The rise of the artist as activist is a recurrent theme in the 21st century. Driven by the globalisation of the art market, the proliferation of capitalism and the repetitive threat of collapse of political systems across the world, contemporary art places itself in a position to speak to, and reconsider the systems we live under. Political art and propaganda have long been devices of artistic output, but shifts in the way that artworks act in a contemporary world have affected how artists position themselves. How do artists create political agency through their artistic output?
Planning for Tomorrow, shown at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, is an exhibition that brings to the fore the idea that activism can be useful and aesthetic without compromising its potency. Following curator Logan MacDonald’s interest in politically driven artistic practices, the exhibition engages with a dialogue of unrest, critique and an opening up to the possibilities presented by the collapse of current systems. It acts to reconsider the present in reference to what the future might look like. The exhibition presents a collection of works that have been made for an art world audience; aesthetically driven, informed by visual culture and embedded with formal and material consideration. Paralleling these values, the works embody a ‘call to action’ and activist readability.
Deborah Kelly’s work Night Falls in the Valley (2012) references the billowing banners of early modernists romantic revolution (read Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People), situating itself as an aesthetic object. Golden tassels, diamonds, luxurious silk velvet in royal blue and imperial red, act to legitimise the banner as a crafted, official and authoritative object. The slogan reads THE BILLIONAIRES UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED a cynical comment on a world which, under capitalism, increasingly sees the rise of select billionaires who control the masses through oppression, censorship and the power of capital (in Australia, this is no more obvious than now as we head towards an election driven by the Murdoch press). The banner, situated centrally in the gallery space, is suspended in the act of collapse. While the criticism presented by the slogan is obvious, the gesture presents multiple readings: does it represent triumphant abandonment? Or, activist revolutionary uprising?
Paralleling Kelly’s central piece, other works point towards the agency of the artist to present possibility. Keg de Souza’s video work If There’s Something Strange in Your Neighbourhood (2014) develops out of one of the failed spaces of capitalism - a slum in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She explores spaces that have developed from fissures left behind by rapid economic change. Santiago Sierra’s performative and materially driven work Destroyed Word (2012) engages with the global labour market as a method of drawing attention to notions of privilege, power and domination. He exploits the system to construct, in order to pragmatically, as well as metaphorically, destroy. Dystopic photographs by Gregory Ackland present a more opaque reading of art as activism. The ambiguous and shifting readings challenge the viewer to question the ideologies that claim to represent us. Indeterminacy is also key to Damiano Bertoli’s series of aggressively saturated drawings. Playing the line between aesthetic appeal (or repulsion) and political agency, Bertoli appropriates design conventions as a discursive tool. Speaking about the political agency of his work he says “Where other cultural forms are predicated on the clear and direct communication of language as information, art seems more concerned with articulating the poetic.”
Planning for Tomorrow comments openly, and poetically, on the construction and division of power, status and wealth in the 21st century and equally on the role of art in reflecting, critiquing and actively reconstructions these tropes. These works are as much speculative as they are critical. They suggest that the role of art as activism is more than just to passively comment, or even to undermine. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the agency of art is to conceive of possibilities; to poetically reconfigure the systems under which we live towards an alternative future.