Banksy’s Pigeons versus Exhibit B: Lessons in how to and how not to

For about 24 hours in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, a contemporary work of art resonated with us as a contemporary audience, while being effortlessly clever and intelligent. Then it was stopped dead in its tracks. But this need not matter, thanks to 24 hour digital mass media Banksy’s point has been made and it will live on in our minds and virtual reality for a long time to come. Banksy has extraordinarily succeeded where another publicised artistic effort, which was also stopped dead in its tracks, has failed rather spectacularly. I am talking about Exhibit B, which in September caused a stir amongst anti-racism campaigners, and was branded racist just as Banky’s Pigeons was.

Banksy’s Racist Pigeons at Clacton-on-Sea

Banksy’s Racist Pigeons at Clacton-on-Sea

In branding them racist both Banky’s Pigeons and Exhibit B were censored but that is about where the similarity between the two artistic efforts ends. While Banky’s Pigeons confronts, Exhibit B just shocks, merely for the fun of it. While Banky’s Pigeons is clever, Exhibit B is stark and offensive. Did I get to see Exhibit B? No. Do I need to have seen it to make these judgements? No. The snatches of images of black people chained, gagged or bound I have seen, on various news media, are enough to cause me to recoil in anger and disgust.

Art has long struggled to be educational. It was in losing its ability to educate that the masses began to see it as not particularly relevant. At best it entertains and at worst it is just ignored. In the bid to counter being ignored the idea of shock tactics was born. However, we as an audience quickly moved from being shocked to becoming desensitized and maybe amused, artist Grayson Perry said as much in his Reith lectures. In the end art has become a just-because-I-can endeavour. Exhibit B is nothing more than an example of this type of endeavour.

Purveyors of Exhibit B need to be offering a lot more than the accusations of censorship and their right to freedom of expression to justify their output. Rather than resting on the crutch of free expression, the question they need to answer is: How have our efforts contributed to the debate on racism in Britain and Europe? These purveyors need to be aware that they are operating within an environment of shock and amusement. However, the history of slavery, colonialism and racism are far too fresh and their legacies far to prevalent in our society today and the daily existence of black people, to be reduced to shock tactics and amusement. Their motifs or imagery needed to be sensitive and their message needed to be clever, intelligent and relevant. Banky’s choice of birds was a clever and a sensitive motif. His message was very relevant and maybe too relevant for comfort, but his intelligent choice of location Clacton-on-Sea, in Essex meant he caught the eye of the relevant and right audience.

The purveyors of Exhibit B need to: stop bleating about censorship, take correction and be aware of how important the imagery they were presenting was in this fast moving digital age. As much as we might like to deny it our civilisation is image led and our eyes are fast becoming the sum total of our instincts. No matter how important and relevant Exhibit B’s message purported to be, its vessel or cast was black and some commentators have dared to point out that this matters. A black cast was only going to attract a black and friendly non-Black audience. I will be interested in the arguments of the purveyors of Exhibit B on how their imagery was the right one for this audience.

There was nothing complex about the imagery of Exhibit B, unlike Banksy’s clever use of pigeons. Exhibit B’s imagery was visceral and starkly recalls the trauma its likely audience should not be wasting their emotional reserve to deal with. This audience has bigger fish to fry in the grand scheme of their hybrid existence as products of a recent traumatic diaspora. That its purveyors did not see this means their ability to engage with Exhibit B’s purported narrative needs to be questioned. That they did not anticipant the framing of their imagery in this digital age means their credentials, as artists need to be questioned.

Exhibit B’s imagery was deeply flawed. Its purveyors argument of a right to freedom of expression is very weak and a creaky crutch. Freedom of expression is a tool, a means to an end, not an end in itself. With so-called rights come responsibilities.

By Depo Olukotun

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Turner Prize 2014: A retort

‘It’s about owning images and disorientating them’: Turner prize 2014 nominee James Richards should not need to explain his work(!)

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Mishka Henner: The Brutal Beauty of Prophetic Photography

Of nine exhibiting photographers, the images of Mishka Henner captured the theme of “Consumption” in the Prix Pictet exhibition of shortlisted photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum. In this instalment of Prix Pictet’s efforts to “harness the power of photography” to draw attention to the global impact of “Consumption” Henner’s big and bold photography prints stood out, closely followed by Hong Hao’s. Neither Henner’s or Hao’s photographs should be beautiful but they are while simultaneously driving home a message to us. Both readily stair up debate, which could either be about the environment, photography or aesthetics.

Mishka Henner, Coronado Feeders

Coronado Feeders by Mishka Henner

Henner’s Coronado Feeders uses a brutal beauty to foretell a brutal truth. Of course there is the danger that Henner’s images are so politically apt and on trend that they are clichéd but what was interesting looking at Coronado Feeders, for example, was the creation of visual impact from so politically on-trend and so emotive a subject matter. Juxtaposed with Hao, we see what visual arrest and the mosaic of impact the consumption of one individual is capable of (Hao) compared to the scaring arrest and impact of the consumer demands of a town, country, region or the globe at large (Henner).

Prix Pictet at the V&A, The Porter Gallery, Thursday 22 May 2014 – Saturday 14 June 2014.

By Depo Olukotun

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Thinking Big: Pondering on anarchy and futility

The world according to Zhivago Duncan

The world according to Zhivago Duncan

‘All is futile’ laments Solomon in the Bible and its all “pretentious crap” agrees Zhivago Duncan in Christie’s and Saatchi Gallery’s Thinking Big. So nothing new through the passage of time then! Futility along with anarchy seems to be the big story in Thinking Big. In spite of the haunting beauty of Erick Swenson’s Untitled (2004), the visual poetry of Kader Attia’s Ghost (2007) and the comedy of Zhang Huan’s Donkey (2005) you can not escape this unrelenting message of futility and anarchy. As an exhibition Thinking Big is either an expression of a bored society or a world in despair for its existence. Either way this exhibition is a scary story garnished with the occassional visual gem.

Detail of Jon Pylypchuk's image of anarchy.

Detail of Jon Pylypchuk’s image of anarchy.

By Depo Olukotun

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This picture reveals a 1000 words of fallacy

Former President Clinton on a mission to Africa but look in the circle to the right.

Former President Clinton on a mission to Africa but look in the circle to the right.

A picture of former President Bill Clinton accompanying an article he penned reveals the contradictions, futility and fallacy of intervention and western philanthropy in Africa. The double-spread picture of the former president in the September 30 2013 issue of Time Magazine that inadvertently reveals an uncomfortable truth, seems innocent enough at first glance. However, fresh from submitting an essay on the use of photographs by NGOs in Africa and immediately after looking through a photo-essay on mental illness sufferers in Haiti, my emotions were high and my eyes were sharpened for misaligning detail.

The misaligning detail of this picture is not the central image of President Clinton flanked by two females who are not his wife and daughter, but hidden in the periphery of the frame. On the edge of this picture we see why Africa continues to remain on the crutches of western intervention and showman philanthropy. We see to the right, of a beaming President Clinton, an image of a suited man either detaining or shoving a boy of about six or seven years old, to the side. This image for me says a lot and it is not the same thing the former US president is saying in his article that accompanies the image.

What this picture says concisely is that Africans are getting in the way of posterity. We are being told here that Africa is a tool to be used for the purpose of perpetuating western legacies. This boy and his peers in this image should be at the centre of this picture alongside and surrounding Bill Clinton and not forced to the edge. I do not think it is far fetched to label these children the future of Africa and hence, as seeds of hope, they should be focused on and nurtured rather than suppressed. What better way to blight the future of a continent than to render the hopes for its future hopeless and make them feel worthless?

Vilém Flusser, the philosopher and photography theorist, talks about how our imagery can uncooperatively reveal hidden truths. This picture has waywardly told a thousand words that differ from the thousand words the former US president was hopping to present. The picture in question is full of euphemisms and anecdotes of uncomfortable truths, however the image of a suppressed African child and its allusion to a continuously incapacitated maligned continent is just one of them. In making this observation and drawing these conclusions I am not sending out an invitation to contest and justify, this is simply an expression of the hope that we can stop and ponder.

By Depo Olukotun

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Naughty by nature: Art by Alexis van El

It is easy and hence forgivable to be misled by the look of Alexis van El’s sculptures. Yes the inspiration for the sculpture van El refers to as “bookforms” or metal books is nature, but not from what might seem like the obvious aspects of nature. The look of van El’s bookfroms is inspired by tree bark fissures to be exact. In essence van El’s sculpture illustrates how nature replicates itself in looks and characteristics across its various aspects.

Triptych 1, metal sculpture by  Alexis van El

You can get closer to van El’s sculptures and allow nature to drive your imagination wild at the Espacio Gallery’s Elements of Art. Van El is one of a group of artists exhibiting in Elements of Art, which is on until Tuesday 16 July 2013. Espacio Gallery is on the culturally vibrant end of London’s Bethnal Green Road, that’s Shoreditch to those in the know.

By Depo Olukotun

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Outsider Art: How artists left the backdoor open

Will Gompertz laments “sculptures and paintings that should have no connections with the formal history of art” are all over the place and this at the 2013 Venice Biennale no less! His explanation for this phenomenon is that this is “a reaction against the increasing commodification of art”. I would echo Gompertz’s tone of disdain but I do not wholly buy his explanation. My suspicion is that professional artists have been unwittingly complicit in this high profile entry of what Gompertz labels “outsider art”.

Venice Biennale

Art, not without the complicity of those within the artistic discipline, has shifted focus from communication and polished execution to expression. By expression I mean this current trend of creatively baring your soul and revealing your inner person and the association of these elements with purity and being real. Expression in art has become dominant at the expense of communication and execution. Ideally all three plus a host of other elements within the artistic discipline should be equal partners within an artist’s repertoire. It is easy to identify the absence of execution, for example, in a work. You can be sure execution has failed when a member of the viewing public quips: “I could do that! In fact my 5 year old can do that!” In valuing expression over execution many artists belie the serious and considered thought process that has gone into their art.

In many cases expression coupled with the arrested state of conception has led to misconception. A lot of misconception in art has come about by many getting the wrong end of the stick with regards to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the misunderstanding of, for example, Vincent Van Gogh’s madness. Yes Van Gogh was mad but his artistic practice was not therapy, in fact according to the presentations of the respected art critic Robert Hughes, he of The Shock of the New fame, Van Gogh painted in his sane moments and not in the midst, or because, of his dark periods. However for many, due to a misunderstanding of Van Gogh, therapeutic art equals baring your soul, which in turn equals pure and honest art. Van Gogh painted because he wanted to be an artist and not because he was mad. He was all about the discipline of an artist.

Within the discipline of artists is the remit to; communicate a serious message, show us new ways of doing things, reveal novel ways of seeing the world or doing all of the above simultaneously. In the process of doing any of the above, that an artist reveals a bit of herself or himself is inevitable and undisputed. However the belief that art is all about a biographical rending of the soul has to be questioned. Furthermore the idea that anyone, in all their psychotic glory, with the audacity to reveal their inner-self can simply wander onto being an artist needs to be challenged. Going forward it is either artists stake their claim at the centre of culture and society as practitioners of a discipline or they loose their relevance along with the validity of their profession and education!

By Depo Olukotun

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