Congratulations to Mark Wallinger for winning the Turner Prize. He probably deserves the gong, given his often potent contribution to British art over the last twenty years. I loved his Fourth Plinth statue; certainly a lot better than bloody Alison Lapper.
Wallinger won for a piece called State Britain. At the time, his reassemblage of poor old Brian Haw’s Parliament Square protest was declared a supremely political act. “How rich this work is, and how saddening our state,” burbled the Guardian.
Interviewed after winning, Wallinger maintained this political line. “By happenstance I was able to make a work that had some relevance to what’s going on in Britain and in the world”, he said, He also paid tribute to Haw: “A remarkable man, who has waged a tireless campaign against the folly and hubris of our government’s foreign policy.”
Haw may well be a special man, although not necessarily in the most complementary sense of that word. His protest, however, is not political, or even campaigning. Much like the anti-war movement itself, it was (and remains) a rag-bag of often competing slogans, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Spiked had it bang to rights: “you cannot call it a protest, because it is a wail, not an argument”.
I’m not sure what it meant to bring this mess into an art gallery. It was a curatorial gesture, certainly, given that Haw’s demonstration was removed less than 48 hours later. Perhaps it was even “a continuation of Haw’s protest by other means, in such a place and in such a way as to mock a law designed to curtail our freedom”, as the Guardian put it.
It was not, however, some special political act. Nor even a very helpful one. Rather, by masquerading as “political”, it brings the power of that concept into disrepute.
Slavoj Zizek has my favourite quote of the moment: “The truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power…The thing to do is, on the contrary, is to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands”.
Brian Haw’s tragedy, one always feels is that he, alone, doesn’t “know it”. Now that is art; of the most poignant kind.