Stubborn Certainties

Experimental Art Foundation publication- Adelaide - 1997


I'm starting to write this a couple of days after watching Kim Beazley, the leader of the Labor opposition in Australia nearly breaking down in tears whilst giving a speech during a debate in the houses of parliament about what's been called the 'stolen children' report. His emotion, and his involvement, is effecting me. Despite holding a steadying cigarette I too am moved and a bit teary. Much as I dislike using the term - as it's one loaded with certain attitudes, histories and class dynamics - there is at core, perhaps a certain attempted decency. It may be all a con, a grandstand, but somewhere, there is I feel, a human response. One of confusion, rather than the awful empty stubborn certainty of the prime minister, who has been, to use a word also with its own historical/political spin: recalcitrant. But then, what do I know?


In the days since then - and I caught up with it late, so it was already several generations old - this image, and sound bite has been repeated endlessly, and grainy shots have appeared and re-appeared in the Australian press as a visual anchor to the story. But in fact there is not only one story there but a whole number of stories , both immediate (reconciliation, Wik, the stolen generation, apology) and in deeper time: and like facing mirrors they echo away into a foggy infinity. But unlike the mirror analogy these repetitions constantly shift and mutate into different forms and different stories.


Thinking about the t.v image of Kim Beazley, and the stories that intersect it has changed the way that I'm writing this. The outcomes are to be necessarily more partial, less prescriptive, more fumbling, than would have otherwise seemed fitting.


The project Lawyers Guns and Money has had a long genesis for both structural and organisational reasons. It was conceived almost in a different place and a different time, and came out of a concatenation of Visual Arts and Craft Board deadlines, the Australian cultural and political and historical situation, my background as a British ex-pat, and a slightly embarrassing fondness for some of the songs of Warren Zevon. Also in the mix were longstanding questions and debates with numerous different people about the ideas of the 'transgressive', the claiming and romanticisation of the criminal in a certain school and reading of art, artists and culture, and the image: much reproduced, used by Bataille in one of his essays, of a drugged prisoner having chunks of flesh pulled from his body with pincers. Behind all this lies questions and ideas of models for the scope of a practice, how a practices may work, what they might be about.


At the time of the conception of the project, 1995, the U.K was - as we didn't know then - coming to the end of eighteen years of right-wing hegemony. A period that has seen an increasing centralisation of powers, mass unemployment, dogmatic reactionary moralism reflected in invasive legislation such as the infamous clause 28 which made it illegal to 'promote' homosexuality. Racism seemed to be endemic and institutionally established and expressed market and economic 'rationalism' was the only engine to direct policy, and , in the words of Margaret Thatcher 'Society' did not exist. Therefore social programs and public spending in general was anathema. Such approaches of course were not unique to the U.K. - they had reached some sort of baroque apogee in the Reagan Bush years of the United States. However it was Britain that I had left.


In contrast Australia, although with a right-wing Labor government that was engaged in many similar economic approaches with very similar rhetorics, still seemed to have an idea of the social. Of malleability and change for the better. For the future. Despite all the idiocies, fudges and weaseling: particularly as regards immigration and some foreign policy human rights issues (boat people and East Timor come immediately to mind) some developmental vision seemed to be at play. Often this vision was against the grain of many individual Australian voices: from the embracing of the ideas of multiculturalism to the intentions and issues behind the taking up of the Mabo decision and the recantation of the idea of terra nullius. This difference of alignment to much public opinion, at least as expressed in the letters pages of The Adelaide Advertiser or The Australian - may have made the vision utopian, but it did position it as an agenda for change. Of a future tense. This in many ways may be romantic, reflecting as it does a choice to act on the positive side of Hamlet's binary: 'To take up arms against a sea of troubles', but that particular romanticism looked very attractive in contrast to the one-dimensional dynamics of British public and social policy based on the combination of selfishness and the re-enforcement of a status quo.


In short, and for many reasons, Australia seemed to be a more vital place, and a better place to live, with a greater space for engagement and for change, socially, politically, intellectually. However what seemed strange was a (my) perceived growing disparity between the positioning and articulations of some of the art-practices of Australia and what seemed to be developing in the U.K. (for instance) as regards what work might be about. About how it engaged and reflected the dialogues and positions of an individual, quotidian, life, and through that, the structures and systems that surround and enclose it


At the nub of it was a perception in difference of language, of arena, of intention in many contemporary practices and artworks in Australia and of those elsewhere. This difference was as expressed in the artist and the works that were accepted as mainstream (cutting edge) practice, which for the terms of this generalisation can be considered as those defined by the chosen hip media of a country and an art scene. For instance Art +Text from Australia and Freize magazine from the U.K. These two are more or less randomly chosen through circumstance (ie how I perceive that they place themselves) even though I doubt that either of them would argue too extravagantly that they didn't consider themselves to be in this position.


In Freize artists like Mark Wallinger and Tracey Emin were being foregrounded Emin's work is largely drawn from her adolescent diaries. A lot of it addresses sex.: adolescent sex, abortions, boyfriends etc. Wallinger likes football: he makes work about football, he likes horse racing: he makes work about racing. In contrast, I hadn't the faintest idea what the interests of many of the artists featured in Art +Text were, or their histories. Attempting to differentiate the difference as this should not be taken as a wish to return to a blind romanticising subjectivity for the position of the artist: what was interesting about the work of Emin and Wallinger (for example for example) was that it was not merely the expression of themselves on the smug understanding that it would be of interest BECAUSE THEY WERE ARTISTS, - even though of course there's always some of that - rather they managed to use this material to illuminate issues of politics, sexuality and class. Somehow the work and the ideas seemed to combine the idea of the 'mince' (the small the unconsidered, the minor as articulated in Duchamp) with a sort if contemporary History Painting/Art making where the fabrics and structures around the work were occasioned to shimmer, even if momentarily, into visibility. Just so that this comparison does not collapse to a division along geographical lines, the same sort of approaches can be seen in the work of Stefan Gec (U.K./Ukrain), Gregory Green (USA), Ria Paquet, (Belgium) Jan Nelson (USA) Jimmy Durham(USA) Sophie Calle, even artists like Bruce Nauman or Charles Ray, Chris Burden etcetera etcetera


The intentions of much Australian practice seemed to be both more ambitious and more confined. Where many of the resonances were articulated and determined within the discourses of Art history and art theory. Spoken for as much as speaking. where a relationship for instance to minimalism, or to a specific theoretical stance, is of central concern, and it is through these references that other relations to history or certain social contexts are to be implied and bought to visibility. This is not to suggest that this is not an approach that is moribund or without effect, nor that there are not other approaches and articulations visible within Australian practice, rather that there has seemed to be a weighting towards these types of approaches within contemporary practice This has occasionally lead towards a certain academic aura, as the terms of reference are learnt ones as much as generated ones within other matrixes: to an extent where even open-ended and 'messy', manifestations can seem curiously constrained and self aware. Perhaps this is an effect of a smaller market, where the authoritative contexts of criticism and history, and the placing of the work or a body of work within these act as a parallel to the mechanisms of a commercial context. Even at the time it was clear that this hypothesised difference was a crashing generalisation, but crashing generalisations are good starting points .


Such considerations bought up a whole slew of issues in conversation in the pub. A) is the Thatcherite/right wing economic and ideological environment necessary for the production of work with an implied social resonance -no matter how mute or non didactic that resonance may be.? In turn B) how can a work occupy a political sphere C) Does A) help explain the seeming absence of this dynamic within much contemporary Australian practice, or D) is this lack a mirage and furphy? Lawyers Guns & Money is not intended to answer any of these questions, but perhaps to flag them and to foreground various and different ways that some contemporary Australian artists are making work referring to or using the discourses and structures of the world through which we move and which contain and express us, and against which we struggle. At the same time, the intention was not to look at work that was a simulacrum of work elsewhere, nor work that was necessarily didactic or issue based: not solely an political expression, but which rather has it's own lumpy autonomy: Of the world as much as about the world. Right at the centre is the question of (outside of the directly political agenda,) how might work relate to and illuminate these networks expressed through the agencies of lawyers guns and money. To borrow a phrase from a French curator work that is not only political in its intention as much as anthropological.


At the same time it is necessary to be cognisant of the changes in environment and dialogue. Australian practice has a long history of a socially engaged practice and, outside this direct application there is a particular awareness of ideas of law etc within the culture(s). To quote from the initial rationale for the project ' Australia has a necessarily complex and active relationship with the idea of the 'law'. Rather than being seen as a hegemonic structure looming out of an immemorial past that is a 'given', an expression of 'reason' with inherent absolutes attached to such; it is a ruptured transparent, fragile, and polymorphous construction in its relation to the individual and the individual's relations to it. Expressions of this complexity can be seen in the mythologisation of the Bush Ranger or Mad Max, and the 'unique importance accorded representations of penality within the structure of the national past' (Tony Bennet: "The Shape of the Past" Nation Culture Text Routledge 1993) '


'The fluxing transparency of the idea of 'law' is occasioned by Australia's history as a colonial project. There is the constant awareness of the binary position of law as both generator of settlement (transportation) and definer of citizenship (state). In addition there is awareness of other parallel bodies of 'law' as expressed in traditional laws and readings of land, and the struggle for remedy or recognition of rights under Australian and/or International law.'

We need only to remember images of the dispossessed in Drysdale, or the Ned Kelly pictures of Sydney Nolan to recognise the centrality of representations of power in some of early Australian modernism. In the sixties and seventies there was an explosion of socially based practice closely aligned to the search for new models for the siting and production of art. It might not be unreasonable to state that artists here made some of the most rewarding relationships with the trade unions anywhere. Art+Language, the Tin Sheds, the Women's Art Movement, the early Experimental Art Foundation, Anne Newmarch and many other individuals and organisations generated new engaged practices revealing and critiqueing social structures and defining political arenas for and individual's or group's activities. These engagements covered the direct dialectics of Political power, as well as gender relations, Land-rights, nuclear power and testing and the environment in an optimistic exploration of the potentialities of art.


However this (what may be a) unique sensitivity and achievement does not help remedy the complexities of attempting a critical or even oppositional practice given the flattening effects of globalisation and the collapse of the binary constructions of post-war ideologies (although the events of recent history have only served to further exacerbate the crisises within the modernist post/modern project.) After the direct engagements cited above we are now all familiar with the weird situation where bodies of work of remarkably closed or limited effect are described and theorised in the most far-reaching terms as undermining the very foundations of capital -or exchange or commodity patriarchy, whatever. These far reaching and ambitious rhetorical flights have the effects of ultimately serving to substantiate the lack of effect by implying that the mechanisms of repression are so great, so subtle, so far-reaching that they remain impervious even to the radical intervention offered by the object/strategy in question. Many of the post/modernist strategies have the effect of plotting the distance between the opinion expressed in Saint Simon's book 'Opinions Litteraires', a socialist tract, written in 1825, that: "It is we artists who will serve you as an avant garde. The power of the arts is the most immediate and most rapid: when we wish to spread new ideas among men we inscribe them on Marble or canvas", and the situation today, where over a century of inscription and innovation within the arts, has seemingly only changed discourses in the arts: discourses of import to fewer and fewer people.


The growing disenfranchisement of the artist over the last couple of hundred years (Shelley's statement that poets are the 'unacknowledged legislators of the world ' reversed and annulled in Adorno's claim that there is 'no more poetry after Auschwitz') has coincided with a growing fascination with the ideas of the transgressive and the criminal : within the culture generally and by writers and artists. Rimbaud writes in 'Une Saison en Enfer' about his attraction to the role of the criminal "even as a child I used to admire the incorrigible convict on whom the jail is always closing in on again...He had for me more strength than a saint, more good sense than a traveller -and himself, himself alone! for witness of his glory and his reason". This identification was strong enough for him and Verlaine to get themselves arrested for discussing imaginary robberies and murders in the railway station at Arras. Rimbaud saw through the ultimate logic of his position of this distance and determination by an executive power. He wrote "I am of the race who sang in torture; I do not understand the laws; I haven't the moral sense; I am a brute." and later "Do I know Nature? do I know myself? - No more words. I bury the dead in by belly." Having written then printed 'Une Saison en Enfer', he returned to his mothers house and burnt all the copies of which he had just received from his publisher, as well as all the other manuscripts he had. Later, when asked what he was working on he replied "I don't do anything with that anymore" and that his work was 'absurd' and disgusting'. The abandonment of the work reflecting the hopelessness of the task


In this position, if not in the resolution ,we can identify rhetorics and attitudes that still have considerable currency, through the surrealists, the poete maudite, through Gide, through Genet to say the pages of a Re-Search magazine or the interest and cults surrounding Wayne Gacey or Charles Manson, and which hover behind every smack-chic blackleather clad art event. Certainly we can hear Rimbaud's 'brute' clear in Bataille " Man has escaped from his head just as the condemned man has escaped from prison...He reunites in the same eruption Birth and Death. He is not a man. He is not a god either. He is not me but he is more than me: his stomach is the labyrinth in which he has lost himself, loses me with him, and in which I discover myself in him, in other words as a monster" (The Sacred Conspiracy)


Concurrent with the development of the fascination with the dark other of transformative criminality have been the developments of complex structurings of the criminality of the state, both in the 'historical' and the 'theoretical'. The theoretical denies the legitimacy of social and political exchanges (or rather has increasingly denied it, as earlier, more directly Marxist analyses posited the possibility of an ideal relation between the individual and the state) and positioned them as the operations of controlling and self-perpetuating power/class/economic/gender interests. This in many ways legitimises the activity of the transgressive and criminal subject. The historical expressions of the 'criminal' state have posed greater problems for the agendas of transformative trangression. The dark cleansing beauties of the brute and beast having been given terrible expression under Facism and Nazi Germany. The weird co-incidence between Rightwing totalitarianism and the 'avant garde', from the Futurists, Wyndham-Lewis, to Pound and Celine being one of the frightening ironies of the century. Even Bataille became muted after the war, realising the 'ambiguous political implications of his interwar fantasies' (Martin Jay :Downcast Eyes). After all, as Breton dismissively pointed out, for all his embracing of the redemptive power of cruelty and violence, he remained a librarian at the Bibliotheque Nationale.


'Sex Pistols meant to me the idea of a pistol, a pinup, a young thing. A better-looking assassin'

Malcolm McLaren 1988


The years after world war two saw the outlaw shifted to and occupying a new cultural arena, as indeed did the unacknowledged administrator: a shift that also reflects the displacement of the 'fine arts' from cultural centrality: into rock and roll. From the first stirrings on the 'wrong side of the tracks' through Elvis on: the criminal/outlaw is of pivotal attraction and power in rock music, as can be clearly seen in the early representations of these new icons in the visual arts. Andy Warhol's Elvis stands, legs apart, gun-belt slung sexily from his hips, and pistol pointing right at us, the viewer. Mick Jagger's hand is raised in front of his head in Richard Hamilton's image, the handcuffs highlighted in the work as he is whisked off to jail after a drug bust: a brave sacrifice of youth on the alter of repressive age and hypocrisy (the butterfly broken on the wheel, to quote from the Times' editorial on the same incident) . These images through mimesis, through representation, can be seen as the artists wanting to claim some of this shift and tide. To align and identify with this new power. The aims hopes and expectations of rock culture, and the trajectories they have travelled, echo many of the hopes and failures of modernism in the other arts, at an accelerated rate and with less memory. Certainly much of the iconography of music occupies a mainstream centrality, and attraction in the minds of many artists born since say 1950. In 1968 it was perhaps easier to hope for a societal transcendence through the forces both represented by and contained within rock music and popular culture, than it is now, where the last moment and movement that seemed to offer such transformation lies over twenty years ago. However the fact that it don't work doesn't mean that it's not attractive


An expression of the bizarre attractions and situations of the contemporary placing of the outlaw/criminal is given nice and ironic expression in a recent work by Gavin Turk where he exhibits a waxwork (or himself?) of Sid Vicious. Mrs Beverley's' son, junkie, incompetent bass player, girlfriend killer, self-mutilator possible psychopath and possible suicide is given his full glory as iconic rock'n'roll outlaw. Some-one who you want to be. Some-one who an artist wants to be. Of course, with Sid, its a commodified and qualified outlawness, one that both supports and was supported by a panoply of accountants, lawyers and multinational product placement activity. where the outcome of the outlawed activity, his predeath voyaging to the nether world, and ultimately his death, is the shifting of more units. And Sid himself becomes just another unit shifted. So we are no longer outlaws but consumers of outlaw chic. And in this exchange its not only Sid, but ideas of cultural opposition, revolution, youth, change, punk, the Pistols, Nancy Spungeon, murder and Sid's precious black leather jacket that are also entirely consumed. And he's no longer just a beast, he's an idiot too.


This point was one of the starting points for Lawyers Guns and Money. An understanding that under the conflicts and complexities of late capitalism, and the manifest failure of many oppositional tendencies - be-they entirely within visual arts culture or in the larger arena's of politics, of communism and Marxism - that it was nearly impossible for artists who wished to make works that had a language or arena or a consideration outside the immediate dialogues of 'art'. At least within the terms and mechanisms previously considered effective. These problematics may still have currency. As stated earlier, one of the reasons for doing this was to see how some artists were attempting to find ways of approaching this situation, what they were talking about, and what languages and approaches they were using . Behind these works and these attempts, I think, lies a more general feeling of the end of the end-game: That to merely accept, no matter how intelligently and rationally and with no matter how may accompanying texts, the collapse of effect, of the attempt to change and to oppose or illuminate is essentially pointless and moribund: resulting in an active collaboration in ones own disempowerment. After all, the 'end of history' could go on for an awful long time.


In addition, on a micro level, within the time that the project's been in development, circumstances in Australia have changed. Perhaps there is more in front of us, immediately, to get angry about, rather than the sad distance that slower and softer states of disappointment or disenfranchisement encourage. Perhaps its just change, or maybe a tighter more controlling environment is required for the production of certain sorts of work. Some of the works made by artists in the show - particularly by artists of a non-aboriginal background - are more 'timely', in as much as they are attached to a particular issues, than perhaps would have been the case three years ago. But then, this too may be inaccurate, it may be more that the works and issues have greater resonance to us, the viewers, now that the environment has changed, focussed - that we read them as being more germane to an immediate environment of concern. Perhaps, outside of our intellectual and analytical reactions, and our readings and understandings that, as Marx said, all classes represent their interests as a general morality, we find many things more indecent, more overt, and want to register, at least a denial and confusion. Or sadness. Or generate tentative and specific disagreement in opposition to stubborn certainties.