Forty metres of junk
Artist Mark Wallinger's recreation of Brian Haw's anti-war protest has been hailed as brave political art. In fact, it's not political, nor is it art.
‘The whole thing is a trompe l’oeil fabrication, a still life, a 2007 history painting – the modern equivalent of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, Goya’s Third of May and Manet’s Execution of the Emperor Maximillian‘, gushed the Guardian review of Mark Wallinger’s latest exhibition, State Britain. Actually, it’s 40 metres of junk: painstakingly reconstructed junk, hallowed junk and explosively political junk, as the Tate Britain gallery in London, where it is being exhibited, seems to believe. And junk that says a lot about our society and government, at least according to the Guardian.
But does it? Wallinger’s State Britain, which was also the subject of a South Bank Show special on ITV last weekend, is a reassembly of peace protester Brian Haw’s 40 metre-long anti-war protest, which was forcibly removed from Parliament Square in London in 2006 under a (specially invented) section of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Haw’s protest was mad, scrappy, discordant, loud: the visual equivalent of white noise. Haw himself sat in the middle of it, wearing a hat with so many badges on it he looked like he was waiting for aliens in painted rounds of aluminium foil. Yet the removal of the protest and the confiscation of Haw’s megaphone have led to his being canonised by the anti-war movement and by liberal Britain more broadly (he recently won Channel 4’s inspiring political personality of the year award). Haw has slept outside in all sorts of weather, been hospitalised by drunks and was opposed to the war in Iraq even before it started.
Brian Haw’s original protest in Parliament Square
For all the acclaim, Haw comes across as being a few badges short of a badge-covered hat, if you get my drift. On Sunday the Observer published a picture of him in his hat (with all its discordant badges saying something like ‘no war stop bush scrap trident food not bombs war is the enemy of the poor support sacked gate gourmet workers support US troops dead at seven years old choose peace’), alongside an interview in which Haw moaned that London mayor Ken Livingstone has not yet allowed him a ‘peace pagoda’ in which to conduct his vigil. He also said he felt ‘very aggrieved that 54 per cent voted me Channel 4’s Most Inspiring Person in Politics’ yet David Cameron, who got 6 per cent, was ‘front page for smoking a joint’.
As for the removal of his protest representing something sinister in British society, Haw is still out on Parliament Square, still protesting. The problem with Haw is that although he is, in the words of newspaper columnist Simon Hoggart, ‘willing to undergo awful privations to get his message across’, he doesn’t ever manage to get his message across. Mainly because ‘you can’t make out a word he says’, says Hoggart. ‘You can work out certain words – “Blair”, “Bush” and “murr”, which I take to be “murderer” – but for the most part it is one continuous, hideous, amplified squawk.’
The 40 metre-long reconstructed protest in Tate Britain is a visual translation of this squawk. I’m sure Haw is heartfelt in his protest, but it says precisely nothing – or more to the point, it says so much that no message comes through. Up close, Haw’s protest line has all the clarity of his hat. There are miscellaneous cuttings about pensioners, an Amnesty flyer, a rant in favour of both fox hunters and animal rights protesters, muddied dolls, bloodied clothes, biblical quotations, a Banksy painting, blown-up Leon Kuhn postcards, amateur artwork and poster paint cries of ‘Christ is risen! Hallelujah!’ In the centre of the display there are black and white photos of Iraqi children dying from leukaemia and other diseases, which are distressing. But you cannot call it a protest, because it is a wail, not an argument.
So why has it been recreated?
Not being equipped with the Guardian arts section, various punters at Tate Britain didn’t really get its artistic merit. ‘Look! That’s weird innit?’ cried a Geordie sixth-form student with streaks of pink in her hair, jabbing a finger towards a picture of ‘the enemy in Kabul’ (a malformed, plastic baby with red rubber for lips and blood-red eyes), steering her friends around it and on to the rest of the gallery. ‘Oh that’s gross! This is silly stuff!’ says a small boy among a herd of small boys, rushed along by an exasperated-looking teacher. ‘What’s that?’ he asks, pointing at the petrol logo man, who has taken his petrol pump and is holding it against his head like a gun. ‘Oh, the price of oil is going up and up’, says Miss, translating Haw’s and the anti-war movement’s ‘No more blood for oil’ slogan into the suicidal feelings of the average motorist.
Mark Wallinger’s reconstruction of Haw’s protest
In order to help the ordinary schoolchild get something out of the experience, a curator was on hand to guide them through it. For the rest of us there was a leaflet. Tate Britain wanted to draw attention to the edginess of the exhibition. Running through the Tate there is a taped line on the floor ‘which continues throughout the building’. This ‘marks the edge of the 1km exclusion zone’ around the political heart of London, inside which unauthorised protest is banned. ‘[Wallinger’s] State Britain extends both sides of the line’, the leaflet points out, in a rather self-congratulatory tone, as if the exhibition were not just eye-catching but historically rebellious, too. According to newspaper reports, lawyers for the Tate ‘pored over the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ to check it was okay to do this – and then patted themselves on the back for taking the intrepid decision to stage the exhibition anyway. Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckists, has since pointed out that it would have been ‘rather more intrepid were it not for the fact that the zone actually ends at Thorney Street, 300 yards away’.
So what we have in the Tate’s apparently brave stance is a token gesture masquerading as a real one – much like the exhibition itself, which masquerades as a political protest when it is actually just a reconstruction of a protest which, even in its heyday a couple of years ago, was only ever mad performance art. As the anti-war movement has collapsed into celebrating Brian Haw and uttering clichéd slogans, it has ceased to say anything about anything, and thus it is somewhat fitting that it has taken its place as an artefact in an art gallery. So although Tate Britain hopes State Britain will raise ‘profound questions about the right to protest and the limits and nature of art’, it actually says nothing about either. It’s not art because it’s only a faithful reconstruction of a load of shoddy banners. And it’s not political because it has no argument.
What we have in State Britain is a sham – which is perhaps a more revealing insight into the anti-war movement than even Wallinger intended.
Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.