HAS PROTEST ART LOST ITS BITE?

Tom Molloy

In January 1937 the Spanish Republican Government commissioned the exiled painter Pablo Picasso to paint a large mural for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne at the World’s Fair in Paris. After reading an eyewitness account of the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica on 26 April 1937 by the German Air Force, the painter set to work at a large mural size oil painting which would become simply known as ‘Guernica’.

In the 1950s he turned his attention to creating tapestry reproductions of his works, which were woven in the southern French town of Cavalaire-sur-Mer by master weavers René and Jacqueline de la Baume-Dürrbache.

In 1955 they created the first of three tapestries of Guernica. It was sold to Nelson Rockefeller, a friend of Picasso and avid collector of his work. Of the other two, one remains in France and the other belongs to a Japanese collection.

As part of an installation by Goshka Macuga, this tapestry was exhibited in 2009 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the same gallery where the original Guernica was displayed in 1939.

I am now staring at Goshka Macuga’s own tapestry ‘On the Nature of the Beast’. It is one of the pieces of Demonstrating Minds – Disagreements in Contemporary Art  at Kiasma in Helsinki. The exhibition singles out works of 19 artists to show that art can take a stand in a social and political context.

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Based on press photographs of the Guernica tapestry at the Whitechapel Gallery, it depicts Prince William giving a speech for the re-opening of the gallery, its narrative tantamount to a Russian nesting doll of political art.
Has the inclusion and sometime support of the establishment silenced the dissent?

Is protest art still relevant today or has it lost its bite?

Giving in to my wandering mind, I try to remember the subject of the latest Banksy to appear on our streets. I can only recall that boards were used to protect it from the public and that most of the news coverage related to its monetary value. Not a word about the message.

In September a cereal café was targeted by an anti-gentrification protest in Shoreditch.
The self proclaimed anarchist group crowd-funded the parade on Indiegogo and advertised it on Facebook.
It looked very much like a street party with music, dancers and even fire eaters. The ideology behind was skin-deep, the pot calling the kettle black.

Protest’ is a work of Irish artist Tom Molloy. It is an installation of newspaper clippings and images from the internet. Shaped as a long march, it catches the essence of many events I have witnessed. There is a visual uniformity and sense of belonging, but the individual messages are contradictory.
It is far from clear what the protest is about.

There isn’t a day when some form of protest or political march does not take place in London. Most of those carrying placards share a genuine common purpose for taking part in them, but scratch the surface and you often find boredom, detachment, a veiled sense of guilt and most of all a misplaced or distorted socialist ideology of sorts. Even before the last people have dispersed, graffiti gets cleaned and rubbish collected. What is left behind is short lived: the attention span of participants, onlookers and the media has never been so limited.

Protest Art has lost a great deal of its raison d’être because it talks to the wrong people. It has fallen into the hands of the same people that it is trying to poke. It is a blunt instrument.

Totem‘ by Clara Ianni sums up pretty well the present inadequacy of this form of art. Her Shovel won’t dig up the earth, her sickle won’t harvest any fruit.

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