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Issue 59 May 2001 RSS

Pyramids of Mars

The Barbican, London, UK

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Tucked away in the almost secret recesses of The Barbican, ‘Pyramids of Mars’, curated by Lars Bang Larsen and Glasgow’s Modern Institute, was a festival of disinformation, a carnival of paranoia-inducing revelations about the hidden connections between things and between people.

Aleksandra Mir’s Hello (2000-ongoing) is a sequence of the artist’s personal snapshots and pictures of stars, politicians, pop stars and unknown people taken from magazines. As in the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’, Mir establishes links between disparate people based simply on who is photographed next to whom. The length of the panoramic display, vanishing around the curved wall of the gallery, was staggering. You lost track of reality as Mir connected her friends and acquaintances to European finance ministers, Hollywood nobility, the dead, ZZ Top, Miss Piggy, Jeanne Moreau, George Bush, Claudia Schiffer and George Harrison - to name a few.

Everyone is here; I expected to see myself. The world felt smaller, as if humanity were a daisy chain, but it was not a reassuring feeling. The state of suspense was intensified by the psychedelic delirium of Sture Johannesson’s posters, distributed by him through his gallery Cannabis in Malmö, Sweden, in the late 1960s. They were censored at the time by the Swedish state, which was particularly upset by a poster for the Lunds Konsthall ‘Underground’ exhibition in 1968 which incorporated a reproduction of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People in its florid, druggy design. Today Johannesson’s posters live as hypnotically vivid works of art, playing beautifully on the idea of the poster as a free painting, a painting in the streets. In his visions the museum becomes an underground club. The art in this show works through subterranean, labyrinthine, punning connections. Its project is revolutionary, its weapons intoxicating.

Jeremy Deller’s video footage Panic (2000), shot on a digital camera while strolling around London, records moments of discord and crisis - demolitions, demonstrations, building sites. The video suggests a hidden significance, as if Deller were looking for clues to a Masonic conspiracy in the great city’s daily death and renewal. Deller also relates an anecdote, in crudely printed words on a lurid orange poster, dealing with a dinner party held before the last election at the Richmond home of Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger to which the Labour leader Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, had been invited. The real purpose of the meeting was to obtain an honour for Mick. The evening was proceeding smoothly until the subject of royalty came up and Blair expressed his disenchantment with the monarchy. Mick and Jerry, as devoted royalists, were appalled and the row became so intense the Blairs had to leave before the end of dinner. What makes the story so strong is its symmetry: Blair’s secret radicalism comes head to head with Jagger’s secret snobbery as both men reveal themselves to be the opposite of their myth.

The show also included Superflex, who document recent utopian activities on their internet TV channel, Superchannel; plastic modular furniture from Dan Peterman’s alternative production plant in Chicago; and Jens Haaning’s sale of Cody jeans for just £20 in his Super Discount Sale (2000). These sales are by an honour system (you put your money in a box), but the CCTV surveillance is a sad reflection of the limits of utopia.

All of these artists and collectives are full of optimism, however deranged, like the people who saw pyramids on Mars in the photographs of the surface of the Red Planet relayed to earth by NASA’s Viking mission in 1976. And not only pyramids; a vast humanoid face cut into the rock was also observed. Even though subsequent images of Mars have shown the face and the pyramids to be tricks of light and shadow, speculation by New Age scientists and conspiracy theorists continues unabated; the Martian ‘city’ resembles the site of Giza in Egypt, itself systematically aligned to the stars. Rumours of secret rooms under Giza’s Great Pyramid and real discoveries by archaeologists - such as a perfectly preserved ancient wooden ‘solar boat’ in which the dead pharaoh would sail into space to meet the gods - make the pyramids ever stranger. Every denial by the Egyptian authorities or NASA becomes proof of a conspiracy, and provides abundant evidence to whip up an extra-terrestrial interpretation of human history. Just as pyramidologists see in the treaties and war games of the modern state echoes of the ancient Egyptian rituals that took place deep inside the Great Pyramid as the pharaoh was prepared for his voyage to the stars, so this exhibition reveals secret connections between the daylight world and its hidden shadows.

Jonathan Jones

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First published in
Issue 59, May 2001

by Jonathan Jones

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