Monday, March 17, 2008

Mark Wallinger with Bénédicte Ramade

How did Brian Haw, the activist, react about the reconstruction?
It was essential that Brian was behind the project from the beginning. We were able to consult him about getting access to all the photos and documentation he used - who had given him paintings and other artworks, what materials he had managed to gather together. There was a special preview of 'State Britain' for Brian and his family, which was a joyous event as was his participation in the public opening the following night.

What kind of reaction are you expecting from the public?
It was difficult to predict the reaction in London where the proximity of the Tate to Parliament and Brian’s continuing presence in Parliament Square gave the work an obvious provocative charge. I think the work is powerful enough to gather up all its associative power when transplanted to a different context - it will be intriguing to see how it is received by a French audience. It did become the focal point for the debate about freedom of speech and numerous school parties came from all over Britain.

You exhibited for over seven months this huge installation in London, how did the politicians react?
In much the same way they have reacted to Brian’s protest over the years. Only two or three MPs have been brave enough to be seen to back Brian in public, but it got a lot of attention from commentators in the media, and Brian Haw was voted the most inspiring political figure in Britain. We do know that the Prime Minister saw 'State Britain'. When Turner’s painting, 'The Blue Rigi' was saved for the nation, Tony Blair was invited to celebrate the fact. Nick Serota walked him through the Duveen Galleries, along the entire length of 'State Britain' and Blair was heard to mutter, “ I thought we got rid of all this.” It did become the focal point for debate about freedom of speech and many school parties came from all over the country.

For you, what is the most efficient form of art?
We remade something of immense importance that had been erased by an illegal act. What 78 police removed in the early hours of 23 May we restored. It took us five months but eventually we were able to return it to the public domain, under the noses of the state and police authorities and expose it to a far greater audience.
The amount of posters and banners, these copies, how are they making art?
It is the fastidious restoration of the moment that the rights to free speech which have existed in Britain since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 were trashed. This frozen moment is the historical record of this loss. The degree of fastidious work in reproducing every one of the 800 odd objects posters banners, paintings, photographs and texts is breathtaking. Each and every photograph was sourced: every teddy bear, doll and badger matched as was all the plastic bags, timber, cardboard boxes etc. This was then put through an accelerated process of ageing to reproduce the effects of weather and pollution. The forensic scrutiny and craftsmanship boggle the mind and produce a slow and involved scrutiny on the part of the viewer.

Do you think messages have the same strength, are still political despite the change of site?
I don’t think it requires a great leap of imagination to see it in Paris. The issues of freedom of speech and human rights in a civil society that have been fought for over the centuries are threatened: on the one hand by Islamicism; on the other by the opportunity fear affords liberal governments to throw their weight around and curtail basic freedoms. In Britain the restrictions around parliament were just the start. Now detention without charge for 42 days is being introduced and it is likely that the government will seek to restrict protest around the country. The fact that a nominally socialist party should seek to hand over the setting and implementation of conditions and consent to protest directly to the police illustrates just how fragile our hard won freedoms are. If that can happen in Britain then beware –don’t be complacent about what you hold dearest in your society.
The documentation of the catastrophic effects of depleted uranium from the first gulf war and the record of the aftermath of that conflict would have provided a corrective to those who though that invading Iran would result in a stable and peaceful democracy. It was a neo-conservative fantasy. Although France played no part in support of the American and English, historically it is similarly implicated in the problems of the Middle East and the post colonial settlement.
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