Art & Politics: Mark Prince on the Critical Distance between Real Life and Presentation

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On the release of Steve McQueen's Hunger, 2008--a feature film about the death of Bobby Sands by hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in Belfast in 1981--a journalist interviewing McQueen innocently used the term 'art film' to describe the work. He apparently reacted with 'a fierce look': 'What I tried to do was make the strongest film I could from the events and the story. Art has absolutely nothing to do with it.' Given McQueen's background, it was a natural enough link to draw between his previous work--films shown in art galleries--and this first outing in the world of general release cinema. And yet his dissent strikes a note often sounded when political material is assimilated into an art context. Earlier this year in Berlin, the Polish artist Artur Zmijewski showed a series of documentary clips, entitled Democracies, 2009, which he had filmed at public demonstrations around the world. Just as McQueen's Hunger was a step into new territory, Democracies represented a departure for Zmijewski, following his previous staged experiments with actors. In a talk on the occasion of the opening, he claimed to prefer 'real life' to 'presentation': 'There is no art in these movies. Art is too weak to present political demands.'

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Of course, we do not have to interpret the work of these artists as they do, but their reactions imply a judgement, and perhaps a prejudice, about the distance that exists between a political statement and the art context through which it might be voiced. This view sees the freedom of the contemporary art world--Zmijewski distinguishes his work from pure research by stating 'I am freer than the scientist'--as gravitating towards solipsism, or what Liam Gillick has described as 'the singularity problem', the subjective insularity of the unique artwork, which is at the other pole from an objective political response (Interview AM324). By this argument, the moral pressure towards political accuracy is a corrective empiricism which overrules the urgency, within a postmodern, pluralistic culture, for each artist to create their own hermetic world, distinct from all others.

Nicolas Bourriaud, the curator of this year's Tate Triennial, heralded his exhibition as symbolically superseding the era of postmodernism, but the airy globalist and pan-historical pretentions of his alternative were notably apolitical. It was a spectrum of self-regulating games with their own sets of private rules. One of the participants, Tacita Dean, meditated upon the inaccessibility of personal and political history in a suite of photogravure etchings, The Russian Ending, 2001, based on a group of found 19th-century postcards of natural disasters. The etching process has invested the images with a Turnerish painterly aura. In her hands, they have ceased to be documents and become filmic fictions representing a tragic past. The title refers to a practice in the early part of the last century in which films were given different endings to suit the various markets in which they were to be distributed: a happy ending for the Americans and a tragic one for the Russians. The comments, like poetic stage directions, which she scrawls over the impenetrably dark landscapes, plumb the immeasurable distance between the images and any real time and place they may have originally documented. Distance becomes not a critical means of measuring the ambiguities of historical and political access but a vantage point from which the past can recede in a mist of literary melancholia.

One of the effects of conceiving art as a report on a political situation is to highlight, and make critical, the distance between 'real life' and 'presentation'. It may do this by making the consciousness of that separation its primary focus--in the manner of art which deconstructs its own methods of exposition--or it may frantically attempt to close it down. …