For many an idealist born too late, the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early ’70s are like the all-out birthday bash of a hip friend that they unfortunately had to miss; instead, hours are spent dotingly extracting details from acquaintances, piecing together its hazy highlights. Declan Clarke is unabashed in his geeky enthusiasm for revolutionaries, having focused in the past on figures such as Rosa Luxemburg and Che Guevara, and for this exhibition, ‘Loneliness in West Germany’, he examined the activities and legacy of the Movement June 2nd, an anarchist group closely associated with the Red Army Faction, founded in Berlin in 1971.
In ‘Loneliness …’ Clarke used different degrees of documentation to create a tension between personal nostalgia and existential anxiety. On the one hand, he took for granted that the audience shared his obsession, hiding himself behind a deluge of information, an activist living vicariously through his subject matter. At the same time, the tone of the work was spacious and understated, as it attempted to deal with the question of what to do when the party’s already over. The video Loneliness in West Germany (all works 2009) contrasted the era of the Movement June 2nd with that of present-day Berlin. Made with a dated television aesthetic, the film presents names and dates on a retro blue background, each followed by well-composed, black and white images of the curb sides and parking spaces where these protesters were injured and killed, and finally shaky handheld footage of a hand leafing through newspaper articles of the events. Interviewing a former member of the Movement, a lengthy excerpt from the dialogue scrolls down the screen (the full text Clarke made available as a booklet to take away). ‘We really didn’t achieve anything,’ he admits. ‘What advice would you give to young revolutionaries today?’ Clarke asks. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘they should just try it.'
In the Institute’s library, nestled on the shelves between the works of Ingeborg Bachmann, just above Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary (1926–7), was a slide projector clicking through illustrations of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and images from recent protests in Berlin, Paris and Toulouse (Things Will Be Different in the Future). This low-tech approach highlighted the eerie conflation of setting and subject; the placement of the works made the audience walk through the whole of the Goethe Institute from top to bottom, with its off-colour linoleum and brown carpets acting as some sort of 1970s’ time warp. Blocking the building’s back alleyway, as if to prove this, was It Was Beautiful and Terribly Sad, a gutted and wrecked car on its side. The car’s silence and inertness emphasized its distance from the original, and violent, events that inspired it.
In an abandoned apartment on the top floor of the building, the short silent video, We Missed Out on A Lot was screened. Parodying old educational science videos, it demonstrated how to construct a Molotov cocktail. At first glance, Clarke seems to be saying, ‘I want to have my own party,’ casting aside any of the dark doubts that hang about the show’s subject matter in exchange for a willingly blind urge for revolution in some woolly and generic sense. But, as the wistful title of the work makes explicit, the main urge is not the betterment of society but simply the desire to have been there. We Missed Out … subtly mocks this misplaced nostalgia, humorously re-imagining a past where urban guerrillas had their own kid-friendly instructional tools. Here, Clarke’s work criticizes his own fandom of radical politics, in an art world and an industry where evoking the word ‘revolution’ is meant to prop up any range of vaguely Utopian gestures; a chic idealist angle on our heavily ironic times. In ‘Loneliness…’ Clarke gives violent revolutionary history simple lyrical forms, but concedes that they are subject to his compulsive nostalgia.