Monthly, March 2007
Brian Haw's demonstration against the Iraq war started in 2001 and grew into a roadside barricade of images, photos, banners and texts that ran some 40 meters length opposite the Houses of Parliament. On the 23rd of May 2006, Police moved in and dismantled his protest under the powers granted them by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005 introduced by the Labour Government. That he remains today in Parliament Square as a reduced presence is owing only to a loophole in the legislation that prevented the law acting entirely retrospectively.
Mark Wallinger had started documenting the protest before it was taken down and in State Britain he has made a detailed simulacrum of all the elements of the barrier at its fullest flowering. These have been installed in a forlorn and raggedy line to run the length of the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain. Here, visitors can wander along its length and focus on its components -Teddy bears, messages of support, Banksy Graphics, B.liar posters, an unbearable photograph of a bandaged Iraqi Child with absent eyes.
In February 2003 hundreds of thousands of people shuffled through a cold London in the biggest demonstration that England has ever seen in protest at the approaching war. The Labour administration's determination was not affected one jot by this display of mass opposition and the march can now be seen as catalytic in the growth of popular disengagement with the political process. Haw's solo demonstration has become the last public trace of this mass mobilisation. Unlike most of the marchers however, his action is shaped by a fierce Christian faith that sits awkwardly in contrast to the Rational Enlightenment values that most like to think underpin our personal and political lives.
This problematises his position to mainstream political discourse, but also provides the charge that drives his moral crusade and the strength to cope with the lack of direct affect that his presence has had. He is now operating in the tradition of bearing witness - more like an early Christian anchorite in the desert - than an element in a political exchange and equation. The stark texts on the barricade act as a reminder of the dark forces and terror that can underpin faith and certainty. State Britain is not only a representation of dissent but an interrogation into forms and engines of belief From our present position of political inertia, the work also reads sometimes as an evocation of almost pre-lapsarian states: of political certainty, the possibility of agency, of mass mobilisation, of 'an alternative'. Here it touches on the traditions of history painting, an exhortation to ideals and past glories. The rackety fence of cardboard and bears and bottles is a distant echo of the barricade of fallen comrades and soldiers over which Delacroix represents Liberty leading the French people to their freedom. Within the yearning evoked, State Britain also serves to memorialise the erasure of the protest both within the popular imagination and the political arena.
Some commentators have seen the work as tokenistic or sentimental - expected voices such Murdoch's Times newspapers: "it merely confirms the liberal consensus. A pro-war, pro-Blair work of art...now that would be radical..." (Tim Teeman Times Jan 16 2007). " and surprising ones like Frances Wheen who described the work as "..the conventional satire wisdom of our time... (Evening Standard Jan 16 2007). Indeed, it is darkly comic quite how much the reconstruction does resembles a global style of radical-chic art, with shouty text graphics and an abject aesthetic. Murdoch and Wheen do not see that State Britain acts as a challenge to such modish expressions of engaged practice. With the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the ideological underpinnings of the left, radicality and political expression in the visual arts have become increasingly symbolic and commodified, reduced to a safe tradable token or souvenir of past certainty. State Britain shames the silences or the glib political expressions that have so far been the reaction of the art world to Iraq and its consequences. By representing Haw's demonstration - an expression of moral rage, driven by religious belief and faith rather than ideology - Wallinger also challenges the elisions of current political expression under the new hegemonies of capital and poses important questions as to how politics can function in a post-ideological world. What can they be built on? What is their ideological basis? Or can they now only expressed through the darker irrationalities of belief?
A very specific political charge in the work is provided by a long black line taped on the floor of the Duveen Gallery and which cuts across the work, This delineates the outer perimeter of the area where the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 applies, an area "no more than one kilometre in a straight line from the point nearest to it in Parliament Square (Serious Organised Crime Act 2005 138.3)" On the Parliament side of this line the Secretary of State can employ the powers granted to him under sections 132 to 137 of the act to require demonstrations to have authorisation from the police. On the other side of the line he does not have this power. In a letter to the Guardian, Charles Thomson, a Stuckist, pointed out that the edge of the 'exclusion zone' is currently defined as Thorney Street, some three hundred yards away. Andrew Gilligan felt moved to raise a similar point in the Evening Standard. However the exclusion zone is a different entity to that which Wallinger's line outlines. His is the area in which the act holds sway. and the zone is a subsidiary decision that the act allows and was determined by Charles Clark in 'Statutory Instrument 1537' - a Statutory Instrument being a subsidiary power conferred on a Minister by an Act of Parliament to make detailed orders, rules or regulations. - The area inside Wallinger's tape line (containing about a quarter of the work) is subject to the minister's decisions, - it is where 'The Secretary of State may by order specify an area as the designated area for the purposes of sections 132 to 137", (Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 138.1). Outside the taped line the minister does not have the power to so curtail Wallinger's liberties.
This legalistic detail is important as the black line has an important role in State Britain. That the same piece has a different nature depending on its relation to a bit of tape is extraordinary - on one side of the line the artists' rights to free expression under law is profoundly different than on the other side. It is in this strange essential shift that the political heart of State Britain lies. The line serves to delineate and illuminate the relationship between a singular event - the declaration of war - and its profound moral and ethical repercussions across the geography of the body politic and into society. It outlines the ways the political class have abandoned their responsibility to maintain long held liberties and chosen instead to censor individual expression to protect their own sensitivities.
State Britain builds from this into an ontological vortex. The act seeks to legislate demonstrations. Is State Britain a demonstration, or through being the representation of a demonstration a work of art? Does it become denatured through being a copy and exempt from the law? If so, how do we understand the difference between some one who makes primary productions (Brian Haw), and some one who makes simulacrums and representations (Mark Wallinger) How is one privileged above the other? In turn the work leads us to think of the institution, the art gallery as a place where such expressions and explorations are allowed. In the Duveen we inevitably recall other decisions the same organisation made about the relationship of the art work to the social as regards John Latham. State Britain leads us to interrogate the fluid relationships between individual expression the law and the social, the relationship of the artist to both the polity and the political, and exchanges between the artwork and the 'real'. The work reveals these complex webs in ways that are subtle and rigourous. It achieves high seriousness without being portentous or heavy-handed and it poses important moral and ethical questions without offering either glib answers or easy certainties. In recreating this awkward shonky eccentric barricade, Mark Wallinger has built one of the most necessary, powerful and important art works made in this country in recent times.