In a speech at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1964, Malcolm X declared that 'if we see fit to form a Black nationalist party, we'll form a Black nationalist party. If it's necessary to form a Black nationalist army, we'll form a Black nationalist army. It'll be the ballot or the bullet. It'll be liberty or it'll be death.' Until recently such pronouncements on the relationship between reform and revolution would have seemed unimaginable.
This explicit reference to Malcom X in Goshka Macuga and Declan Clarke's quiet gallery installation created quite a jolt. Despite the slant of last year's Documenta and the current political climate, it is still rare to see such overt references on the gallery circuit. Macuga and Clarke, however, are not tub-thumping. They demand that the audience do the lion's share of the work to extract any message. Vinyl letters spelling 'Malcolm' were stuck one by one onto white, spherical pendant lamps, although the X was missing to amplify the ambiguity. The lights were suspended so that they formed an approximation of the Big Dipper, the most recognizable group of stars in the northern hemisphere and an important tool for the underground railroad, which helped slaves escape from the South before the American Civil War. Songs spread among the slave population that mentioned the 'drinking gourd' that should be followed to reach a better life - a veiled message for slaves to flee northward.
This tangle of symbolism, intentional or otherwise, was just one element of Macuga and Clarke's installation. In addition, three interlocking circular pools, lined with plastic sheeting and edged with loosely piled slate, were served by a concrete water feature, and behind it a makeshift stage was erected in plywood. The Malcolm X reference could be used as a key to unpick the rest of the installation. By inference the stage became a platform for debate, speeches or collective entertainment, while the pools, with their coins thrown in for luck, signify civic idealism. The title of the show, 'Friendship of the Peoples', reaffirmed a theme of utopian social engineering.
The prevailing aesthetic of the work was brutally functional - perhaps a cynical indictment of aspirational urban regeneration. The miniature waterfall trickled through a series of Rudolf Steiner-designed concrete basins. Frank in their duty as outdoor furniture, they lacked the eloquence of interior design's delicacy. The pools too were of the most basic construction, with the addition of a piece of driftwood and a pile of shale with bamboo shoots for an organic presence. The wooden stage was uncomfortable in scale: too small to accommodate an adult and too big to be a toy. Although constructed with the angular lyricism of a set from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1921), the raw, cheap material offset the drama by its sketchiness.
'The Friendship of the Peoples' seemed critical of democracy and the idea of pursuing global unity. It could also be read as an allegory on collaboration - the microcosmic moment of optimism that so often gives way to compromise or suppression. The politics of art practice is a weak simile for wider democratic structures, as the repercussions of an art object are rarely far-reaching, but the show did draw attention to the difficulty of assimilating conflicting perspectives. The Steiner reference introduces the occult philosopher's idiosyncratic brew of theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Plato, Goethe and Christianity. Likewise, Malcolm X adopted a distinct series of identities, including Detroit Red the drug-dealing felon, Malcolm X the Black nationalist Muslim minister, and Omawole, the pan-Africanist. The individual denotes a panoply of positions just as, similarly, the coded artwork can be a composite of intentions.
Purloining a fractured vocabulary of municipal architecture, Macuga and Clarke have relocated it within the conflicting panoramas of civic optimism and personal pessimism. While the base aesthetic brings the functional and the symbolic crashing together, there is a sense that fugitive yet absolute meaning hovers nearby. It is difficult to imagine how the collaboration operated: did each artist propose a single sculptural element or did they concoct it all together? Was there a unifying goal or two separate tugs of intent? As a critique of mass and personal methods of communication and planning 'Friendship of the Peoples' embodied the peculiar contingencies that so often arise within such debates.