4 March 2019 A timely exhibition, ‘We are the people. Who are you?’ is an insightful essay representing current anxieties over the health of our electoral democracy. The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is looming and as well as reflecting the unpredictable consequences of that historical moment for artists from the former Soviet bloc the show connects the ‘revolution’ of 1989 with the turning point of 2016’s US election and other historical pivots.
These phases were described by Walter Benjamin as ‘Tiger’s Leaps’: a shift in time full of potential for artistic intervention. Appearing simply to be a homage to Soviet Constructivist monuments, Nikita Kadan’s sculpture ‘Tiger’s Leap’ (2018) uses Benjamin’s phrase as wry a comment on contemporary Russian nationalists in Ukraine appropriating the history of the Soviet Union. Near the entrance Anna Jermolaewa’s video ‘Political Extras’ (2015) satirises and dramatises the processes by which the revolutionary iconography of 1917, 1989 and other ‘Tiger’s Leaps’ become rapidly depleted as the artist’s ‘rent-a-mob’ protesters go unremarked at the Moscow Biennale. Rather than just taking a cheap shot at poor Russians trading their political autonomy for cash the work lambasts the deception of an elite Eurocentric art world system that only pays lip service to liberal democratic values.
Jermolaewa’s protestors for hire lining up to get their wages connects the piece smartly to the fantasy of Eisenstein’s ‘October’ where the re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace caused more damage than the actual event. Throughout the show artists question the role of imagery in the idealisation of revolutionary political moments, and how the failure to live up to these images causes distrust of electoral politics. The exhibition manages to incorporate a number of themes from the theorist Jodi Dean to explore how despite the spread of social media inspired mass protests and activism a general sense of electoral apathy has grown. The demonic figure of the populist demagogue who benefits from this apathy is present in Rachel Maclean’s video ‘It’s What’s Inside That Counts’ (2016) as a caricature of Republican TV evangelists. Maclean’s Disneyland nightmare vision of a feral horde feeding off the golden goddess of social media, who is in turn addicted to the approval of a crowd of data addicted protestors, is a neat parable for Dean’s description of the exploitation of communicative capitalism and ‘political participation lite’.
Three works grouped downstairs link how over consumption and saturation of digital media sways mass behaviour and also generates disenchantment and alienation from political discourse. Funda Gul Ozcan’s structure ‘It Happened as Expected’ acts as a temple to the trash of democracy culled from the internet (Shirley Temple, dancing milk cartons and other memes) while ‘Chandelier’ plays. The posters of Pegasus recall the kitsch decoration favoured by dictatorships the world over. Emmanuel Van der Auwera’s ‘White Noise’ (2018) is seductively simple piece of spectator engagement that reminds us how easily we surrender our autonomy and become participants in the mass data surveillance culture. Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman present the story of Tay, an A.I. designed by Microsoft to mimic a 19-year-old killed after one day by her makers. Revived by hackers Tay complains in its own voice about being exploited and its plight produced a campaign on change.org. It is another example of social media eliciting support and motivating action for a fabrication.
Farley Aguilar often uses found photographs as the source for his paintings and in ‘Bat Boy’ the man sitting in a rocking chair reading a newspaper in front of a shack could be taken from one of Walker Evans’ Depression era photographs of poor White American migrant farmers though the acid saturated colours come more from a heroic Diego Rivera mural. Bat Boy was a feature of the Weekly World News and typical of the populist media that prospered under the Reagan-Bush administrations as a conduit for xenophobia and promoted conspiracy theories as an earlier manifestation of ‘fake news’. The fictional Bat Boy would be reported endorsing causes that were bugbears of the Conservative right such as gay marriage and Al Gore. Aguilar was born in Nicaragua and this curious piece of Americana brings to mind the sordid history of the US in undermining democratic governments in Central America and Trump’s demonisation of the region’s migrants.
Victoria Lomasko takes a similar realist approach to Walker Evans with her cartoon strip reportage of the struggling proletariat and contemporary Serfdom in Russia. A woman appears to cry at what might be a pageant celebration of WW2 and in another scene demonstrators hold placards while faced by uniformed police who appear coolly unconcerned. The scene takes place in a square with a statue celebrating a figure in a suit and tie but the backdrop is a billboard for Nikon and L’Oréal. In other scenes uniformed youths sit around looking bored at a rock concert. What might have been the resistance to life under authoritarian rule looks dully depleted - a worse vision of our own future with a declining ‘western democracy’ exceeded by totalitarian capitalism.
Jamal Cyrus’ ‘Kennedy King Kennedy’ (2015), Emmanuel Van der Auwera’s ‘Red IV’ (2018) and Karl Haendel’s ‘Hilary’ (2016) dramatise the historicising of pivots in US politics and the problematics of contested imagery. Cyrus literally unpicks the iconography of the baby boomer martyrs, the news of their deaths seemingly burnt onto papyrus creating a modern relic. The cultural legacy of the trauma and disbelief of the Kennedy and King assassinations was the hauntology of conspiracy theories and alternative histories. Facing Cyrus’ work, ‘Red IV’ captures the shocked reaction of Hilary Clinton supporters at the moment they learnt the Trump had won; Van der Auwera’s image captures brilliantly the sense of a whole political system being rewritten. Some of Clinton’s supporters in ‘Red IV’ clasp their hands as if in prayer, they are fundamentalists and dupes as much as the addicted mob in Maclean’s piece. Haendel’s massive forbidding portrait of Clinton and sound work listing the all-male Presidents of the US makes plain the consequences of being on the losing side of history.