Navigator: The work of Rick Martin
Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia publication - 1999
The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts,
They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts
They never drank water but whiskey by pints
And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights.
Navigator, Navigator rise up and be strong
The morning is here and there is work to be done
Take your pick and your shovel and the bold dynamite
For to shift a few tons of this earthly delight
Yes to shift a few tons of this earthly delight
(c. P Gaston) The Pogues. Navigator.
An early work by Rick Martin is a large black and white image of a male nude torso, The arms are held up behind his head, recalling renaissance poses of, say, St Sebastian, muscles taut and delineated a line of hair runs down his chest from throat to pubis. We can see in the darker shadows that he is holding a heavy long handled hammer, the head of which is dangling behind his back, as if preparatory to bringing it crashing down in front of him on some invisible anvil. (Forge 1992). In a later work (from Breath Taking 1995) we are presented with an eerie panorama of the central business area of Chicago, one which has been shot through a wide angle lens so that perspectives are distorted and the forms - the steel of a bridge, the distorted verticals of the skyscrapers - are made almost organic. This image too is in a classic, silvery black and white. Down the center a canal runs, there is a wide pavement on the bank. The area is completely deserted, there is not a human being to be seen. It is a ghostly and heroic theatre set of capital. Capital which used to be associated with labour, with the manufacture of steel, the extraction of minerals, the making of ships, but which now, in its late formation, is increasingly disassociated from human sweat and effort and now depends of the invisible and electric trading in figures and percentages.
Although the two images are very different in terms of complexity, subtlety and poetry, there is a link between the two, a link which, in it's broadest terms is that of labour, be it in representation, or through the memorialisation of its outcomes: this in turn becomes a constituent part of our definition of history. In conversation with Rick Martin he says of his past practice as a documentary photographer in a loosely social realist tradition and a participant in Art in Working Life programs, that he spent a lot of his time photographing people who were representative of disappearing skills or trades, and that this got to be depressing. Whilst not operating as a platform for the siren call of nostalgia, Martins gallery, installation and public work is walked by the ghosts of lost orders, of acts and gestures that are now occluded from our view, and through these summonings the work refuses the erasures that now constitute everyday understandings (and representations) of history. However this relationship between a past and a present not presented as some binary -present bad, past good - but as a series of layerings and allusions that serve to operate more as a word half remembered: an order of understanding now nearly lost - 'I used to know what that meant...'
Sometimes these layerings and suggestions seem relatively straightforward. In a recent work made in America the outline of a Lockheed fighter plane is constructed with small aluminium cast stallions (Pretty Horses 1998). This image many resonances, crucial to these is the choice of the air-plane silhouette. It was an outline that I recognised instantly, as it is no longer 'current' nor at the cutting edge of war technology - an area of which I am remarkably ignorant - The recognition was through a sixties and early seventies childhood spent constructing plastic model kits and reading Airfix Magazine. It was in this (insidiously cold-war) context that the Lockheed was almost the epitome of the 'new' and the 'modern': a young boys image, with all the testosterone baggage which that entails. It is now almost an 'old' picture of the future specific to a certain political and social construction. The horses reference the frontier and the plains and the role of these in America's constructions of freedom and expansion and its own mythologies. They also suggest the ornament on the Ford Mustang: a dream car of young boys and insecure men, and again one who's design is based in non reflexive, non ironic sixties late modernist ethos, not to mention an unrepentant phallophilism.
In such ways the past that Martin references in his work is revealed to be imperfect, constructed. It is the result of political ideologies and of those of gender and class. It is oppressive and exploitative as well as heroic. The artists ambiguous constructions and understandings of history is succinctly expressed in a bill board project made in Belfast in association with the Flaxart Studios. One side of the image is a photograph of Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow, and on the right a shot of the Falls road in Belfast, with the Divers Flats in shot, a site used by the British army as a surveillance post. There is a text on the work reading 'With a bound they were free between memory and oblivion'. In both images the people are only blurry traces, individuals hurrying by, it is the sites which are frozen and immutable, massive and inert. Or seemingly so. For the narratives that the sites expressed (and which inturn spoke the meanings of those locations) have shifted and changed. Lenin's tomb now - or in 1994 when the work was made - no longer represents a sacred site of the brave Soviet Socialist experiment and the resting place of the architect of worldwide proletarian liberation. At it's simplest it represents a stalled, failed, agenda. To a certain ideological view it may represent the heart of the 'evil' empire, certainly post collapse of the systems it is necessarily more qualified, speaking of silence and terror as much as the eschatology of liberation. Similarly the Belfast site has many possible readings, as one which is a fault line between communities, a site of (foreign) occupation, or alternately of protecting security forces ensuring the survival of the Union. A place that speaks of waste and futile battle or of a constant search and expression of community and liberation. Again, the time is significant, there was a feeling abroad that the old certainties of opposition were failing, that the situation was futile, that there had to be another solution found. Two moments of history, both at a point of shift and change. The sites inflect each other, the I.R.A. was, in many of it's manifestations, avowedly Marxist, having an ideological agenda as well as a nationalist one. What happens to that agenda with the crumbling of the State that most exemplified it? Indeed what happens to the 'struggle' when not only practical support but the historical inevitability of the dialectic and it's ontology, it's victory, is made ghostly and fugitive? In turn, what happens to the USSR with the crumbling of the communist party? Is it to become the site of individual struggles, of buried identities and intractable enmities? Martin does not identify for us what memory and which oblivion, but the work brings a host of possibilities nearly to view where we can feel them moving below the surface of the photographic image, intangible, but there.
It was Russia that constructed the heroic figure of the Stakhanovite labourer. This muscled fearless man epitomised the dignity of the proletariat (under the revolution) with his unceasing drive to increase productivity in the factory, to hew more coal, to forge more steel, for his family, for his class, his country and for the revolution. It was he: or his nameless forebears, who under capitalism were exploited and abused, who owned only his own labour, and who was erased from the histories and expressions of culture and empire. With our later understanding of Stalinism such images seems naive and almost tragic, but the sensation of tragedy is not only a recognition of exploitation but a recognition of loss: for we see within the exploitative (and fictional -Stakhanovitch never existed) construction a core of worth: an idealism an promised transformation which is centered on the triumphs and efforts of the individual working towards a greater good. However, in certain aspects the framing narratives - as constituted in the West for the better part of this century - were exchangable ones: the rhetorics of empire and heroic capitalism offered the similar possibilities of transformation and redemption. Martins view is from a point, and a time, where these narratives of the left or right have mutated and stuttered to a halt, and, other than in the heads of crazed freemarketeers offer only some awful constant imperfect present tense -the moment between memory and oblivion perhaps - in which all actions become contingent and robbed of greater, historical, effect. But, Martin asks us in his work, was this not always so? It is a difficult position from which he works, recognising the power and attraction of the grand historical narratives and the way that they shaped and moved not only societies and individuals, but at the same time recognising the perversions and traumas they occasioned upon societies and individuals. In many ways the various pasts in Martins work becomes analogous to the country that the migrant has left, and becomes as removed, desirable, impossible and traumatic as 'an old country'.
In June 1840 the brig Maria left Adelaide bound for Hobart. However the brig was wrecked at Lacepede Bay, where the survivors made their way ashore. There they were assisted by some of the Milmenrura people and helped them travel up the Coorong. However at a place called Yerangulung - now Dodds landing - a fight took place between the parties and all of the crew and passengers were killed, with the exception of one girl. There are no certain records as to why the fight took place, tradition has it that some of the sailors made advances on the Milmenrura women. A punitive expedition was launched by Major O Halloran and two men summarily tried and hanged. Martin used this event as the basis for his work Maria Ghost. The center of the space was occupied by a gilded sea chest and the walls held images of the strange flat and beautiful landscapes of the Coorong. Amongst these images were others of the interiors of motel rooms, and also frames that had the same dimensions of the images but which were mute black boxes, carrying no image at all. There were other elements referencing the Coorong and the customs house in Dublin. Again Martin is presenting us with a site of change and shift, one which we can no longer read but merely suspect and feel. On the level of disaster the wreck of the Maria seems small, and least in the sad arithmetic of death. However, for the Ngarrindjeri the incident marked the end of organised resistance to the European invasion, and the site represented the end of the individual stories and narratives of the passengers who would never reach Hobart, would not work with their picks and their shovels or do there that which they had intended to do. The artists moves focus between the general and the individual: the colonial project was not ended but colonialists lives were, whilst, with a lesser loss of life, the history and autonomy of a people and culture were irrevocably changed. Martin consciously does not give us a lot to work on here. In fact, the black boxes that carry no information are there to remind us of the limits of the forensic gaze when it comes to matters of the past. We cannot penetrate, nor properly remember, it is beyond us; but inevitably and tantalisingly traces of that (which is) past keep offering themselves up to the present. Martin, in his various works and projects offers both a conduit and a stage so that these traces, memories and past articulations may serve to destabilise and make hallucinatory our understandings of the present, to stop it being known and to make it a terrain that we must tentatively navigate.