Power to the People!

A New Era of Art Ambush To Set on a Pedestal?

Atoll Blog article uploaded 15th July 2020 (and updated 16th July) discusses the new global iconoclasm linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and highlights the new ‘ambush sculpture’ by Marc Quinn called A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020, first installed and then quickly removed from Bristol’s vacated plinth of the Edward Colston statue. Click on link to open.

It used to be called ‘underground’ or ‘guerrilla’ street art, but a new term has seemingly been coined for artist Marc Quinn’s new “ambush sculpture” called ‘A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020’ , which had surreptitiously appeared on a vacant plinth following a dawn raid that instantly installed it in Bristol. The 3D-printed resin and steel figurative sculpture unveiled by stealth was of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protestor Jen Reid, seen stood aloft with a single fist raised in the classic ‘Black Power’ salute. Her pose recreated the one from the photograph her husband took of her and posted on Instagram. It was taken following the moment she described as her “overwhelming impulse” to climb up onto the very same pedestal several weeks earlier. Then, it had not long been vacated by the statue of the disgraced 17th century merchant and slave trader Edward Colston, who had just been unceremoniously ripped down by her fellow protestors and dumped into Bristol harbour. Asked about the installed artwork afterwards, Reid stood in front of it with her fist again in the air: “That’s pretty fucking ballsy, that it is” she replied.

A new global surge is on the rise, with the ripple effect of incensed protestors feeling increasingly driven to join together and pull-down or deface (or vandalise if that is your establishment viewpoint) some of our most controversial public statues and subversive iconography. This is not a new phenomenon of course, as similar mass protests in times of civic strife or revolution will testify to, but the peacetime precedent these latest examples set is entirely unique and is becoming utterly compelling. The epicentre to this tsunami of an uprising was of course the callous murder in police custody of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis back in May 2020. Driven on by this terrible crime came the united call of “I can’t breathe” and ‘Black Lives Matter’ that simply asked for society to reject all embedded racism and cultural stereotyping and to “Join the Movement to fight for Freedom, Liberation and Justice”.

The resulting ground swell of this hugely impressive movement is not just a social media reaction to yet another case of Police brutality and institutional racism either: It scratches the surface of a far deeper wound that our so-called ‘civilised’ society had perhaps thought largely healed-over. It now prods, provokes and liberates everyone to acknowledge (as if we should ever need reminding) how historically ingrained and hidden-in-plain-sight some of the symbols from our Imperialistic, racist legacy often are. Some of these are recognisable global icons, but many are far more obscure, and include those previously considered to be benign philanthropic merchants, politicians, explorers and soldiers long-dead. They have to varying degrees helped establish or sustain a privileged position at the head of an old first world order. Subliminally such establishment figures still tint a rose-coloured view back to (in)glorious past Empires and victories, as well as to a complacent present and future too. Their statues may not represent outright oppressors in the more dictatorial sense of a Stalin, Sadam or Gaddafi figure, but their aura and often passive-aggressive stance reflects a self-righteous sense of entitled superiority and governance that can be embedded in the built fabric around them. It must not be forgotten that the founding infrastructure of cities like Bristol was built on the wealth gained (and the misery and injustice wrought) from the triangular slave trade.

Over in the United States, statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, and Brigadier General Albert Pike in Washington have already been toppled. Somewhat unsurprisingly, President Trump has indicated he might sign an Executive Order to protect such monuments. Meantime, statues of Christopher Columbus in Boston, Miami and Virginia have all been vandalised too.

Back in the UK, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protest movement has also finally convinced the Governors at Oxford University that Oriel College should finally initiate the removal of its controversial statue of Empire-Builder and college founder Cecil Rhodes. The implied agreement to remove this symbol of imperialism and racism comes five years after the inaugural movement to “decolonisation” education across South Africa, also successfully lobbied the University of Cape Town (UTC) to remove its own bronze of Rhodes.

Puffed-up and Trump-like, our prime minister Boris Johnson, responded by saying that to remove such statues as Colston and Rhodes was “to lie about our history”. Meanwhile far right White groups also converged to supposedly defend the statue (and honour) of Winston Churchill sited in Parliament Square after his name had been daubed underneath with the graffiti accusation of “is a racist”. Amongst other things, Churchill is accused of a cold-hearted antipathy towards the Bengal Famine of 1943, raging at the height of the Japanese occupation of Burma, and where three million Bengalis died of hunger (more than six times the British Empire’s entire casualties during World War II itself). That his public ‘defence’ ended up with his statue boarded-up for protection and in bigoted street scenes of binge drinking and of riotous thuggery bordering on football hooliganism is too depressing to dwell on.

But it is the reaction by first protest group Black Lives Matter and then artist Marc Quinn that has set the precedent for a fantastic potential future for the graveyard of old statues that proliferate in our streets. Somewhat ironically, arts charity Art UK are only just completing their 3-year nation-wide Sculpture Project to provide a free-to-access online photographic showcase of all such publicly owned sculpture. Further to this, a series of recent BBC Radio 4 debates As the Statues Fall , Should We Remove Controversial Statues? and Racism & Statues also argued both for and against retention. Most compelling of all though is just what kind of new public art should be curated for these empty plinths (if anything) if and when such statues are removed? The jury is still out on that question, but either way, the transient move towards a new iconoclasm looks here to stay – and is something that cannot conveniently be fudged or tidied-up by authorities afterwards either. Unlike a Red Guard movement orchestrated in Mao Zedung’s Cultural Revolution, that destroyed the symbols of China’s pre-communist past, this is a populist, anti-establishment uprising being mobilised by disaffected citizens, and facilitated via social media. That this movement is growing exponentially despite the social distancing restrictions of an ongoing global pandemic, highlights it’s potency and relevance all-the-more.

In terms of Marc Quinn as an artist, this is not the first time he has installed a temporary artwork on an empty plinth (I say temporary for ‘A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020’ only because Bristol City Council in not being involved or consulted have stated since that it is “not expected to remain” * SEE POSTSCRIPT / COMMENTARY update added below): Quinn’s sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant which I first wrote about in 2004, was installed as part of Trafalgar Square’s ‘empty’ Fourth Plinth programme. It portrayed the naked vulnerability yet classic serenity of disabled artist Alison Lapper. It redressed what Quinn called a “new model of feminine heroism” and countered the age-old male dominance of usual suspects like Admiral Lord Nelson looking down from his great column. Quinn had also previously made a series of works inspired by the riots that followed the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in 2011, and has been making portraits of refugees using similar 3D scanning and prototyping techniques over the last year. But in terms of his latest work, Quinn simply says he viewed it as a duty for prominent white artists to amplify other voices and stimulate attention and discussion around urgent issues. He reiterated that  “Jen created the sculpture when she stood on the plinth and raised her arm in the air. Now we’re crystallising it.”

When questioned if it was an issue that a white artist had created the work, Reid herself said: “It’s not even a question. If we have allies, it doesn’t matter what colour they are. He has done something to represent BLM, and to keep the conversation going”. Quinn himself recalled a quote from Desmond Tutu that stated “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” He added: “White people in positions of power need to speak up and support change in the way black people are treated, their positions in society. I have been listening and learning and one of the phrases that really struck me was, ‘White silence is violence.’”

As antidote to any natural misgivings felt because of the far right, White hooliganism seen around the Churchill sculpture, active engagement in Black Lives Matter by more diverse group of culture and race must be seen as encouraging. Historically though, such public openness is not always the case in the delicate ‘art’ of curating figurative sculptors to engage with the highly emotive subject matter of race and identity. For example, two statues of Martin Luther King Jr. were both criticised by the Black community in the U.S for not being created by Black artists: Sculptor Erik Blome was accused of being incapable of relating to Black issues and creating an authentic “African” pose and face for Dr King for his sculpture installed in Rocky Mount, whilst Chinese artist, Lei Yixin’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, having been carved in white granite, was criticised for being “too white”.

In the meantime, whilst Jen Reid helps broaden the growing legacy of Black Lives Matter with a wider world, the usurped figure of the now-disgraced Colston has, it seems, already been dredged from the bottom of Bristol Harbour. He is currently being restored, but it has been reported that his daubed graffiti, plus an old bicycle tyre ‘acquired’, whilst under the water will all be preserved for his eventual move to a new permanent home in Bristol Museum.

Despite a ‘Statue of Limitations’ as some have called it, and regardless of how many centuries ago the conviction, the new public movement is in no mood to be assuaged: Oh, how the mighty have fallen!

POSTSCRIPT / COMMENTARY: As reported by the Bristol Post, the Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees insisted the future of the Edward Colston plinth must be decided on by the people of Bristol democratically through consultation. As a result, the temporary sculpture was more temporary than expected and was removed with 24 hours no less. This was because it was not done with the permission of Bristol City Council or citizens, and the cost of its removal has been reportedly billed to Marc Quinn to boot. In justifying his decision, the mayor confirmed his council was committed to build a place fit for all Bristolians, and to “building a city that is home to those who are elated at the statue being pulled down, those who sympathise with its removal, but are dismayed at how it happened and those who feel that in its removal, they’ve lost a piece of the Bristol they know and therefore themselves”. He talked ultimately of finding a pace that brings the people along too. He quoted an African proverb that says “if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together” and concluded (rather perversely) that the temporary sculpture installed “was the work and decision of a London based artist”. In fairness, he didn’t cite the description “non-black” artist, but other voices later on social media picked that up and called only for a commission for a young emerging black artist. One can’t help but think that this rather misses the whole point of an ongoing cycle of temporary public art and the diversity of perspectives it enables. The irony here is that the real, but impetuous, author of her unintentional arts intervention and cultural comment, was actually Jen Reid herself. This fact had already been alluded to by Marc Quinn.

Indeed, had this been the instant fix of applied art by Bristol’s own much-loved son, the guerrilla street artist Banksy, one wonders if this (over) reaction would have been quite so instant and unequivocal. The fact that the identity, background and so by default ethnicity, of this particular arts vigilante is unknown would also have been a curious thing to debate. For Bristol, a city with a proud track record of first having a progressive urban design-orientated Mayor (George Ferguson), and a progression of highly ground-breaking public art programmes (Public Art Southwest, Legible Cities, Situations & Public Art (Now)) this looks to be a massive misappropriation of public mood and a cultural decision made far too prematurely. This seems a miscalculation, dressed up as political expediency, and made by Bristol’s own black mayor.

According to the artist and subject matter both, A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020 was only ever intended as a temporary installation to contribute to the BLM debate and raise awareness. Whilst it was admittedly installed in secret, without permission, no laws were actually broken. To be left standing for just 24 hours might seem to limit the artworks impact and newsworthiness, although perhaps the opposite effect might be the end result when the dust settles. Like most things in life, only time will tell.

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