Issue 42, May 2010. See the entire magazine online here.Serpentine Gallery
3 March – 25 AprilBy J.J. Charlesworth
Art’s involvement in political realities, and an artist’s relationship to political commitment, are almost always complicated matters. An engagement with politics that seems for the moment urgent and alive suddenly fades as the political situation around it changes, and those critical moments when commitment seems most pressing can leave an artwork looking distant and stranded once the crisis passes. In this particular moment, the political world has never seemed so confused and in crisis, so it makes the Serpentine’s focused presentation of Richard Hamilton’s ‘political’ works all the more interesting.
Hamilton, the now much-revered elder statesman of British postwar art, godfather of Pop art and the key British interlocutor of the legacy of Duchamp, has always had a view of industrial society expansive enough to allow the political world into the terms of ‘pop’ culture. Modern Moral Matters
(an extension of Hamilton’s 2008 Inverleith House show, Protest Pictures) traces an arc from Hamilton’s strangely comic Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland
(1964), via the iconic Mick Jagger drugs-bust image, Swingeing London
(1968–72), through the works focusing on the civil and military conflict in Northern Ireland and Thatcher’s Britain, ending up with works that deal with the Middle East – from the first Gulf War (War Games
, 1991–2010) to the Blair-Bush Iraq War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What’s at stake, then, is the question of whether an artwork depends on its political moment for its meaning and power, or conversely, whether it can communicate its historical moment into the future, from the past. Retrospection is a strange process: I don’t have any personal sense of who Hugh Gaitskell was, apart from what I remember from my political history books: leader of the Labour party during the 1950s and early 60s, notorious for committing Labour to maintaining Britain’s nuclear arsenal. But it’s Hamilton’s quirky rendering of Gaitskell, monster-coloured, mask-faced and bug-eyed, which drills a tunnel through the intervening years, so that we might actually care about who this strange face was, and what he once did.
Similarly, though counterculture mythos endures about the 1967 drugs raid in which Jagger and Pop art dealer Robert Fraser were arrested, it’s Hamilton’s coolly inquisitive working up of the press image, of their faces hidden by handcuffed hands, that keeps us looking. Hamilton’s interest in serials and multiples means that while there is a well-known key version of Swingeing London
, the handcuff picked out in chrome, there are many other versions – screenprints, collages, etchings – that repeat and modify the source, as if the sense of the event could not be digested in the first instance. Moreover, it’s Hamilton’s technologist interest in different formal techniques and media that reclaims the event for posterity, not because we ‘get’ the significance of Jagger and Fraser’s arrest (end of the libertarian 1960s, beginning of the conservative backlash), but simply because it memorialises it, makes it strange and refuses to let it fade.
But while memorialisation suggests moral or political outrage in its inception, it can only communicate partial trace of that outrage into the future. That’s why Treatment Room
(1983–4), Hamilton’s response to the Britain of the Thatcher years, remains a chilling summary of the depth of disillusion in the early years of Thatcher’s aggressive regime, and is Hamilton’s most enduring political work. It’s not that the piece doesn’t take political sides – it was hard not to – but that in presenting the matriarchal/dominatrix countenance of ‘Thatch’ on a monitor above the bed of an operating theatre, the sound turned off as she mouths preelection promises and stern assurances, it manages to crystallise the sense of this neoliberal warrior’s implacable hostility towards us, the people, but also the desire for a ‘return to order’ that drew many to her. It’s not outrage or polemical opposition that drives the work, but an icy, uncanny materialisation of the reality of the time, regardless of our opinion of it: Britain was broken, and she was going to ‘cure’ us – whether we wanted to be the patient, or not.
In this sense, Hamilton’s vision anticipates the full spectacularisation of politics that now dominates. We have become spectators to politics, seeing, watching, aware of ourselves witnessing the course of events, but incapable of affecting it. Yet the paradox is that Hamilton’s detached, sardonic eye saw better those times in which people were more involved in political life, when the tension between partisanship and a laconic fascination with the mediated spectacle of public life could be played out more acutely in his art. But as we near the present day, Hamilton’s more recent forays – in his photo-cartoon of Tony Blair as gunslinger in Shock and Awe
(2007–8), or in Maps of Palestine
(2009–10), seem only to offer us polemical platitudes of a very orthodox kind – ‘Blair is bad!’, ‘look what the Israelis are doing!’ By seeming so much more angry or urgent, these work miss the strangest development of political life today – that such gestures of political protest and engagement have themselves become part of the spectacle of an otherwise entirely passive political culture.See this article with full illustrations, plus the entire May issue of
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