the actions of a minority of, often white male, individuals. To challenge a narrative of stasis punctuated by seismic events is implicitly to propose a more dynamic model of history, in which change is continually taking place. As well as memorialising the two subjects of her drawings, a woman and child who took part in a march in support of raising the minimum wage, Bowers designed the t-shirts they wore on the march, making her an active participant in the event as well as its recorder.
Sam Durant’s England (National Geographic) overlays a quote from The Communist Manifesto onto a map of England. The quote, ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’, is taken from a section of the manifesto in which Marx and Engels argue that the bourgeoisie create a constant condition of uncertainty by perpetually changing the instruments and thereby relations of production, instilling ‘everlasting uncertainty’. This observation has clear resonances with the current political climate, in which the politics of austerity and the shift from a solid, unionised work force toward zero-hours contracts and the Mc Job creates perpetual crisis, challenging efforts to mobilise for political change. Despite its relevance, the pale orange, stencilled lettering and map conform, do little to inspire revolutionary fervour:, this is not the strongest work in the show.
The way in which historical moments are captured and re-experienced in photographs is a shared interest for Mae Weems and Hayes. Hayes uses archival images, presenting only fragments of the original (the letters ‘O’, ‘M’ and ‘N’ from a photograph of a banner used in the 1970 Strike for Equality which read ‘WOMEN OF THE WORLD UNITE’) reflecting the partial, mediated access we have to historical moments. Meanwhile, Mae Weems stresses the theatrical nature of popular historical understanding, which she communicates by making the lighting rig around her beautifully photographed figures visible. Taken from her Constructing History series, which centres on 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Mourning appears to present King’s widow (although the text in the gallery doesn’t name the figures represented, oddly) with child in a pyramidal composition reminiscent of Renaissance era Madonna and Child images, perhaps a reference to the way historical narratives often cast their protagonists in archetypal roles, further blurring the boundary between fact and fiction.
Mary Kelly’s My James adopts another strategy: to bring together the archive with artifice with the goal of meditating on a past event rather than setting out to expose our distance from it. Kelly writes fictional postcards, imagining herself in each as the mother of one of three civil rights activists murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. This strategy is powerful because it accepts that the past is inaccessible but focuses on the emotions it stirs up, emotions which exist and can be harnessed to revive a historical event, to reactivate it.
Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant, Hans Haacke, Sharon Hayes, Mary Kelly, Carrie Mae Weems: A Voice Remains – Pippy Houldsworth Gallery – until 30 May 2015
Words: Laura Purseglove photo courtesy of Pippy Houldsworth Gallery © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved