BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Ross Sinclair

South London Gallery, London, UK

BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 10 OCT 01

'OK, it's time to ... kick out the jams, motherfuckerrrrs!' The opening rallying cry to the MC5's dirty, loud and low-down messy 1968 live album Kick Out the Jams could equally have been the sentiment at the heart of Ross Sinclair's show 'Fortress Real Life (Peckham)'. MC5 hailed from Detroit Motor City, and their raw rock 'n' roll formula was spun into seductive revolution chic by their manager, the polemicist and libertarian leader of the White Panthers, John Sinclair. With politics once again the focus of beau-monde parley, Sinclair's assertion was that if a revitalized stab at cultural resistance is going to make any kind of sense, you're going to need a whole lot more than a guitar and a few hand-me-down slogans.

There's something of a maze craze going down at the moment, with Mike Nelson's imaginative interzones and Gregor Schneider's sordid domestic units the best known current examples. Sinclair's ongoing project, 'Real Life' an attempt to locate some small corner of unmediated life found its most recent incarnation as one of these architectural confabulations. Screens of uniform cardboard boxes butted up against the walls of the gallery formed a simple succession of navigable chambers, each a kind of information repository representing and parodying the sanctity of a different institutional or social foundation justice, geography, banks and economy or certain cornerstone ideals of freedom, namely 'the free state.' Drawing upon the artist's past forays into 'Real Life' research, 'Fortress Real Life (Peckham)' became a kind of retrospective that pulled older works out of retirement and put them to use.

Pointing out the iniquities of the society of the spectacle to the residents of a depressed part of south London was always going to be tricky (it's easy to tell someone to fuck their job when you've got a gallery and a few canonized radical antecedents behind you). But as a temporary autonomous zone for information rather than action, the show shored up its defences and battlements with a wry grin and a heartfelt pathos that managed to prevent it from becoming a secessionist theme park. Think of the 1949 comedy Passport to Pimlico (in which a London district declares independence) remade by a jaded Abbie Hoffman, and you start to get close.

With 'Real Life' tattooed across his back, Sinclair himself could be found, like a dreadlocked wanderer from a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, on various monitors throughout the fortress belting out Scottish folk songs in rugged Highland locations. Recalling Edward Woodward defiantly singing traditional hymns as he perishes on a remote Scottish isle in the film The Wicker Man (1973), Sinclair's repeated motif of pastoral romance spun as rural reality was melancholy, humorous, and even peculiarly tragic.

In one room, a makeshift political headquarters for the fictional 'Hamnavoe Free State' was created. Hamnavoe, a fishing port in the Shetland Islands, was the birthplace in 1740 of John Williamson (also known as 'Johnny Notions'), a weaver, blacksmith and joiner who, during an epidemic of smallpox, developed a highly effective inoculation and successfully treated several thousand islanders. With MC5 playing on a dusty old Dansette record player in the corner of the gallery, dewy-eyed stoner idealism was recast as a bummer in the summer nod to futile utopian aspirations among the spartan camp beds and survival props for an imaginary militia or terrorist cell. Nearby, on a battered trestle table, a scattering of books was casually arranged, but obviously achingly considered. Alexander Trocchi scowled from one cover, next to a well thumbed biography of the Glaswegian anarchist Guy Aldred. Among the predictable array of Situationist texts and pamphlets was a number of back issues of the underground magazine Smile, one of which contained a worryingly plausible but hilarious cautionary tale about an art dealer telling a naive young artist that he was going to launch her career by making her 'art-historical'. In identifying the sad fact that even much of radical politics has been reduced to style mag Situationist name-dropping and the hagiography of hip guerrillas, the 'Hamnavoe Free State' was akin to a resigned, world-weary shrug. The plaintive songs drifting through the rooms sounded more like a requiem than a defiant assertion of 'Folk' identity.

Positioned in the middle of 'Fortress Real Life (Peckham)' was a watchtower, the kind of sentry post that might stand guard outside a military base or prison camp. Climbing to the top offered an overview of the scale of the show, but, emerging into the open space above Sinclair's bunker it became evident that one would never be able to see the entire installation from outside its makeshift perimeter. More to the point, one would never get the whole picture, or enough distance in order to divine some kind of solution. The walls and ceiling were covered with the flags of every nation, but drained of colour and reduced to indistinguishable patterns. Sinclair's fortress was a lonely stockade, more than aware of the complex problems outside its walls, but almost too sad to do anything about them.

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).