BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91


BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 12 MAY 05

I hoped I might be able to find something positive to say about this show, but I can’t. The more thought I give to ‘Independent Republic’, by Artlab (artists Charlotte Cullinan and Jeanine Richards), the more my desire to salvage anything of value from their misadventure ebbs away, sapped by ignorance, muddled reasoning and formal travesty. In its attempt to engage in highly complex intellectual and ethical debate ‘Independent Republic’ opened up vast chasms between the drab actuality of the objects on show and the arrogant but shaky theoretical assertions made on their behalf, a gulf littered with mangled theoretical models for politicized cultural engagement and modish curatorial newspeak.

Artlab are making an ‘ongoing work concerning an imagined Fascist Headquarters’, exploring ‘exhibition strategies, independent organizations, autonomy of artworks, structures of propaganda and the aesthetics of 20th-century utopianism’. Their advance press statement – nebulous art jargon and a garbled parody of totalitarian bossiness – claimed the work involved ‘the construction of a collection of furniture, emblazoned with the signature brown and white stripes inspired by the 1930’s [sic] Gio Ponti design for the Fiat headquarters in Turin. On entering you will find yourself in the Reception Room and from there the new citizen will be able to enter the Empire Room, a Kafkaesque in-between space with no apparent function. Here, amongst grand paintings of empire and under the imposing glare of a strip-light chandelier, the citizen is left to ponder the confusing cacophony of pseudo political trappings.’

Confusing and pseudo indeed. It consisted of a lamp around which were bent in neon the letters ‘A.E.I.O.U.’ (apparently alluding to the motto of the Austrian Habsburg family) in a narrow space that I assumed was the ‘Reception Room’. A slightly larger adjacent area was presumably the Kafkaesque in-between space – but in-between what? Two panels sported scrubby abstract compositions, autumnal daubs loosely resembling maps of land masses. Between these paintings was a simple desk roughly coated in a similar shrubby green. The ‘chandelier’ was, in fact, cable reels chained together, painted with brown and white stripes and festooned with short neon lights giving off a harsh glow. Beneath this was a section of parquet wood tiling.

Artlab assert that ‘fascism’ is a word redundant of meaning and still taboo outside the context of 1930s’ European history and World War II. I cannot fathom where they get this blinkered, contradictory idea from. Fascism, in the historical sense of the term, lasted well beyond 1945. The Salazar regime, for example, dominated Portugal until 1974, and similarly the ultra-right-wing General Franco brutally held control of Spain until his death in 1975. It has many forms, but at the most generic level fascism can be characterized, as the historian Robert O. Paxton put it, as an obsession with ‘community decline, humiliation and victim-hood’, paired with ‘compensatory cults of energy, unity and purity’ expressed through aggressive militarism, fervent nationalism, obsession with ‘morality’ and fuzzily defined common ‘enemies’. What, you might wonder, did this have to do with Artlab’s show?

Artlab justify their simplistic invocation of fascism by claiming that the work ethic of most artists is inherently authoritarian and autocratic. Although a fair few artists may be overbearing egomaniacs, to suggest that artistic practice is fascistic is, obviously, seriously naive. Like it or not, artists are part of far bigger cultural mechanisms, and Artlab are cheapening a language they evidently don’t understand. What do they think goes on behind the closed doors of galleries – between dealers, curators, writers, collectors, art consultants? Have they no clue how culture is used in government policy-making? Try telling the old man living in my home town who helped liberate Belsen that contemporary art practice is autocratic. Try telling that to someone held for years without charge at Guantánamo Bay or Belmarsh Prison.

At best the discrepancy between the sculptures and accompanying witless assertions is a lame parody of radical chic. Outside the gallery, Propaganda Window (2005), for instance, contained a few drawings that could almost have been direct stylistic lifts from paintings by Lucy McKenzie or Paulina Olowska. But what were the two entry visa forms for Northern Cyprus doing in the window? Do Artlab sincerely believe Turkey should leave Cyprus, or were these the only pieces of paper they could muster that had vaguely totalitarian-looking bureaucratic stamps on? It is irresponsible to reduce an ideology to a ‘look’, because that induces an amnesia about just what was so perniciously seductive about that ‘look’ in the first place. The ‘aesthetics’ of 1930s’ fascism was inseparable from its ethics – power, efficiency and streamlined superiority evinced through bold graphics and Modernist rectilinearity. ‘Independent Republic’ made me wonder whether Artlab ever bothered to look at the far more savvy satirical precedents. Throbbing Gristle, for example, used ‘fascist’ posturing to reflect the UK media’s own moral hypocrisy back at itself. Slovenian art collective NSK tackled their experiences of living under the jackboot of totalitarianism with projects such as their Wagnerian rock band Laibach. And just watch The Producers (1968) to really see how well the subject can be dealt with. Cullinan and Richards, it seems, want to produce curatorially self-reflexive shows. The trouble is, there’s precious little substance to reflect on. Take the tokenistic design reference to Gio Ponti’s work for Fiat. Why him? Why that particular project? Ponti was admired by Mussolini, but he was never a paid-up disciple of Il Duce. All Artlab actually did here was pursue the fashionable strategy of vicarious learnedness, that proxy gravitas stolen by alluding to something in the world that has the patina and weight of history, without really doing anything substantially transformative with the material in question.

‘Collaborators will be shot’ joked their statement. If Artlab are only capable of discussing the tragedies of political extremism on the level of TV wartime spoofs, then their explorations are never going to amount to anything. Co-opting ‘fascism’ for such intellectually vacuous ends is a careless neutering of the word’s linguistic power; a flattening of political scale and ethical perspectives. A few scrappy sculptural befuddlements do not constitute the basis for a critique of imperialism in its myriad forms – art is too blunt a tool for that. If you’re going to use political terms, then at least get the basic definitions right.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).