Placards for the People ; Downstairs: How to Turn Slogans into Art. Upstairs: How to Turn Junk into Sculpture. Baltic's Pair of Exhibitions Work Well Together, Says Tom Lubbock
Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)
Anyone who went on the anti-war marches last year or this will have been struck by the poor quality of the sloganeering. Of course, in any mass movement, you expect to find yourself in alliance with complete idiots and worse - that's how it goes with political activity; you just have to grin and bear it. But you don't have to wave the placards and chant the chants.
The whinging narcissism of "Not In My Name", the dull thud of "Don't Attack Iraq", the infantile "George Bush, we know you, your daddy was a killer too" - even the righteous need a little verbal music or wit to keep their spirits up. As for the visuals: that fat, black blocky typeface, so stirring when Neville Brody designed Rock Against Racism in the Seventies, has had its day. The contemporary demo needs help.
And help is at hand - from Bob and Roberta Smith's exhibition at Baltic arts centre in Gateshead. How about: "Tony Blair is a Zombie of Death"; "The Labour Party are Weasels and Vipers, forked-tongued turncoats who have spattered British people's faces with blood"; "Gordon Brown looks like a pig"; "Jack Straw is short-sighted"; "David Blunkett is Blind"; "Peter Hain is a shit"; "Clare Short blew it". These are some of the slogans on show.
The thing about them is that, in their mixture of lurching violence, diffidence and oafishness, they sound like real opinions. They're painted in the kind of fairground lettering that is the Smith trademark; plain capitals with an edge that makes the letters three-dimensional. They show a joy in assertion. But whether their protest is meant quite straight, you may wonder.
They're mixed up with all kinds of other painted placards and concrete plaques, whose messages are sometimes political, sometimes not, and sometimes obviously - or possibly - absurd. For example: "Every little helps evil Tesco destroy the corner shop"; "Don't waste all your time"; "NTL pump shit into your living room"; "It is clever to swear"; "No one understands you"; "Everyone loves their mum, she's a female"; "Bad people are demanding"; "It is the dawning of a new age"; "Pick up Alma at 20 to nine"; "I have met three people, two of whom are of interest". And a declaration that brings the mind to a dead stop: "Men are Women".
Bob and Roberta Smith is the ridiculous pseudonym of the artist Patrick Brill - comedian, moralist, democrat. His work is a joke that you have to enter into, in order to feel that it isn't entirely a joke. It's a joke, for example, on the normal protocols of art. This show, like other Smith shows, looks a pretty good mess.
It is a jumble of standing placards, literally a forest, with cut- down silver birches standing among them, everything held up with crude wooden props. There's also a television, permanently transmitting, with the words "CODSWALLOP BULLSHIT AND LIES" written on the screen, and sofas covered in concrete plaques, and a small shed covered all over with plaques telling somebody's life story, and a desk where you can do drawings - "RIDICULE OR CELEBRATE PEOPLE BY DRAWING THEM" - and hang them on the trees, and a back room where your sayings can be turned into plaques. As the show continues, the public's messages will join those that are indistinguishably the artist's own.
Some of the jokes are funny, and audience participation in itself always seems rather pointless, and I don't go for chaos, and I don't get the silver birches, except that they make the whole installation feel wintry. But somehow, the Smith's work carries truth and goodness. It has a truthful tone - which is to say, a mingled and equivocal tone - of high-mindedness and public spirit and rage, and on the other hand hopelessness and simple cheeriness. It protests and it shrugs. It invites you to join in. And, on those terms, the invitation is inviting.
Two levels up, Baltic's top-floor space is filled with four enormous junk assemblage sculptures by Phyllida Barlow. …