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Friday, March 02, 2007

South Bank Show on Mark Wallinger


The artist Mark Wallinger, whose installation paying tribute to Brian Haw’s anti-war protest is currently on show at Tate Britain, is the subject of this coming Sunday’s South Bank Show. The programme goes out at 11.10pm on ITV 1. We talked to the programme’s producer and director, Susan Shaw.

Susan, why did you decide to do a programme about Mark Wallinger, and why at this time?

To be honest, the Mark Wallinger film was not my idea. As I am known to be connected in the art world, Melvyn Bragg wanted me to make the film. I had a long and chaotic relationship with the art critic Matthew Collings in the 90s and witnessed the birth of the so called YBA movement of which Mark Wallinger was a part. It was felt that Mark's huge and controversial new installation at Tate Britain (a very prestigious commission) would provide an excellent focal point for the film. The work is called "State Britain" suggesting an Orwellian, paranoid view of contemporary British politics.

Mark's installation is a forensic remaking of Brian Haw's peace protest at Parliament Square before it was disassembled and seized by the police in 2006 - they were able to do this under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which created a one kilometer exclusion zone around Parliament Square, forbidding spontaneous protest. Under the Act, permission has to be obtained in advance of any protest from the head of the Metropolitan Police.

The Tate Britain installation is, for want of a better expression, political art. When art and politics collide, does it make a difference to how you approach the making of a programme?

Yes, absolutely. As broadcasters we are legally required by OffCom to present a balanced view of political issues although I would say this requirement is unevenly applied. Mark's new work at the Tate is a passionate, quasi religious protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This presented a challenge which I relished. In order to present a strong counter argument to Mark's anti war anti Blairite stance, I brought in the brilliant young writer and commentator Douglas Murray. He makes a political critique of Mark's new work, saying that Brian Haw is a totally inappropriate icon of freedom of speech, as a) he continues to protest at Parliament Square although his display was reduced from 45 to 3 metres and b) the greatest threat to freedom of speech in this country comes from Islamism, and not from Blair's legislation or the police. Douglas also makes a very powerful point when he says that strategy and serious conversation about our contemporary political dilemmas have been replaced by emotion in works like Mark's "State Britain". Of course, I also had to give voice to Brian Haw and Mark Wallinger's views - even if I disagreed with them.

Would you say that the art establishment is largely at one with Wallinger’s message?

I would say that there was an awkward assumption by the artist that my own political orientation would be Soft Left, Anti-war and Anti-Blairite. Ironic, as I am employed by a Labour Peer who voted for the war. I think it is fair to say that Mark was taken aback by Melvyn's line of questioning on "State Britain", which was challenging. The YBA movement as a whole was produced by Thatcherism in interestingly contrary directions. While not a single artist that I know of in that movement could be described as expressly Thatcherite or Conservative, and many of the works they produced were direct attacks on Conservative policy, they also epitomised the entrepreneurship that was encouraged by Thatcher, famously organising their own shows in the late 80s and early 90s without the assistance of commercial galleries. Moreover, the sponsor that enabled the explosion of success in their careers was the man who orchestrated Thatcher's electoral victories; Charles Saatchi. Damien Hirst, the leading light in the YBA movement is a famously good businessman and is now one of the richest men in England. The YBA's have enthusiastically embraced their new wealth and are not known for involvement in charity or for political activism at a grass roots level, although Mark Wallinger is perhaps an exception - as a sincerely committed socialist who still makes his political convictions explicit in his work, and unlike Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, has not embraced what can loosely be described as celebrity culture. Although my political views radically differ from Mark's, I do respect him for this. He was also one of the finest painters of his generation but interestingly, he has given painting up in favour of works produced by teams of assistants according to his ideas (as with State Britain) - which is now the norm, for artists like Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin. They have effectively rejected hand crafted works in favour of industrial production which generates huge earnings for themselves and much, much lower incomes for the artists and technicians that actually make their work. We touch on these issues in my Mark Wallinger film but there simply wasn't time for a thorough going discussion of the economics of the art world now (a television hour is now 48mins 30secs after commercial breaks). I wanted to leave space for a thorough going discussion of the issues surrounding freedom of speech, raised by "State Britain".

You’ve worked in arts programming for a long time. How, in your view, are the arts and arts broadcasting in general handling the Iraq war, and the issues thrown up by the growth in radical Islam?

Personally, as a feminist, I am profoundly disappointed by the quality of discussion surrounding radical Islam in the media. It staggers me that the majority of the chattering classes who are happy to grandstand on the Iraq War and Islam, remain ignorant of the basic tenets of Islam and in particular, the fact that the life of a woman is considered under Sharia Law to be worth half that of a man. It seems to me that while the British Media is very happy to give voice to radicalised Muslim women, those fighting for the right to wear the veil even if teaching in our schools, for example, there has been an absolute failure to represent the views of feminists like myself who regard the veil as a symbol of the undeniable second class status of women under Islam (in all its permutations, sorry) and I have a queasy feeling, echoed by Minnette Marrin at this week’s New Culture Forum event on the theatre, that this is due to fear, after Theo Van Gogh's execution and decapitation for daring to explore these issues in "Submission".

I encountered an intense sensitivity about references to Islam in my Mark Wallinger film. I had to fight to keep references to Van Gogh and the reaction to the Danish cartoons in the film in the context of a discussion of freedom of speech. All of these ironies are summed up for me in one of the favoured slogans of protestors against the Danish cartoons (99.9% male of course): Freedom of Speech = Freedom to Insult. Yes, it does, and the freedom to insult is part of our cultural tradition and heritage in Britain as it also enshrines our freedom of speech. As a woman I have to endure what I see as the insults of radical Islam and yet negotiate what is now an institutionalised paranoia around offending Muslims. In Britain the Suffragettes secured the vote for women through immense personal sacrifice; Emily Davison threw herself under the hooves of the King's horse in 1913 and died for the rights currently enjoyed by women in Britain, including Muslim women, whom I would suggest, would certainly prefer to have divorces and sexual offences considered under British Law rather than Sharia, which deprives them of so many of the human rights we take for granted.

I am also deeply disappointed by the response of the art world to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been few works even addressing the issue - in this sense Mark Wallinger's new work is significant, even if one disagrees with it. Too many of our visual artists are too busy making obscene amounts of money and too enthusiastically embracing the cults of personality and celebrity to bother sticking their necks out in any particular direction, except in the expression of an unpleasant and arrogant contempt for the patrons and collectors who have made them wealthy and famous. These are strange and troubling times.

END.

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