Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013 is an exhibition that examines the effect of leftist ideas on the production, aesthetics and display of art. It opens amidst a renewed visibility of politics in contemporary artistic practice and debate. The timing may be coincidental, but Tate Liverpool’s artistic director, Francesco Manacorda, says that exhibitions are often led by artists’ current interests, which often reflect the current political situation. Manacorda also notes that the way we discuss artistic practice and the manner in which artists are thinking and working are affected by this wider context.
This is true to the central tenet of the exhibition: understanding how the making process is affected by the dominant conditions of production and the political ideas of the artists – whether they be socialism (William Morris), communism (Aleksandr Rodchenko), feminism (Guerrilla Girls) or whatever. With a recent spate of exhibitions devoted to art and politics (including the V&A’s forthcoming Disobedient Objects), this focus on the making process is what distinguishes Art Turning Left from others addressing art and political change.
The exhibition is the brain-child of Lynn Wray, an artist and PhD candidate at Liverpool John Moores University. Wray’s research project, ‘What’s Left? The influence of left-wing values on artistic process and practice’, examines the production of art since the French Revolution. The exhibition at Tate Liverpool is one output of her research.
In conceiving the exhibition, she and the team at Tate Liverpool – then-director Christoph Grunenberg and then-head of exhibitions Peter Gorschlüter – looked at how the political art of the left had been exhibited over the past 20 years in order to present a different conception to those that preceded it. The principal difference is how the works are framed. Where previous exhibitions have focused on the affective role of art and the radical ambitions of the artists, asking how art can affect social and political change, Art Turning Left reverses this by selecting its artworks for the purpose of understanding how social change can affect the process of art making.
This decision is well-considered. Manacorda explains that the focus on the methods of production is influenced by ideas taken from Walter Benjamin’s 1934 essay ‘The Author as Producer’. Benjamin wrote: ‘Rather than asking, “What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?” I would like to ask, “What is its position in them?”’ Manacorda elaborates: the exhibition is concerned with ‘how artists position themselves within the economic or distribution system of their time in order to produce change or to be coherent with their time’.
In selecting the artists, Lynn Wray identified three fundamental values of the left: equality, collectivity and the quest for alternative economics. These values were then used to examine how artists changed their ways of doing things over the years.
Manacorda cites William Morris as an example of how attitudes to leftist artistic values have changed over time. Morris’s wallpaper is not visibly socialist wallpaper – it does not scream ‘socialist’ in its appearance – but it is made under socialist conditions of production. Thus the emphasis is on ‘how artists made politically’.
Asked about the broad nature of the term ‘left’, Manacorda says that the scope of the exhibition was to be ‘inclusive’. They were ‘interested in profiling [how the] tectonic changes in culture, and social and political views, had changed the way that art is made’. They sought to understand ‘how different kinds of left have generated different solutions to the same problems’.
These solutions take many forms within the exhibition, ranging from providing self-supporting workshops for the production of political work (Mexico’s Taller de Gráfica Popular print collective, founded in 1937); getting political messages into the everyday circuit of capital (Cildo Meireles, Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project, 1970); the collection and documentation of political information for the purpose of informing the public about government propaganda in 1970s Argentina (Tucumán Arde); or the Situationist subversion of a kung fu film (Crush, 1972) to reflect an ideological fight between proletarians and bureaucrats in state capitalism (René Viénet’s La Dialectique Peut-Elle Casser Des Briques? Can Dialectics Break Bricks? 1973).
Left: El Lissitzky, Sportsmen Sportier, 1923. Image courtesy of Tate. Top right: Guerrilla Girls, untitled, 1985–90. © courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com. Bottom right: Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793. Photo: C Devleeschauwer. © Musee des Beaux-Arts
You might think that the Tate is an odd venue for an exhibition devoted to leftist politics, given the attention that the Liberate Tate art collective has drawn to the less-than-ethical BP exhibition sponsorship in recent years. Indeed Liberate Tate’s practice of activism through performance and spectacle would not be out of place in an exhibition such as this.
I ask Manacorda whether the exhibition includes works that could court controversy or were difficult to exhibit due to their radical nature. ‘We are exhibiting works of art or artefacts or documents that have a place in history. The historical distance helps,’ he admits. The exhibition includes works from contemporary artists such as Francis Alÿs, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, the late Allan Sekula and Chto Delat. Understanding the implication of these works in the current political context is also important.
Situated within the exhibition itself is The Office of Useful Art, a collaborative project with artist Tania Bruguera and Grizedale Arts, a curatorial programme/art institution that promotes the use-value of art. The Useful Art Association was started by Bruguera through her project Immigrant Movement International, which merges creative practice with knowledge in order to address the social realities of immigration through education, communication and ‘artivism’.
In tension with the outside-in approach that Art Turning Left takes (that is, using the political values to understand how art is made), Bruguera adopts an inside-out approach (that is, art as a useful tool for social change). The office provides a ‘seminar room of enquiry’ based on the Mechanics Institute ‘art for all’ model and is available for use by individuals or activist, university and community groups for the duration of the exhibition. It also provides an opportunity for visitors to become members of the Useful Art Association.
Art Turning Left aims to ‘encourage people to activate their own critical thinking’. Manacorda explains how the exhibition design was conceived to facilitate engagement: ‘Instead of doing a chronological narrative we divided the show into seven different problems expressed as questions, like: does pursuing equality change how art is made or does participation deliver equality automatically? These questions are answered through a juxtaposition of artworks that often do not even look like they belong to each other because the surface is different to the motivations or the changes in the process. The idea is to encourage people to really try to answer that question by finding out about the work.’ The exhibition provides the information for people to work out where the politics lie.
But will an exhibition devoted to left-wing art be off-putting or difficult for the average Tate Liverpool visitor unfamiliar with this type of art? Manacorda does not think so. The exhibition aims to ‘activate the curiosity of our [the Tate’s] public and get them to do some work as well, which I think is definitely in tune with the exhibition if you think of Bertolt Brecht’s principle of the epic theatre’. (Brechtian epic theatre encouraged the spectator to be an active viewer.)
He likens the exhibition to a textbook that visitors can use for their own learning. The catalogue incorporates a diary spanning the conception through to the exhibiting of the works, and works that are not included in the exhibition still make the cut. Also included is a 60-page visual essay – ‘a chronology with footnotes’. Manacorda suggests that there are two ways of reading the research – one you take home and the other you experience in the exhibition. The viewer is left to make up their own mind about ‘what’s left?’
Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013 is at Tate Liverpool from 8 November 2013 until 2 February 2014