art in the dark


ART IN THE DARK
 

Diet Wiegman
Vertekend Beeld 1983
Mixed media

 

Following the fragmentation of the fractious group which evolved out of Our Wonderful Culture, Stewart Home having organised a Festival of Plagiarism went on to initiate an Art Strike which he requested that we join. We declined on the basis that we thought that contributing to the assault on culture is not a unionised activity. 1 We were also well aware that the art world would be more than happy for us to cease our intervention for the foreseeable future and anyway, at the time, Art in Ruins’ strategy in response to a mandarin exclusion zone was one of excess – “always leave the audience wanting less.” 2

Coincidentally, around the same time, coal-miners nationally also went on strike. As everyone knows there was a long and bitter struggle with much hardship. To raise funds for this struggle an auction of art works was organised by the country’s “foremost Marxist critic” by default, John Roberts, together with artist Terry Atkinson at Gimpel Fils Gallery. We were upset not to have been asked to contribute to such a worthy cause. We could only conclude that as far as John Roberts was concerned we were either not politically correct or not legitimate; or it was that he simply didn’t like us. Probably all three; and for René Gimpel the reason may have been that he had little faith that any work of Art in Ruins was likely to sell at auction (and the gallery would be obliged to buy it in.)

Following the premature and somewhat ironic closure of the audience-unfriendly Ruins of Glamour, Glamour of Ruins due to vandalism, Chisenhale’s exhibitions organiser David Thorpe invited Art in Ruins to organise another show. We decided to fill both of Chisenhale’s large spaces with over 200 contributions to be displayed in the dark. The audience would be required to either bring a torch to view the exhibits or hire a miner’s helmet from the gallery. We contacted Arthur Scargill, the miners’ union leader and invited him to open the show.

As the date of the show grew near we went to the gallery for a meeting, only to discover that David Thorpe had moved on. His replacement was Emma Dexter, an art administrator who we had encountered previously with our show Road to Ruin at Stoke-on-Trent City Museum and Art Gallery. We were dismayed, but nevertheless explained our idea for the show and told her that we already had a growing list of participants from the UK, Europe and USA.

She listened politely whilst we talked about visiting our favourite cultural venues of the time – the Imperial War Museum and the (original) London Dungeon at London Bridge. We referred to the medieval experience of viewing frescoes in a dark church lit only by candlelight, as well as mining for coal or gold … or value, and so on. Barely able to conceal her lack of interest she raised the issue of Health and Safety:
“Someone might fall over something and hurt themselves in the dark.”
“Well, art is a dangerous activity,” we replied and suggested that a large sign could be put on the outside of the building saying “Museum: Beware all who enter here.”
She frowned, and said “I’m afraid I will have to look into the gallery’s insurance policy …”
We left the meeting, knowing it was doomed.

A few days later, without waiting for the outcome of the administrative investigation, we phoned and cancelled the show. We left Emma Dexter with the responsibility of writing to explain the situation to all those who had agreed to take part. We do not know whether she told them that the show had been cancelled due to fears for the safety of the audience … or because Art in Ruins had gone on strike.

 

NOTES
1 Also, having commenced his public career as an artist more or less plagiarising the work of Art in Ruins we were looking forward to an expansion of Stewart Home’s assault.
2 As Andy Warhol said to Lou Reed about the Velvet Underground.

 

 

II

 

In the early 80s the Institute of Contemporary Arts, with its gallery, cinema, theatre / performance space, bookshop, café and bar, was one of the hippest cultural venues in London. The newest art from New York was exhibited and conferences on postmodern identity organised. It therefore came as a surprise when Declan McGonigal, a somewhat ‘puritan’ curator rooted firmly in the conceptual and performance art of the 70s, was appointed exhibitions director.

Also to our surprise, Art in Ruins discovered that he was interested in our idea of disrupting the easy flow of visitors from the entrance foyer through the long corridor gallery to the café and bar. His reading of this intervention was more formalist than ours, but nevertheless a date was fixed for an exhibition of Art in Ruins in the Concourse Gallery at the ICA.

One side of the corridor was a long and high single blank wall surface. On the other side were six alcoves or bays. Our site analysis led us to think of these bays as being like rooms viewed in passing from an elevated position; like a journey to Canary Wharf on the Docklands Light Railway at night, catching distracted glimpses into illuminated living rooms below. We began to think about different domestic arrangements for each of the bays. 3 On the opposite wall, a continuous linear cityscape would include buildings and monuments from the immediate surroundings – Nelson’s column, the Cabinet War Rooms, and apartheid-era South Africa House.

As the date of the show grew near we went to the gallery for a meeting, only to discover that Declan McGonigal had moved on. He was replaced by two art administrators, Andrea Schlieker and James Lingwood, both of whom were unable to conceal their lack of interest in our proposal.
“Do you not think that you are being over-ambitious?” said Andrea Schlieker.

One of them pointed out the obvious fact that the corridor led to the bar where people were used to drinking alcohol … and that as a result some work recently shown in the corridor had been damaged. It was then suggested that maybe we should think about objects in display cabinets or putting a few framed pictures on the walls … and then they left.

We were dismayed that we were supposed to accept that an institution could not protect the work from the audience. A few days later, we phoned and suggested that we could run barbed wire the full length of the corridor. We were told that this was not possible as someone might hurt themselves, making it clear that the role of the curator was to protect the audience from the artwork.

We then decided that we would board up (most of) the bays with rusty sheets of corrugated iron leaving small cracks through which to glimpse the various tableaux; much like a boarded-up bomb site (and the exact opposite of a transparent museum display case) thus protecting the work from the audience and the audience from the work. 4

We called the show Lies in Ruins and the gallery was almost completely in the dark. The continuous sound of a bomber flying low 5 could be heard passing loudly overhead from one end of the corridor to the other which contributed to the “doom-laden” atmosphere, and the day after the exhibition opened American war planes bombed Libya.

In a review of the following exhibition in the Concourse Gallery at the ICA by ‘political’ artist Michael Peel, John Roberts praised Art in Ruins for at least overcoming the difficulties of the corridor space, through the use of ‘drama.’ However, he did so only in order to criticise Michael Peel for simply displaying framed pictures on the walls.

 

NOTES
3 Very late one evening, walking back from a concert in Camden, we were passing by the railway arches at Kings Cross when we stopped and suddenly saw a life-size bison standing in one of the arches staring at us in the darkness. We went back the next day to see if it was still there or whether we had imagined it. There it was, standing on the pavement outside a pine furniture shop. It was their mascot and we asked to borrow it for the show.
4 In one bay the ‘unprotected’ bison stood defiantly on a bed of autumn leaves looking at a small landscape dreaming of home, with a continuous soundtrack playing Just out of Reach of my Two Empty Arms.
5 Taken from a sound recording in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, along with black and white WW1 images of ‘destroyed landscape.’

 

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