The John Ruskin Prize 2019:
Agent of Change
12 July - 24 August
The Holden Gallery
There seems to be something distinctly different about the climate we are living in, something that sets it apart from the climate of five years ago. It’s different in a way that the climate of five years ago wasn’t that different to its’ preceding years. This is a difficult notion to describe, maybe it’s a fallacy, maybe it’s simply the human condition to see the “now” as more relevant and the issues of today as more pressing. Or maybe, just maybe things have become markedly different. Consider summarizing the major political events and societal changes of the last few years:
Teresa May’s hostile environment, Windrush, Grenfell, child poverty, the housing crisis, food banks, homelessness, Brexit, migration, Donald Trump, the border wall, sexual misconduct, white supremacy, collusion with Russia, race relations, police brutality, detainment camps, climate change, deforestation, species extinction, soil degradation, overpopulation, mental health issues, gender equality, social care, global financial crisis, global unemployment.
As expansive as this list is, it is certain to have missed countless number of issues and even with their inclusion one would still struggle to keep up to date the ever growing multitude of concerns. So maybe it is this constant change that is the defining characteristic of our current experience which seems so different to previous ages; a never ending sequence of adversity, changing from one bad thing to another. It’s a dizzying time to be alive in, the perpetual torrent of events renders reflection and contemplation impossible, putting the role of the artist as commentator or mediator in a precarious position; is it even possible engage in politics as an artist when ideas don’t have the time to take root? If an artist commits to a political issue and spends their career exploring it, how can it find relevance is such a chaotic and expansive world?
If this isn’t problematic enough, compound this mode of experience with ‘post truth’ politics and any one of the issues stated above can be brushed aside and disregarded as hyperbole, pandering, unsubstantiated, liberal fear mongering, fake news (etc. etc.) If there are no shared standards for objective truth, is it possible to assess/critique/appreciate political art, as now more than ever the subjectivity of art seems at odds with addressing world issues because the very substance which it seeks to address is losing all objectivity.
It is easy to get lost in such thoughts and be confronted with existential paralysis which is why The John Ruskin Prize 2019: Agent for Change is such an important and exciting show. Harbouring the radical progressive values for social justice and equality relentlessly pursued by polymath John Ruskin (1819 –1900) the show is not so much an open call to artists but a call to arms. It amassed over a staggering 3000 submissions of art works which were distilled down to 41 artists by the show’s judging panel. The diversity of art on display is astonishing with very few overlap in terms of subject matter and its impact is instantaneous, providing an effervescent shot of adrenaline potent enough to dispel any latent sensations of impending existential paralysis.
Some of the highlights of the show include (but are not limited to):
Omid Asadi’s ‘Four Corners’ (2018) which comprises of a Persian rug that has been shaved in four opposing corners down to its weft. This simple if not strange process has been documented and played on a continuous loop by a nearby TV, capturing the act and displaying it as an almost ritualistic process. The work appears alludes to the identity of Islamic people, their ties to history, the importance of bodily hair and role shaving has in some Islamic traditions in a symbolically and intriguing act , maybe as a means of reassessing religious identity or maybe as a means to shed or even extricate one’s self from such cultural ties. On closer investigation Asadi’s work is much more layered than that of superficial eurocentric reading of cultural artefacts and plays on Michel Foucault idea of the Heterotopia space; the Persian rug in this case a space mirroring the four corners of the globe and Asadi’s cut throat intervention reenacts symbolically the political devastations in global affairs which pertain to instances predating and unconnected to Islam.
In ‘Soft Concrete: Wendover Aylesbury Estate’ (2019) Harriet Mena Hill uses felt to render social housing flats. In this work the structure stands resolutely, defiant in a slowly setting sun and solidly grounded in its’ locale of concrete, tarmac and graffiti. Hill brings a sense of much needed sensitivity to the subject of social housing, given the lazy stigmatization and unfair representation it is subjected to by the media. Instead of a gritty, deprived, thuggish environment we are presented with a fragile tapestry of interconnected fibres, windows into apartments are tenderly lit with warm glows of family life and the whole piece acts as a crucial reminder of the humanity that is so often the casualty of underfunding and investment negligence.
Environmental issues and the degradation of nature is explored by Kazuki Nishinaga in his mixed media sculptural piece ‘Erosion Machine’ (2018); a Victorian era scientific apparatus holds aloft six water receptacles which release water droplets onto a variety of objects held on examination plates. The contraption was at one time put into practice, the documentation of its function now playing on a monitor adjacent to the sculpture. The choice of material is particularly telling as stone, metal and plastics are subjected to the agonisingly slow experiment that will yield results that are both inevitable and blatantly obvious, which is surely the point; man made creations will ultimately outlast the demise of all things natural. The glacial pace at which the work functions is where it’s power lies as humanity lives through the deterioration the natural world, burning though biological matter, immolating ourselves and the environment for the future existence of redundant plastic and metallic detritus.
Second prize winner Shanti Panchal offers the overtly titled ‘Brexit’ (2018), a lovingly rendered watercolour of a couple in a lovingly embrace. The pair stand anonymously with their backs to the viewer and look out to sea from atop the iconic white cliffs of Britain’s mainland. The simplicity of it all quietly captures multiple layers of symbolism; British identity, first generation immigration, the hostility of the land, the uncertainty of facing the sea which has recently taken so many desperate lives, the small reassurances found in the comfort of relationships and the melon collie of it all. It’s a modest looking work, it’s soft aesthetic belies the power and depth of its message.
Balal Aquil’s contribution to the show is the most painterly of the art works, a loose and hazy rendition of a Middle Eastern and Pakistani classical painting entitled ‘Fallen Kingdom’ (2019). The work eulogies the now distant empire, once a powerful cultural centre leading the world in technology, architecture, politics and trade. The work appears like a cinematic time transition, fading away to reveal a new period but frozen at the point of vanishing completely. It’s a cautionary visage about remembering and holding on the rich histories of the past.
The winner of the first prize, Juliette Losq pushes the medium of watercolour in a way that is seldom seen in the world of painting. Her work ‘Proscenium’ (2018) is a nearly 300 cm cubed immersive painting, theatre-set-like in design which begs for audiences to clamber inside and explore the painted environment. The work recreates to scale, an abandoned red bricked courtyard left in disrepair, walls lay bare years of scrawled graffiti, a vestige of negligence and a testament to thoughtlessness. ‘Proscenium’ is a simulacrum of mankind’s disrespect to the environment; lazily designed spaces built on top of nature, shoddily assembled by cheap dispassionate materials which invite inevitable desertion. It also reveals the power of nature, as plant life reclaims the forsaken ruins, triumphantly staking claim back into the land which was so carelessly built over.
Ruskin, a true believer of the power of art and its role in social change may seem naively idealistic, especially so in today’s onslaught of aggressive neoliberalism – where the concern for the wellbeing of others is superseded by the desire for meaningless plastic goods and self-preservation is contingent on the suffering and immiseration of others. But this exhibition is demonstrative of a real appetite that artists have for social change, there is clearly a tangible drive in practitioners to make artwork that reaches out beyond the context of art itself and permeate the wider world we live in. Maybe the reason why art as a force for change can seem naïve is simply down to the fact that so few exhibitions of this nature exist. Each artist in this show fits the bill, each artist is an ‘agent for change’ and each one endeavours to make positive gains in the world but what give these agents their agency, what initiates and activate their messages is the gallery space.
Change only occurs when all aspects of culture speaks in unison, maybe the targets, subject matters and issues explored in the exhibition are only half the battle. Maybe if more institutions embraced the brazen and unabashed ideals of Ruskin more often, the power that art can possess might be more readily understood and maybe there might be more positive changes occurring in the world more often.