In March 2007 Tony Blair delivered a speech in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, outlining his thoughts on his impact on the arts in Britain. Significantly, the Prime Minister concluded with the words: ‘The crucial thing is not the policy but the fact that, as Nick Serota said to me recently, museums now just “feel” different.’ While I doubt that Serota meant quite the same thing by this as Blair (roughly, ‘never mind frozen acquisitions budgets, museum cafés now serve a spectacular frappuccino!’), any irritation the Tate Director may have felt at the Prime Minister’s words were probably soothed by the knowledge that, a mile or two away at Tate Britain, he was staging an exhibition that even the wiliest spin doctor would be hard pressed to co-opt to the New Labour project. If Blair’s speech was about painting his legacy in a positive light, Mark Wallinger’s State Britain (2007) was, in its complex way, about exposing its darker traces.
If Blair’s speech was about painting his legacy in a positive light, Mark Wallinger’s State Britain (2007) was, in its complex way, about exposing its darker traces
Running the length of Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, State Britain was a life-size, near-perfect simulacrum of the 40-metre wall of banners, placards and rickety information boards erected by the peace campaigner Brian Haw in London’s Parliament Square between June 2001, when he first began his protest against the economic sanctions imposed against Iraq, and May 2006, when police removed nearly all of his belongings from the site under Section 132 of the 2005 Serious Organized Crime and Police Act, which made it an offence to stage a public protest within one kilometre of Parliament Square without first obtaining permission. The rationale offered for this clause (which may not actually have the legal power to effect retrospective bans) was the possibility that terrorists might use protests such as Haw’s as a cover for their activities. However unlikely that may seem, Haw is today only permitted to occupy a space in the Square measuring three metres by two – hardly big enough to conceal a posse of Taliban.
A few days before the police moved in, Wallinger took hundreds of photographs of Haw’s ramshackle, hectoring, oddly splendid monument, and it is on these that State Britain is based. This in itself begs some knotty questions about authorship. Haw’s protest, after all, was an organic thing, responding to the events surrounding the ‘War on Terror’ and constantly being added to by sympathetic parties (one placard read ‘Australians say No to War on IRAQ’, while a Banksy painting of British troops daubing a CND logo on a wall also featured). The specific form it took in Tate Britain, then, was not dictated so much by the protester, or the news headlines, or even by the artist, as by those who framed, passed and acted on Section 132. By drawing those who sought to silence Haw into an inadvertent act of image-making,
Wallinger gives the often softcore stuff of participatory art a hard edge. The work here only existed because the protest does not, just as the protest only existed because of other absences or erasures: of due process, of liberty, of, ultimately, life. No work of art wholly regrets its own being, but State Britain comes close.
With its faded peace flags, clothes lines hung with bloodied children’s wear and Babel of rain-spattered slogans (‘UK TROOPS OUT OF IRAQ'; ‘You Lie, Kids Die, BLAIR’; ‘CHRIST IS INDEED RISEN’) Haw’s wailing wall was an unruly ensemble designed for London’s streets. By remaking it in an art institution, Wallinger risked transforming it into something toothless; a Thomas Hirschhorn installation in which the spirit of Gilles Deleuze was replaced by that of Marxist sitcom character Wolfie Smith. Tate Britain straddles the exclusion zone detailed in Section 132. The artist marked this with a line of tape that ran through the gallery bookshop and exhibition spaces, putting the work into dialogue with the Tate’s collection and questions of how we might construct an (art) history of Britain, and what is and isn’t admissible in this public space or that. Thus restrictive legislation opened up new possibilities, and a prophylactic measure became a fertility aid.
State Britain was at once a continuation of Haw’s protest and something like a wake for it, an expression of freedom of speech and a wry, sad meditation on the art institution as a place in which dissent is contained and sanitized. Did it make the museum ‘feel different’? Yes and no. I can’t help but think that, for Haw and Wallinger, if not for Blair, policy is ‘the crucial thing’.