Questioning systems of representation, or questioning the system, ie, capitalism in all its exploitative and destructive machinations, seem to be the twin preoccupations of a good deal of contemporary art these days.
To take the latter first: a query that immediately springs to mind is, why does the artist bother? Is some profound alteration in the dynamics of civilization suddenly going to change because some performer or some artist puts some sump oil ‘paintings’ on a wall in a gallery? We all know the answer.
I get a little edgy when I’m confronted with art that has ideological or political designs on me. It has nothing to do about whether I happen to agree or disagree with the subject of complaint or protest. It’s my cynicism that’s the problem. What does art in this scenario think it is doing? If it thinks it is going to make some social or political difference, it better think again. If it thinks the exploitative capitalist system is going to fold at the knees because someone paints a picture, then art has an over-inflated sense of its own strength and importance.
Perhaps pre-Nineteenth Century art when it was aligned with the status quo, painting kings and queens, the aristocracy and Christian gods, had some power, at least to help keep the hierarchy intact and legitimize it. But today art is marginal in the social fabric. Its status figures only when it generates large sums of money or is momentarily shocking and hits the headlines. Thus Nigel Brown’s recent image of Captain Cook taking a crap gets splashed across the front page of the paper, but for the rest, it is politically impotent. In the Twentieth Century it never made a difference. Dada didn’t stop the war; Surrealism didn’t alter civilization; Abstract Expressionism didn’t redeem anyone. Rothko wasted his suicide.
So when DJN does his oil sump protest in cardboard against the oil companies, against the mighty voracious capitalist machine, (currently showing at the Casbah, in Victoria Street, Hamilton), it’s like throwing stones at a nuclear arsenal. Maybe that’s why most contemporary art has become preoccupied with its own practice, spending inordinate amounts of time staring at and critiquing its own navel..
But ‘painting’ on cardboard with sump oil is certainly a new trick, as is cutting the card back a few layers to expose the supportive ribbing while creating a text in the process. They are neatly worked pieces, well-crafted and at least involved in the act of baring witness. As are the photographs of massive construction sites, or demolition sites or abandoned industrial sites, a document to waste, pillage and exploitation.
The second artist in the show, Mike Atkins, whose work takes the grandiose title,Power, Corruption and Lies, seeks with a smaller voice to question the nature of art itself, yet again. Is computer generated stuff presentation or representation? Well, does anyone out there really care?
These visual sound pieces – blurred grey lines, shadows and smudges – are anyway small aesthetic delights. They look like bits of TV static, but the best part about them are the titles: more grandiose claims. Homers Odyssey looks like ocean waves, Darwin’s Origins has the appearance of rock strata while Milton’s Paradise Lost resembles a fence preventing entry to Eden.