The private view for ‘Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie’ was particularly busy. If the crowd looked a little more diverse than is usual at a gallery opening, it was due to artist Annika Eriksson’s prior efforts in coaxing members of the local community into the gallery with gentle encouragement and pointers about what to expect at such an event. As I sat in the pub with friends afterwards, I was shocked to learn that all nine of us had attended a privately funded school. Without pretending that this flash poll constitutes a balanced sample of the art world’s social strata, it nevertheless seems clear that there is a conversation to be had about a subject that is usually treated bashfully by the broadly middle-class, left-leaning constituents of the art world.
Curated by Nav Haq and Tirdad Zolghadr, ‘Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie’ claims not only to pull the subject of ‘class hegemony in contemporary art’ into full focus but also to ask searching questions about the extent to which it colours artists’ production and subsequent career paths. A fundamental sticking point in this ambitious investigation is how to define class: as Eriksson’s wall text states, ‘We are not who you think we are’ (We Are Not Who You Think We Are, 2006). In the increasingly socially mobile West the simplistic three-tier system of ‘working’, ‘middle’ and ‘upper’ seems increasingly redundant. Economic prosperity may be an obvious indication of class, as suggested by Sylvie Fleury in her imposing wall painting (and perfume trademark appropriation) ENVY (1997/2006) as the baseline distinction between the haves and the have-nots. However, wealth has long been detached from class; perhaps instead the object of Fleury’s envy is not money but power, an intertwined but nevertheless distinctly held attribute.
It is this aspect of the class system that many of the artists in the exhibition engage with, often through ideas of taste, connoisseurship and, by extension, influence over the development of contemporary culture. Hassan Khan’s shimmering Perspex panels on the outside of the gallery reveal kitschy landscape paintings or Arabic magazine covers, depending on where one stands. Inter-cut are areas of text, reading ‘IS VOICE AUTOMATIC THE THAT SPEAKS’, which, when unscrambled, reveal the work’s answering title, AUTOMATIC IS THE VOICE THAT SPEAKS (2006). In Dirk Fleishmann’s project The Stop Show (2003– ongoing), contestants are asked to count aloud for ten seconds as accurately as they can, the winner being judged against Fleishmann’s accurate timing equipment. When he staged the game on a radio show for ‘Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie’, the winner, Michele Di Menna, was allowed to place a piece of her own work in the exhibition, bypassing the usual curatorial selection procedures. Di Menna’s work, Giving It Back (2006), a video of the artist returning stolen goods to bemused shop assistants, was tucked at the back of the gallery, providing a humble antidote to Fleury’s practice of material and iconographical acquisition.
It is revealing that so many of the works in the exhibition involved aspects of collaboration, often offering a voice to people whose contributions the existing professional power structures might otherwise exclude. Marion von Osten recorded a discussion with the Gasworks staff around a recent advertising campaign for H&M in which Madonna is joined by her crew of dancers, stylists and backing singers on a series of white Modernist plinths. Their conversation about this faux-democratic and manipulative posturing can be heard near a video of them posing on identical plinths constructed by the artist, a witty acknowledgment of the lurking duplicity of the symbolic gesture. Chris Evans is similarly dubious of self-reflexive criticality in The Freedom of Negative Expression (2006), a film script available to be read in the gallery, and a maquette for a sculpture. The script describes a phone conversation between ‘Artist 1’, a nihilist in his early 30s (whom we might imagine to represent Evans), and ‘Artist 2’, a former member of the British Constructivists. Bemoaning the ‘dance of servile virtuosity’ performed by the failed 20th-century avant-garde, they describe art as ‘an empty affirmation of [the bourgeoisie’s] own taste and privilege’. The manifestation of their supposed collaboration (if it ever existed) is an installation of two root-like plaster and brass forms that extend from opposite walls.
As if evidence were needed of the bohemian bourgeoisie demonized by the exhibition title, San Keller photographed the interiors of artists’ parents’ homes, each proudly displaying a piece of their offspring’s work. Chris Evans’ parents chose an inoffensive etching to hang on their wall; by framing work in this way Keller makes the depressing suggestion that artists’ output is always ultimately imprisoned in the sensibilities of their parents. While most of the works in the show take ‘class hegemony’ for granted and instead propose (actual or symbolic) ways to undermine its effects, Keller’s work is a welcome addition in that it attempts to analyse class background’s relationship with culture and aesthetics at a grassroots level, pulling the ticklish subject out into the open in an honest and direct way.