Derry~Londonderry's Centre for Contemporary Art elicits some purposeful enquiry on art and labour
'Derry~Londonderry’s year as UK City of Culture was intended to be a time of joyous celebration and purposeful enquiry. So far there has been a lot of the former and little if any of the latter.'
So says Johan Lundh, who, along with Aileen Burns, has curated Momentous Times at the Centre for Contemporary Art on the city's Artillery Street, which runs until November 2.
The exhibition emerged gradually over a period of 18 months, as themes and issues worked their way into the curators’ thinking – the future of labour, the place of art, the expectations and implications of a cultural economy. It stands unsteadily in 2013, looks back to 1913, looks forward to 2113.
With a title like Momentous Times, you might expect the show to be bold and certain, an unequivocal declaration. But that’s not what you get – many of the pieces, and the subjects they illustrate, slip away like eels as you attempt to grasp them.
Lundh and Burns have gathered together works by ten artists which take subtle, sidelong glances at the themes in play. In doing so, they have found a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This is a sparkling, abrasive, difficult, complex, taxing exhibition that acts as a much-needed counterweight to all the celebrations and back-slapping and spurious assurances of a bright and prosperous future.
A key reference point of the exhibition is the Dublin Lockout of 1913, when unskilled workers, organised by Liverpool-born Trades Unionist James Larkin, were locked out of their workplaces by employers determined to resist their demands. A different Ireland then, and maybe a moment lost to create a different Ireland from now.
Apart from a brief mention in the newspaper printed to accompany the exhibition, there is no mention of the lockout in the exhibition itself. But, like the moment that was lost, its absence lingers, like the guest of honour missing from their own party.
It would be wrong to say that the lockout informs the exhibition though. It doesn’t. Nothing does. That’s not a criticism. The absence of explanation or thread means that you have to feel your way from work to work, stumbling for sure ground, but never finding any. All you can do is look at what you’re given and think in the spaces between each piece.
'Workshop' by Aideen Doran is a work in three parts. 'Factory Queens' is a series of images of working women, stitching and sewing in clothing factories at a time when there were such things in Britain and Ireland. Each image sits inside a crude twirling star like an old advert for Daz. One of the images shows Margaret Thatcher sitting at a workbench.
'Workers’ Playtime' shows further relics from recent industrial history, while 'Good Luck to all Workers' presents two red-trimmed fabric banners bearing that naive and plain slogan, one in English and one in Bangla.
David Panos and Anja Kirschner present 'Ultimate Substance', a video work showing image upon image, confusing and compelling and driven – naked, spare, and dirty bodies in a cramped, dark cave, tearing at pieces of fruit with their bare hands, devouring it greedily and needily. The same bodies then at work in a mine; back-breaking, skin-breaking, clawing work. The marble floors of an elegant palace gleam.
Children collect information in a museum, completing worksheets, studying the ancient artefacts – coins, tools, rocks. Back to the naked bodies, sorting the rocks they have quarried. The images come fast. Food, Shelter. Nakedness. Opulence. Mining, Minerals. Metal. Hunger. Hammer. Housing. Geometry – squares, triangles, rectangles, arcs.
'The First Telegram from the Last International' is a time capsule made by the Raqs Media Collective, its message for 2113 locked in a steel box, riveted shut. To the left of that is Toril Johannesson’s 'Words and Years', three graphs that show the frequency of certain words used in journals and magazines – 'revolution' in Time, for example, and 'hope' and 'reality' in Political Science. The conclusions are meaningless, but the titles and means of presentation suggest possibilities and false hope.
There is a vinyl floor map showing the planned layout of an English country house garden. Next to that, wooden building blocks, squares, triangles, rectangles, arches. And on the wall, pictures of what can be constructed using those blocks – church, hearth, birdbox, archway.
On a ledge sits a wicker beehive. From the ceiling hangs a mobile. At the top is a crown; beneath that a lion and unicorn, then a palace, a fountain. On the lowest layer wheat, a tree, a cow, a farmhand, a piece of fruit. This is Olivia Plender’s 'Rise Early, Be Industrious'.
Marianne Flotron’s 'Work' is a video in which the actors are employees of a Dutch insurance company. They create a play examining the idea of democracy in the workplace. Melanie Gilligan’s 'Popular Unrest' is a five episode drama – futuristic, violent, brutal and bloody. It shows a creeping, nightmare world of diminishing resources and malignant control.
There’s beauty here too, though. It’s there in 'Red Alert', Hito Steyerl’s triptych of red screens. It is elegant and reduced and honest. The red is primarily the red of the highest warning against imminent attack. A distant second, maybe, the red is also the colour of the red flag.
And there’s beauty in Colin Darke’s 'The Year of the Revolution', which lies on the floor beneath the triptych. It consists of 200 identical copies of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, written in 1913. Shot and killed by right-wing paramilitaries in Germany in 1919, her body thrown in a canal, Luxemburg was a Marxist theorist and revolutionary socialist.
The books are arranged in rows ten by 20, visually striking, even beguiling and entrancing. It is a paperback mosaic – the same image repeated 200 times to create a different image entirely. The author’s name and the book’s title run like tram tracks across the floor, or like the seams of a mine. It’s reminiscent of the Tate Modern’s bricks. It looks like the foundation of a building, but nothing is built from it, like construction was stopped due to the builder going bankrupt.
What is a single copy of the book worth? Around £18.00. 200 of them? You’d get a discount for buying in bulk. What is this piece of art worth? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Whatever someone is prepared to pay on the art market. And the value would plummet were someone to take away a copy and read it, or even reach down and bend back a cover and look inside.
The vibrant, ferocious, revolutionary ideas it contains are shut inside. It was out of print anyway. A new print run had to be done especially for the artist, who had to agree not to flood the market with second-hand copies and so drive the price down. Luxemburg would be spinning in her grave – where she can have as many revolutions as she likes.
Fittingly, there is no sense of unification in Momentous Times. You don’t move from one piece to another on a journey of enlightenment before finally the solution is revealed and it all makes sense. The works are presented juxtaposed. You pinball from one to another. And that’s a good thing. This isn’t easy.
Perhaps the answer is in the inaugural UK City of Culture, where culture and tourism will guarantee a wonderful life for all. Hi-tech start-ups will flock to creative hubs that sit alongside cool galleries. We will network in cafes and everyone will carry a laptop bag. And the unskilled, the uneducated that Larkin fought for and Rosa Luxemburg died for? Next question, please.
Momentous Times runs in the Centre for Contemporary Art, Derry~Londonderry until November 2.