Skull World

Review in Broadsheet Vol 36 No 3 2007


There's a beautiful moment in the third movement of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia when out of the wave of sounds and texts sung over fragments of the Scherzo of Mahler's symphony number 2, we hear a voice saying 'It can't stop the wars, it can't make the old younger or lower the price of bread.' As if uncertain that we've heard, the voice pauses and says again, louder and more urgently ' and they remind us that it can't stop the wars, can't make the old younger, can't lower the price of bread! " But this time the singer goes onto say 'we must believe this is true, there must be something else... or it would be quite hopeless..." Then, in a lower register.."but it is quite hopeless..." The libretto uses the monologue from Samuel Beckett's 'The Unnamable' as a basic pattern, over which dozens of other textual threads are interwoven. Fragments of German, Yuletide carols, snippets of song, radical slogans and the insistent repeated command to "Keep going!" -- all rise and fall in a babelogue carried along by the music. At one point we hear the speaker say, "And tomorrow we'll read that X made tulips grow in my garden, and altered the flow of the ocean's currents," (where X is the next work on the evening's program)" and then implores "we must believe it's true". Such self-reflexivity leaves little doubt that the 'It' that is spoken of here is the artwork itself...perhaps all that we consider to be 'art'. Like Beckett's Unnamable, the work has a voice conscious of itself, aware that it only exists in the moment of performance. Unlike the Unnamable, however, its hard conclusions are countermanded by a sense of possibility and an almost stroppy joy.

Sinfonia was written in 1968-69 and was informed by the social and cultural crises of the nineteen sixties, America was embroiled in the Vietnam War and the killing of Martin Luther King (to whom the second movement is dedicated) seemed to announce that the forces of reaction were once more gaining the upper-hand over the forces of progress. There had been a twenty year period from the end of the second world war over which new models of political, cultural and economic potentiality were proposed and explored, which, though shadowed (and informed) by the obscenities of the Nazi death camps, operated under the fragile utopian optimism that new ways of building culture could be developed, had to be developed, to avoid an inevitable collapse into fascism and slaughter. Berio as a youth fought with the partisans against the Nazis. Sinfonia was one of the first works by an avant-gardist to use what we would now identify as post-modern strategies of reflexivity and self awareness, the layerings of high and low culture - the singers and speakers are from the Swingle Singers - to revel in the sense of possibility as well as reflect on the ultimate impossibility of its own intentions and agendas.

Looking at the works made for the ICA exhibition 'Memorial to the Iraq War' the refrain 'It can't stop the wars, it can't make the old younger, it can't lower the price of bread' repeatedly came to mind. It was a strange and uncomfortable project that asked questions that in the end were rather more to do with the position of the artist and their dreams of function in today's culture than it was anything about the appalling situation of human beings in Iraq. To call the project a 'memorial' recognised that what the artists were being asked to do lay outside the boundaries of possibility. To Memorialise is to remember, to recognise actions that lie in the past. To memorialise a war indicates that the war is over. As this one quite obviously isn't over, immediately the undertaking was shifted into fiction, a sort of science fantasy as if we are in an alternative world where not only the war is over, but there is a possibility that artists can contribute something of affect and import that shapes and illuminates our (retrospective) understanding of the situation. Even given the potential liberation of this fictive context (for artists rather than anyone swept up in the disaster of Iraq) the exhibition demonstrated that the contemporary artist feels able only to express a glum, often doctrinaire, resistance to the dominant narratives. Work was made with rusting petrol pumps (Nate Lowman) to remind us that the race for energy resources was a factor, and with jigsaw puzzles (Khalil Rabah) to reveal that there was the struggle of a global real politic in which Iraq was the plaything of wider forces. Others went for less linear empathetic approaches, Jeremy Dellar proposed the twinning of Iraqi and British towns; Christoph Buchel built what looks like a drug clinic. Some went for simplistic bollocks, as with a proposal to transpose burnt out cars and the wreckage of explosions from Baghdad and place them in Downing Street, Capitol Hill etc. A slogan of the Weathermen and Red Brigade and other armed revolutionary movements of the sixties had been to 'Bring the war home' - referring to the Vietnam War and its relationship to a domestic armed struggle - here was a dumber expression the same dumb idea but now enervated, without even the aspiration for change.

Liam Gillick - one of the participating artists - wrote in a perceptive blog on the exhibition:

'Much postmodern theory was based on how to understand a globalised environment of relativism, subjectivity and simulation. We are now facing a situation of specificity and desperate rationalisation in Iraq and elsewhere. Art became more and more diverse throughout the 20th Century. The Iraq war is an example of one of the many clarifications that may appear to render art more and more irrelevant. The US army has reconvened and prays to its God for strength. The factions in Iraq pray to theirs. Everywhere we see routine obscenity. For artists, the combination of piety and pragmatism from politicians on all sides is not worth showing back to them. Documenting the increasing piles of body parts is pointless pornography. What artists can do is occasionally step outside their normal practice and stand as citizens against the delusions of their leaders. This is an exceptional moment, where it is necessary for some to suspend their normal work in order to make a direct statement. In this context, the ICA exhibition is not an answer; it is a melancholic and sullen response.'

So far it feels that the only genuinely compelling and convincing work made on the Iraqi war is Mark Wallinger's 'State Britain' which takes the expression of a non-artist as its foundation and its form. Brian Haw's ramshackle protest of texts and banners ran for some forty metres outside the Houses of Parliament until police used specially introduced powers to try and close it down. Wallinger has recreated it, as it looked before much of it was dismantled, in the Duveen Hall at Tate Britain. Haw is a prototypical example of Gillick's 'citizen standing against the delusions of their leaders' and his protest a howl of moral outrage against the death of children and adults is shaped by his deep and unbending Christianity. A position that is essentially pre-modern and uninflected by today's cultural discourses and productions. By carefully recreating each element of the barricade Wallinger made a work of deep moral purpose and intellectual complexity based on a simple cry of wrongness that comes from outside the sphere most artists would consider 'normal practice' (pace Gillick). Importantly, the work avoids being a reactionary or romantic rearticulation of 'the real'. Rather it is an unpacking of the ways that the representation of Haw's demonstration in an art gallery tests normative discourse and the artist builds a subtle meditation upon authorisations of expression and the privileges of the space of art. It also has a political engagement with enlightenment values of free speech and how the State has tried to silence Haw's voice through defining a zone of a kilometer radius from the Houses of Parliament within which the Home Secretary can determine themselves, without the sanction of MP's, what or what may not constitute a legal protest. In the Tate, Wallinger's recreation partially lies within this line. 'State Britain' spoke more about the corrupting effects of the Iraq war on Britian as much as directly addressing the Iraqi situation.

The ICA exhibition reflected in microcosm what happens when the possibility of faith - be it in political or ethical agency - is removed. Historically, acts of memorialisation have had a strong, embedded ideological message: to do with ideas of nation building, sacrifice, inculcating or exhorting ideals of the relationship of the individual to the group - what the First World War poet Wilfred Owen called 'the old lie,' that 'dulce et decorm est pro patria mori'. (It is sweet and becoming to die for your country - a quote from an Ode by the Roman poet Horace.) Owen writes this at the end of his poem that graphically describes the effects of a gas attack on soldiers in the trenches. 'Dulce et decorum est', was written in response to a pro-war patriotic verse of the same name. That memorials address of ideas of individual sacrifice and group solidarity remains true whether the collective that is commissioning the memorial is a liberal democracy or totalitarian state. (In a way, the Wallinger work can been seen as a memorial itself for lost communities of certainty and faith.) In Owen we hear the emergence of a voice that would help narrate the twentieth century, one that is against the received truths of the establishment, which is humanist and pacifist. It is a voice of that informed liberal progressive politics and which spoke of its desire for the improvement of the human condition, the end of exploitation and the resolution of struggle.

Many of the social, cultural and psychic structures and causes that these voices allied themselves to, and which allowed a wider context for their expression have not survived the end of the Eastern Bloc and the inexorable spread of marketisation, Capitalism and consumption. Now it is difficult to say what the specific programmes or approaches the progressive agenda may support (Communism? Socialism? Marxism? Class Solidarity? The armed class struggle? The return of Christ?), but it can still identify what it is against: capital, empire, multinationals etcetera. The exhibition shows how this seems to circumscribe possibility and how little artists and the artworld are able to meaningfully engage the ambiguities attached to this particular war, its 'specificities' to use Gillick's phrase. Unable to heroicise the forces of the West, indeed profoundly - and rightfully - critical of their actions and the motivations and occlusions in this narrative, a default response is to see the war purely in doctrinaire terms of imperialism or fundamentalism and to borrow models drawn from previous colonial adventures: the 'invader' bad, the 'resistance' good. So a weird situation is generated where the motivations and actions of Baathists - brutal totalitarian murderers and torturers, and Jihadists - fundamentalist repressive misogynists - are left largely unviewed, unexamined. Indeed it is difficult for the Western Progressive thinking - informed by the enlightenment, atheistic, rationalist, etcetera - to engage meaningfully in any way with the various national, religious and tribal groups in Iraq - unlike the sense of linked histories and ideologies that may have allowed connections between say, Jane Fonda and the Vietcong. In the end 'Memorial for the Iraq War' comes to feel like people going through motions and expected actions, a shadow theater of past power relations.

Just up the road from the ICA in a courtyard off St James - geographically right at the heart of the British Establishment - surrounded by Gentlemen's Clubs - here no euphemism for lap dancing - one of Prince Charles' palaces and Buckingham Palace, the art gallery 'White Cube' have built a spanking new exhibition space - the first contemporary building allowed in the area for decades. This has been financed by Jay Jopling's skill at selling cutting edge contemporary art to the very very rich (and some museums). Upstairs, in a specially darkened room, White Cube have been showing what their press release describes as the 'most expensive piece of contemporary art ever made',''For the Love of God' By Damien Hirst. This is a platinum cast of a skull covered with 8,061 diamonds and was for sale at a price of £50 million pounds. The work itself cost around £12 million to construct, about the same amount of money that was needed to build the gallery that houses it. To see the skull you had to get a ticket at a booth outside the space, join a line and then be ushered in small groups to spend a few minutes with the spotlit deaths-head. Almost immediately, according to the press, there were five buyers interested in adding this work to their collections, including George Michael and Kenny Goss. Aeroplanes landing at the Venice Biennale, which opened just after the Hirst show, were atwitter with rumours that it had been sold. The work and its price dominated conversations of the dizzy cabals that constitute the world of contemporary art over the summer cultural junkets of the Biennale, the Documenta and the Munster Sculpture Festival. However it seems that up to now no-one has yet taken the plunge on their credit card to make the skull theirs, so rumour and gossip still circulate breathlessly. Even without the skull being shifted, the rest of the exhibition - witless and baroque pastiches of Hirst's previous work - had made £130 million by the time it closed. Hirst himself gets seventy percent of this, White Cube the rest, so both will probably consider it a reasonable success.

The skull itself is surprisingly small. Almost as if it's not real but a paperweight or model. You can't help trying to remember the equations you learnt at school to work out the surface area of a sphere, wondering whether its modest proportions were an aesthetic decision or an economic one. If it costs £12 million to cover what looks like a may-be monkey skull in sparkly diamonds, how much more would it cost to cover a full sized one? Another three million? Four? Seven million? Would this be an issue if you were Damien? Did he have to get a bank-loan to make the work or did Jay get some backers over for a sushi dinner or was it done out of loose change? Why can't one remember useful maths? Hirst was reported to be worried that, for all this money and this effort he may have made 'a fifty million quid mirror ball' and certainly this weighty little form in the (non)flesh seems to struggle to transcend the state of bling. Not that you'd know this from the press. Following the example of the Venice glitterati's hypnotised fascination, some in the press seem more than stunned, they have started hallucinating, become intoxicated by wealth, and abject in awe. Jonathon Jones frothed in Guardian Newspaper (Tuesday June 5 2007)

'You just can't argue with this work of art. You can't fault it. I've examined it with the critical equivalent of a jeweller's eyepiece. I compared it to Holbein's anamorphic skull in The Ambassadors, as well as the turquoise Aztec skull in the British Museum. It is comparable to those masterpieces, not derivative. It's something no artist could ever do before - that is, as a modern work of art. The objects it resembles - from Tutankhamun's gold death mask to a silver monument to Alexander Nevsky in the Hermitage - were commissioned from nameless craftsmen by all-powerful rulers. No modern ruler has the authority to do such a thing, and up until now, no artist was in a position to emulate them. So Hirst truly has created an exceptional object. It is not merely an expensive work of art, but a great one. It has a primitivism that renews art for our time just as Picasso's discovery of African and Oceanic masks renewed art a century ago: it promises that art in this century might yet become as new and as ancient as the best art of all ages. I can't think of a period that wouldn't be amazed and delighted by it: Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare and the Aztecs would all be flocking to White Cube. You should go, too.'

This leaves one queasy, and maybe these frankly barking words will return to embarrass the writer when he's a little less excited and comes back down. But in a way he is right in seeing the work as being uniquely of this century, of this time: it is indeed definitive. It may not be the great work of art of his opiated delusions but the skull is important and of import. In a scary way it's one of the most politically engaged work that has been made today. Jones seems to think the work talks of the ineffable, of the big things to do with death mortality, transience. It touches on these but one can't help but think in a way that flatters to deceive. Rather than being timeless, it is entirely of its time. Rather than opening art up to the narratives of cultures that lie outside of the traditions of Western Humanism - as Picasso did with his African masks - Damien's skull takes art into the distant worlds of the hyper-rich. Planet Money. Skull World. This is not as understood in terms of the landed gentry and gentlemen bankers, but the new internationalised, Russian, American, UK, Australian, Australian with an American passport, wherever, mega-rich elite. Damien's Skull is art re-aligning itself with the new power of the 21st century rather than seeking an engagement with the sphere defined as the political, the public. Money, corporations and the rich have eaten this world. Left only an illusion, traditional paths of political action - democracy, organised labour - have been made increasingly marginalised and redundant. The public sphere that the avant-garde sought to shape has been partitioned and privatised. This hyper-wealthy plutocracy has flourished over the last twenty years, their wealth expanding into areas - social and geographical - that were previously closed to capital. And the skull knows this. The wealthiest elite of the USA takes home approximately $1.35 trillion American dollars a year, a figure which is in excess of the take home pay of the whole of France, Italy or Canada. The high-flyers working in the City of London collected- and this is excluding pay - £8 billion in bonus payments last year. In America, Wall Street's five largest firms paid out over $36 billion in bonus pay. Thirty years ago the average American Chief Executive took home 40 times the wage of his average employee. Today they are paid 170 times more. At these altitudes of wealth the normal rules of gravity cease to work, market forces become inverted. If you wish to sell a commodity to the people who operate in this hallucinated world of money you do not lower the price, it is necessary to raise the price. The hippest fastest selling watches in the world of the international rich are not, as us lumpen proles may think, Rolexes - they don't even make it into the top ten brands. The number one sellers are watches made by a newcomer called Franck Muller who realised that Rolexes were far too cheap. A Muller sells for $750,000 American.

This is the world the skull is talking to, the world that the skull is helping define. This is Skull World. It is the defining art work for this new world as it is the first work that has been designed with only one thing in mind. The expense of its construction. This may indeed be as radical an engagement as Picasso's re-imagining of visual space. It can be seen as a formal innovation, with money, and ideas of commodity being made material, given (non)flesh to test almost to destruction its own being. What does it mean to the spiritual and aesthetic narratives of western art when value becomes the sole matter of consideration? The sole intention. The Skull is value addressing ideas of value. It has no desire to operate outside the world of money, to stop the wars, stop the old dying or lower the price of bread, even though £50 million is enough money to have some small solid political or social effect - it could for instance pay for over 2.5 million cataract operations in Africa, or maybe help refugees in Iraq. Skull World is a world however in which these things do not happen, one that lies beyond the transformative dreams of the avant-garde and the intentions and desires of Modernism and Post Modernism. It turns them into commodities themselves, and the intentions become quaint, something of value, to be collected and traded. Keep Going!

© Richard Grayson 2007