PRINT April 2007


“IS THIS FOR REAL?” The tone of the question was a mixture of disgust, sarcasm, and self-righteousness, but it was uttered just loud enough to betray some outright anxiety. It stopped me in my tracks. I had just passed the smartly dressed, bejeweled young woman who asked it and her tuxedoed beau as they made their way through Tate Britain’s grand Duveen Galleries to the opening of a dreadful exhibition of recent bronze sculptures by the Chapman brothers. Turning around, I could not see her face, but only that her hands were extended in front of her in a protective gesture. She might simply have closed her eyes.

The skeptical query was more to the point than the woman might have known, given that the this in question was State Britain, 2007, Mark Wallinger’s brilliantly titled installation occupying the museum’s central gallery through August 27. It is an exact replica of, indeed, a real makeshift palisade in front of the British Parliament—composed of placards, banners, messages, and personal items, such as a mattress and several teddy bears—that grew to 130 feet in length from June 2001 until the night of May 23, 2006, when it was forcibly removed by no fewer than seventy-eight London police officers. The original “assemblage” was the “work” of Brian Haw, a peacenik who, several months before 9/11, left home to camp out in front of Parliament to protest the economic sanctions against Iraq and, particularly, their effect on children. Haw’s strategy was unusual (deliberate, obstinate homelessness plus constant megaphone haranguing), but he probably would not have remained a fixture in the British media were it not for the disastrous invasion of Iraq almost two years after he took up his post. (He remains more than ever a part of the daily news: On February 7, he received the Channel 4 Award for Most Inspiring Political Figure, garnering 54 percent of the viewers’ votes as opposed to Tony Blair’s 8.) Although he may have welcomed contributions to his barricade before the invasion of Iraq, they clearly began to pour in after the war commenced. Among the countless additions were posters making use of the popular pun Bliar; banners calling Blair and Bush “baby killers”; a large logo showing a human figure pointing a gunlike gas-pump nozzle at its head; a painting representing two soldiers, one standing watch with his machine gun while the other hastily brushes a huge red peace sign on a wall; a list of British MPs who voted for the war; and, most disturbingly, many photos of atrociously mutilated children, their bodies bloated, transformed into those of tadpoles or dog ticks, their faces at times a bloody mess, barely legible as human.

The brochure published by the Tate to accompany Wallinger’s exhibition is not very precise about when the artist conceived of the installation, but it does include the text of the parliamentary decree that became the legal basis for Haw’s eviction and the dismantling of the protest material. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 stipulates, among other provisions specifically targeted at Haw, that no political demonstration can occur less than “one kilometre in a straight line from the point nearest to it in Parliament Square” without prior authorization from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Although the law went into effect on July 1, 2005, it did not prompt immediate police action, in part due to public embarrassment (notably from the judiciary) over such a gross repudiation of freedoms guaranteed by the Magna Carta, the principles of which Blair had always emphatically professed to maintain. (The brochure, which contains a medley of quotations selected by Wallinger, offers this pearl delivered by the prime minister in a 2002 speech at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library: “When I pass protesters every day at Downing Street, and believe me, you name it, they protest against it, I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom.”) By this time, Haw had become a prominent public figure and, with the financial aid of many supporters, he launched a legal battle against the government, which he won almost instantly, when on July 29, 2005, the British High Court declared that the law was not retroactively applicable to someone already engaged in protest within the newly prohibited zone. It took a while for Blair and his cronies to fight back and win the second round of the legal battle, and it was during this time that Wallinger digitally recorded Haw’s street display in meticulous forensic fashion. To make the rest of Haw’s story short: After his arrest and those of several of his supporters, he won the third round and, beginning on January 22, 2007, was legally allowed to occupy a portion of Parliament Square, provided that the length of his display would be limited to roughly ten feet. He is back there now, though his puny stand, the size of a street vendor’s, is not easy to access. All pedestrian crossings to his part of the square have been removed, and one must (illegally?) brave the busy traffic on a wide avenue in order to go take a peek. Despite his diminished visibility, he is still being harassed: I went to see him after my second visit to Wallinger’s show, but he was back in court that day, his display guarded by friends handing out leaflets urging the rare visitor to go see the exhibition, barely a ten-minute walk away.

“Is this for real?” can be understood in many ways: “Is this the real stuff, the real junk of the Brian Haw of evening news fame?” (it looks absolutely so, it must be said, the posters, teddy bears, and placards evidently dirtied by pollution, the photos convincingly faded); “Is this really considered art?” (as opposed to, say, the bronze phalli of the Chapman brothers next door); and, most important, “Is this really what’s happening in Iraq? Are these horrible images really true?”

The gallery’s wall text provides answers to the first two questions: (1) No, this is not Haw’s stuff, and (2) Yes, it is art, and skillfully crafted at that. To that end, there is a fair amount of insistence on the tedious process of duplication, on the hours spent by an army of assistants scrutinizing photographs and devising tricks to obtain a perfect imitation. State Britain, we are told in the brochure, belongs to a tradition of replicas and appropriations that has, since Duchamp, challenged the very concept of authenticity—and other precedents could have been mentioned here as well, such as Jasper Johns’s ale cans or, more recently, Fischli & Weiss’s painstakingly faithful simulacra of a painter’s entire studio (one of which was on view in their retrospective at Tate Modern until the day before the unveiling of Wallinger’s installation). Fine, good to know, but such information sheds little light on the particular efficacy of Wallinger’s work, which does not hinge so much on underlining the fragility of the limit between art and non-art, the museological and nonmuseological (that would be hyperbanal) but rather on emphasizing the ideological hold of such a limit in our culture, a hold more solid than ever despite all appearances to the contrary. Thus, when Haw went to the Tate with new items to add to “his” display, he was firmly told first by guards and then by curators that he could not do so, since this was a work of art. (“See the Do Not Touch sign,” one imagines a guard imploring. “But I did this!” Haw replies, to which the guard answers, “No, you didn’t. Mark Wallinger did, and with great care.”)

None of this would make Wallinger’s piece one of the most remarkable political works of art ever, were it not for its actual physical context. For it is shown not in a commercial gallery where the happy few of the globalized art world might venture (as, originally, were the startling recent photomontages of Martha Rosler or a 2006 installation by Thomas Hirschhorn, both artists responding as violently as Wallinger to the invasion of Iraq) but in the central hall of a major national museum. Named after Baron Joseph Duveen—one of the most famous art dealers of all time—this enormous Neoclassical hall is the last place one would expect to encounter Wallinger’s piece. A place where no one (except, again, the happy initiated few) could possibly foresee having to stroll the entire length of the hair-raising display to visit the marvelous little Turner exhibition down the hall; but also a place where no one (even the happy few) could possibly foresee that such a graphic, visceral attack against the Blair/Bush policy would be permitted. The Tate, after all, is a state-financed public museum, and not only is the lack of government censorship astounding, but even more so, the lack of self-censorship on the part of the museum’s curators and director. Although American museums generally rely far less on public funding, it is nearly impossible to imagine a single one staging an installation as politically inflammatory as this.

Wallinger’s work, however, depends not only on its institutional context but also on its historical one. The installation is in part so stunning because it provides a rich trove of vivid information at a time when information, precisely, is drastically screened and controlled (far less, in general, in the UK and Europe than in the US, to be sure, but in none of these places does one regularly encounter such gruesome images of the latest carnage in Baghdad). In short, willingly or not, the beholders of Wallinger’s piece learn that the war in Iraq is most certainly not virtual. (Remember this claim by the late Jean Baudrillard about the first Gulf War and the current conflict?) Ironically, though, they learn that this criminal war is not a simulacrum via a simulacrum (a replica), which is guaranteed a much larger public than the “real,” measly reincarnation of Haw’s stand currently in Parliament Square. They learn, and they are appalled. Few are as vocal as the skeptical woman I mentioned earlier. Most are solemn, silent, slowly gazing at the catalogue of horrors until they can take it no more.

It has become customary, among those nostalgic for an avant-garde stance (I count myself among them), to lament the grip of the culture industry on our life, to bemoan the commercial devolution of everything into mere spectacle. The strength of Wallinger’s piece is that it takes hold of this condition and makes use of it while testing it at the same time. The spectacular nature of State Britain is manifold: There is the meteorite effect (“How did this thing land here?”), the grand scale, and the Fischli-&-Weiss-type insistence on geewhiz skill (except for the mattress, which is one of the very few items the police did not remove, it’s all a copy!). But it is the testing of these spectacular conventions that is interesting: Is there a threshold beyond which something will no longer be acceptable as spectacle? One notices a thick black line traced on the gallery floor, a line which is a segment of the virtual circle with a one-kilometer radius centered at Parliament Square. One also notices that the line bisects Wallinger’s piece. In other words, one half of it is illegal and, technically, could be carted away just like the artifact it replicates (not to speak of the perpetrators, like Tate director Nicholas Serota, who might be first to be arrested for breaking the law). I bet none of this will happen. But why? Precisely because, in this day and age, the culture industry and the political and financial powers that support it need the illusion that art is a refuge (best if it’s innocuous, but the culture industry can ultimately accommodate anything) and the dogma that museums are safe havens with special immunity just as churches and mosques once were. Recent violence in such religious sites might lead us to believe that only museums remain cordoned off from real bloodshed and, in this case at least, from the grip of the law—a double standard brilliantly spectacularized by Wallinger. There is something nihilistic, but not entirely defeatist, about his installation. This is the current State (of) Britain, it says: paranoiac enough to abolish rights that had been assured its citizens since 1215, but shrewd enough to let art bask in its fictional perfume of freedom. Let’s relish the aroma, while it’s still possible. Museums might not be immune forever.

Yve-Alain Bois is a contributing editor of Artforum.