Yukinori Yanagi

Anthony D’Offay

Predictably, those reporting on the opening of the recent Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia, made much of the irrelevance of this imperial relic. Anachronistic and competitively substandard, these games have little to recommend them beyond the jolly dottiness of the occasion. As one commentator, a Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference observed, the event warrants some attention from the “frock experts in the Royal rat pack,” but not from political journalists. Toying with these same themes of anachronism and diminished potency, Yukinori Yanagi constructed Union Jack Ant Farm, 1994, for display in Anthony d’Offay’s newish side gallery devoted to young artists’ work.

Each of the 20 Plexiglas frames that made up the piece contained a flag, fashioned in colored sand, that included the Union Jack. Some of those represented belong to sizable territories—South Africa, the Antipodes, vast tracts of Canada—while most of the rest indicate various small islands sprinkled throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They make a bizarre collection. Naturally we know the political, economic, and military grounds upon which they rest, but a historical understanding of their genesis only adds to one’s sense of the arbitrariness of their present-day juxtaposition. In the center of the bottom row sat the Union Flag itself and through the wall immediately behind it, accessed by a tube, was an incubation box for a colony of red ants. Able to enter the leftovers of the Empire at its center the ants could spread, burrowing through the “UK” and into other countries by means of interconnecting tubes.

This is no image of attrition or of depredation by outside forces. Nor is it an illustration of the effects of willful subversion. The canker spreads from within because the very act of living in this precariously defined geographicopolitical structure unavoidably endangers its existence. Once it has reached the limit of its expansion, the Empire must inevitably disintegrate. What holds the tatters of its former glory together is often no more than habit.

The changes that occurred in Union Jack Ant Farm were too slow to allow us to describe this rendition of decline and fall as spectacle. It was colorful for sure, and diverting, perhaps, as one idly wondered whether the workers, having reached the Cayman Islands via Tuvalu would strike out next at Ontario or the British Virgin Islands. Diversion, though, is a poor substitute for a critique of nationalism and of the legacy of imperialism, and it was a desire to promote such a critique that appeared to be the initial impetus for the work. Goodness knows there is a need for such a thing (since British popular culture has been absorbed in contemplation of its postcolonial navel for considerable time now), but it would take more than a few confections of this sort to shake it out of its self-obsessed reverie.

Michael Archer