BRAVE NEW WORLD

Once politics was, if not simple then at least understandable.  There were parties on the left and parties on the right, and they would stay roughly at either end of the spectrum, fluctuating into the centre and out again; but you knew, and so did they, which side of the centre they belonged.  Then you had the parties in the centre that had to fight off incursions into its space from one side or the other.  Tribal loyalties saw to it that you would usually follow your family’s lead when placing your X on the polling card. But now conviction politicians are gone.  Candidates promise anything to get votes.  Elected politicians appease reactionary popular opinion; unpalatable stories are called fake news.  No one wants to listen to elite groups who, they argue, consider themselves superior to everyone else.

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It feels like everyone is playing by different rules; change has spread right across classes, gender and the country.   Austerity is hitting some communities badly whilst others continue much as they ever have; buying necessities like foreign holidays, fast cars and super wide televisions.  The government continues to cut funding for further education and the NHS but can find enough to commit to Trident and nuclear weapons.  Many young people want to know what the point in cramming their heads with knowledge is when experts are no longer valued or guaranteed work once they are crammed with arcane facts.

The financial crisis caused by the banks hit everyone except the banks themselves, who are still getting richer.  Terrorist fanatics are killing indiscriminately across Europe and the need to gather information means that personal liberties are being invaded.

It seems obvious to me that now is the time to have a serious discussion about how our society works and what our priorities should be to prevent the very poor getting poorer and the very rich getting, well anything they want.  Should we look to the Nordic countries and raise Taxes so that our schools and hospitals work?  Should we know what proportion of our taxes go to what?  And should the disgustingly rich pay at a higher rate of Tax than the ‘Just about Managing’ people who feel they have been left behind and forgotten?

In other words, do we want politicians discussing things that don’t really matter? Do we want a higher moral and honest tone to the debates in the House of Commons – with no booing or braying?  Or shall we forever be talking about what we can screw out of our neighbours just to leave them all alone for a while?  And seriously, do any of us really think that this is a brave little country hitting way above it’s weight against larger, calculating, unscrupulous and less plucky competitors?

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MONA HATOUM at The Tate

I saw Corps étranger [1994] by Mona Hatoum for the first time in 1995 when it formed part of the Tate’s wonderful Rites of Passage exhibition marking the end of the twentieth century.  I was just beginning my art degree then and I’d never seen anything like it; there wasn’t anything like it.  It made a very deep impression on me, the fibre optic camera moving slowly across the body’s landscape and disappearing down orifice’s and into deep thickets of hair was foreign territory for me.

Now all these years later and twenty years older I have had perforce a few occasions when I became a little more familiar with my own moist and glistening interior and I have become aware of just how complex this installation must have been to execute.

The perfect white encasing cylinder was a departure from the artist’s usual oeuvre and so evocative of one of Le Corbusier’s primary solids. But it also served to create a space that was both inside and part of, yet also separate from the space of the museum.  The neutral, clean surface of this column was cool and sophisticated, with a whiff of Huxley’s Brave New World about it – a giant test tube for creation?

Once inside I watched vertiginously from above the journey moving relentlessly onwards on a forward momentum through familiar and unfamiliar parts towards an unknown goal.  This time my added years and own personal experiences has lent this work added significance and a more personal appreciation of just how magically Mona Hatoum manipulates her audience.

Corps etranger

I had plenty of time, and the patience to wait and allow the works to communicate to me.  Three works especially moved me and highlighted the artist’s prescience. Light Sentence [1992] was visually interesting from the outset – this installation was made up of square wire mesh lockers stacked to create a three-sided enclosure of over human height.  They resembled animal cages, prisons or might have been short hand for modernist architecture?  The incredibly bright, single light hanging in the centre threw shadows of fine, intersecting lines and squares onto the outer walls.

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Standing quietly and watching the shadow play on the walls I slowly became aware that the disturbed ambient air in the room was making the light bulb swing very, very slightly on its wire thus creating the effect of shadows that were moving rhythmically up and down much like that of breathing.  This subtle, uncanny movement, full of suspense and unspoken threat spoke to me of sinister Prison Camps for terrorists.

One of Hatoum’s earliest works, Don’t smile, you’re on camera! [1980] was a performance where she surreptitiously mixed live shots of audience members with images of naked bodies and x-rays, making it appear that the camera could see through layers of clothing.  In 1980 how could she have foreseen cameras in at airport check ins which actually do see through your clothing – all introduced without any complaints about invasion of privacy or decency?

Finally there was a room full with a combination of kitchen utensils and household furniture, connected to each other with electric wire, through which ran a live electric current.  Homebound [2000] crackled and fizzed with the sound of the amplified hum of the fluctuating current which alternately illuminating separate parts of the installation.  At first I didn’t think this complicated set up was very effective.  I sat on the bench conveniently placed in the room; I sat and watched the loop of disparate, mundane objects lighting up and then going off and didn’t get it.  What was the connection?  OK so most of the objects were distressed metal, cooking utensils, whisks, colanders, chairs, tables, stools, buckets.  Then I noticed the empty metal baby’s crib, there was nothing to soften the hard, metal surfaces, no mattress or pillow.  Under the cot was a metal potty, white inside.  Then the lights went on and this potty glowed brightly and seemed to draw attention to the complete abandonment of the place and suddenly into my mind came the pictures of bombed out and abandoned building in Aleppo and I got it.

Homebound

Mona Hatoum’s work does seem to improve with age.  Her work.  Her Art.  Her magical ability to force her audience to experience something and to empathise with what concerned her mind at the time.  Taking the time with this retrospective I became conscious that for Hatoum the viewer is always part of her considerations when contemplating her work.  Seeing all these works together we are moved from vicarious involvment, bound up in hopeless adventure, empowered as a voyeur, entrapped, and with luck just a bit of self-recognition. If you go please give this very well curated exhibition plenty of time and an open mind.

 

WHAT IF?

At school I embraced science and rejected religion.  The certainty of science was reassuring.  Science meant facts & knowledge.  It was immutable, incontrovertible and empirical.  Science measured things, tested things, showed how things worked.  That knowledge was power.  Nothing left to chance, nothing a matter of faith. Religion was passed down to us as a fact, true, but we were expected to accept it at face value.  Knowledge imparted through dictum, not experience.  Testing God was not on.

Science nowadays seems bossy and smug; a closed egalitarian system for the initiated in-crowd and it too involves interpretation.  Richard Dawkins, the spokesperson for the hatred for all things religious and love of the life scientific, had seemed so plausible – of course science should help us find the answers together with experimentation, tests, blind-tests and empirical measurements.

On the other hand, Religion did not seem to have much going for it.  Christianity could be held responsible for a lot of bad things, going back through its two thousand year history, the inquisition, nepotism, child abuse, heretical burnings.  But in that same time period it had also been the great religious orders – the Cistercians, the Benedictines, the Dominicans – that offered the opportunity for scientific experiments.  In those days there were simply no other organisations supporting brilliant minds, just the religious orders.  Cut off from society in lonely monastery cells, these religious were radically pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward.  The thirteen century Franciscan scientist, Roger Bacon was an intellectual pioneer of the study of nature through empirical methods.  In his day there was no such thing as a scientist, it was the monks’ faith that led them to explore the conditions for life, as a God-given mystery, to be understood.  The monasteries and convents were the power-house of creativity, education, medicine, hygiene, food, wine and scientific development.

To be religious now could mean thinking and speaking from the heart, nebulous thoughts, more fluid connections and ideas, free from the threat of damnation and hell fire.  Yes, and even humour is back in fashion in the Vatican, this new Pope can laugh.  What a laugh it would be if he were courageous enough to ordain a woman as a Cardinal, in one fell swoop he would steal a march on the Church of England and open up the church to the millions of women who shore up large and tiny parishes, all around the world.

Where are those power-houses now?  Is it Silicon Valley, or its counterparts in Russian, China, Korea?  The great Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft empires, where folk still dress in sandals and have long, flowing locks and beards; could they ever be capable of great art, music or writing?  Or is their vision concentrated, fixedly on their monitors and banks of screens, searching for answers along the virtual connections, circuitry and silicon chips of their sophisticated machines?  Is their future one of co-evolution, of human/machine coupling?

Life, emotions and relationships cannot conform to an algorithm, it is chaotic.  But if chaos theory tells us anything, it is that when Chaos is magnified enough times, it becomes order; maybe we just haven’t the ability to see the whole picture yet.  According to the big bang model, the universe expanded from an extremely dense and hot state.  After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies.  The big bang theory does not provide any explanation for the initial conditions of the Universe, rather it describes and explains the general evolution of the Universe going forward from that point.  Why had the conditions that went to make that explosion, existed in the first place?  The potential for the beginning.  Where did that potential come from?

Why are we designed the way we are?  The human genome project illustrates just how marvellous we are, but why are we that way?  To find God maybe we need to be even bigger than the memory of a strand of DNA, after all DNA has not been given to us by scientists, scientists have just revealed DNA to us, it comes from….. who knows where?  Our brains make connections, our blood flow can be observed, using MRI scans, moving around both sides of our hippocampus – our brain waves are a brain wave, but our inventions only expose the beauty of what we always had, but couldn’t see?  Seeing is believing, but the ultimate answers are still a mystery.

The beautiful, brilliant mystery that scientists are beginning to reveal, still does not supply the answer as to why the original pieces, the building blocks that make us who we are, were there in the first place?  Potential us, so dependant on chance encounters and conditions allowing for millions of different outcomes.

There are things that can’t be explained or matched up and ticked off.  Maturity, life experiences, does it endow us with a newfound tolerance for uncertainty?  No answers?  Mystery?  Daring to say there are some things we just don’t understand? Faith?  Have we reached a place where we can accept that open-ended, unsatisfactory realisation?