Documenting colonialism: the dangers of aesthetisising the migrant experience


Statues Also Die (1953). Still from film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker

When art functions primarily as a documentary, either conveying information or explicitly taking a stand, it has an imperative to do so with an aesthetic twist. I find political diatribe unpalatable unless it can positively answer my sceptical question: “What added value can art bring that text cannot?” Art that derives from colonial politics can sometimes seem like a dutiful trudge through a well-meaning argument.  The iconic moving image artwork that shows how to avoid this is the masterful dissection of African art’s distortion by colonialism, Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die) by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker made in 1953 – While the commentary is polemical it uses heartfelt poetical language and the rhythmically edited images dramatically syncopate with the carefully orchestrated soundtrack composed by Guy Barnard using African and Western instrumentation. This inspiring work was referenced by the long-winded, overly academic Duncan Campbell film It for Others that won the Turner Prize in 2014. The comparison does not do him any favours.

Still from The Mapping Project  2008-11 courtesy of the artist

The Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili is working in a similar vein. Her film Foreign Office (2015) at Lisson Gallery until 18 March movingly presents two young Algerians questioning the history of African liberation movements. They sit expressionless, poring over a set of photographs of past heroes of colonial conflicts while they articulate a narrative of loss. Where has all the idealism in the early days gone? How do we decipher the “truth” of our shared history? How do we build on the struggles of our predecessors? The format is simple and the issues she raises are poignant and engaging but the film is compromised as it is neither a visually arresting artwork or a detailed analytical documentary. The lessons of Resnais and Marker seem doomed to fall into neglect.

However this exhibition is worth a visit for Khalili’s original take on telling migrant tales in her multiscreen installation The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11). She offers migrants the chance to recount their journey from their homeland to Europe while tracing it in thick marker pen on a map. The circuitous route so many of them take contrasts with the military mapping trope of the sweeping arcs of arrows as popularised in the opening titles for the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army (see below). I expect UKIP has a similar graphic somewhere in their publications to illustrate their view on immigration. The reversals and dead ends of the real migrant paths is an apposite metaphor for the confusion and rootless anxiety many of them must feel.  I was left wanting to know more about their individual plights. By aesthetisising their physical journey rather than their social and psychogical trajectory the artwork left me uneasy. How does the artist justify the representation of their suffering through this format?

Still from title sequence of the 1970’s comedy series Dad’s Army- courtesy of the BBC

Hallucinogens, nature and corporate culture: Prouvost and Treister

Copyright Suzanne Treister. Digital print, HFT The Gardener/ Botanical Prints/ Rank 1: Apple-US-Technology hardware &  equipment, courtesy of the artist, Annely Juda Fine Art, London and P.P.O.W., New York

Tropical  Hangover at Tenderpixel suggests an ambivalent attitude to the intoxication that nature can induce. Cleverly drawn together, the five artists take diverse approaches on the nature/culture clash and there are several gems to be uncovered, not least Suzanne Treister’s surreal take on the hallucinogenic aspects of global capitalism.

Laure Prouvost is her usual quirky self with her short film, Swallow (2013), while not reaching the glorious, wonky heights of absurdity experienced in her 2013 Turner Prize winning installation, Wantee.  Its luxuriant visuals of sunlight, foliage, waterfalls, pools and wildlife (non-tropical!) are not that original but they are complemented by an unsettling whispered commentary spoken in the French-accented English of the artist. She sensuously entreats you to submit yourself to her images:  I heard: “This image needs you”, but it might have been: “This image eats you”. Both seem to work.

The potential erotic symbolism of fruit is explored like the visual equivalent of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market but this is undermined by some dissonant footage of raspberries being eaten by a fish and strawberries being discovered under a rock. These cultivated soft fruits are now more closely associated with plastic punnets rather than the natural environment. This dissonance is further amplified by glimpses of a USB  lead nestled in the grass and a bright green and purple trainer surrounded by similarly coloured butterflies.

Prouvost’s inclination to give nature the upper hand to culture is hinted at in her slogan on an adjacent painted board  Ideally everything here would be covered in mussels. This appealing image is developed by Rowena Harris’s online video After Attenborough (2017) which makes sense of both floors of the gallery being painted sky blue. This acts as a digital blue-screen for her to flood the gallery with images of flora appropriated from the TV documentary Life of Plants. This entrancing  film, viewable on the Tenderpixel website, is a triumph of ingenuity.

In  HFT (High Frequency Trading) The Gardener, Suzanne Treister takes a sideswipe at the creepiness of multinationals trying to sanitise their operations with tasteful artwork that references the natural world, Apple perhaps being one of the worst culprits. Her cunning deadpan elision of corporate publicity styling, Victorian botanical illustration and a narrative tracing a city trader’s meltdown, hits the bull’s-eye on so many targets. Plant based hallucinogens seem to infiltrate his bank’s investment algorithms and we get a sense of his nightmare existence in the hyperactive global corporate culture. Treister’s collected plant prints are the putative product of the city trader’s new career as an outsider artist obsessionally linking plant hallucinogens with the FTSE top 500 companies. An atmospheric video giving her alter ego’s backstory and a collection of “his” extensive drawings both perfectly capture his manic and freewheeling conjecturing and can be viewed on her website:

Salvatore Arancio shows some interesting biomorphic ceramics and a video and Zuzanna Czebatul has a couple of striking wall sculptures evoking giant ferns  but neither of them add much to the culture/nature clash theme.

Prouvost’s take on nature has hints of cultural contamination but these ideas are pursued with gusto by Treister. The exhibition runs until 4 March and is mainly worth seeing for the multifaceted, subversive anarchy of Treister’s work contrasting with the sensuous appeal of Prouvost’s video.

Cage and Thoreau: chaos, nature and language


John Cage and Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes boredom can stimulate thought processes that eventually lead to profound insights. The American avant-garde composer John Cage’s most notorious  composition is a full orchestra “playing” 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence.  The audience for this piece is brought to the perception that “silence” is unattainable because in a silent concert hall our attention will be refocused on the ambient sounds we automatically filter out during a performance. In a wider sense he alerts us to the continuous unconscious process that essentially protects us from information overload that might make conscious thought impossible. Perhaps at a deeper level we sense that our perceptions are not a reflection of “reality” but a constructed truth that is formed from our own idiosyncratic fears and desires.

Experiencing  Cage’s sound installation Lecture on the Weather (1976) last December at Frith Street Gallery,  I was initially irritated by its banality but over a period of 50 minutes boredom was counteracted by a whirring of mental cogs  and eventually its (a?) meaning seemed to take shape.

On the sound track we get a contrast of Nature and  Civilisation: a cacophony of up to four speakers simultaneously reading extracts from the writings of the nineteenth century philosopher and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau and the recording of an approaching storm starting from gentle rainfall culminating in a shattering thunderstorm before subsiding. In a competition for which best exemplifies chaos most people would plump for Nature but Cage has bowled us a googly. His life long exploration of chance is expressed here in the random selection and overlaying of the Thoreau excerpts thus reducing its meaning to snatches of phrases that seem to float by on the wind. I felt that he was saying that we should accept that our much vaunted language ability is as much a part of nature as the weather. Natural forces have an inevitability about them that we try to contain with our thin veneer of human language and civilisation. That this is a futile task is somehow comforting.

In Walden, Thoreau follows a description of his beloved Pond with a digression on his reading of the Bhagavad-Gita. He writes of bathing his intellect in its stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy, a metaphor that chimes appositely with the experience of this profound artwork that Cage has created as a tender tribute to Thoreau. If the 2020 pandemic teaches us anything it is the need for Civilisation to discard its hubristic approach  to Nature.

Rehana Zaman: subtle scrutiny of Muslim stereotypes

Rehana Zaman- Still from video  Tell me the story Of all these things (2016) courtesy of the artist

Icebergs, cooking and gendered creation myths; three tracks I was led down watching Tell me a story Of all these things, Rehana Zaman’s lively fifteen minute video work in what must be the tiniest gallery in London, Tenderpixel, last week. In this visually and conceptually cohesive work it was fun to experience the clever connections she forged between her three very different sources: found footage from the government’s Prevent e-learning package on radicalisation, interview footage of an engaging and self-aware Muslim woman, Farah, reflecting unself-consciously on her life while she cooks and a digital animation featuring an Eve archetype with no need for Adam, alone but vibrant in a burnt and scarred anti-Paradisial landscape.

Icebergs are scary not just because of the sinking of the Titanic. Many government campaigns have exploited the underwater cross-section  view of the treacherous unseen 90% of the iceberg to symbolise an amorphous menace. I remember scoffing at their appearance in the 1985 public health AIDS campaign when it was portrayed as an obscure disease that might decimate the population unless we were terrified into taking appropriate precautions. How an iceberg was meant to protect you against HIV infection I never worked out. In charge of sex education in a sixth form college at the time, I was struck by the irony that sex and death were being so closely aligned in teenagers’ mindsets. More recently icebergs have illustrated campaigns to highlight unreported domestic abuse. Particularly crass then that Prevent graphic designers use the iceberg trope in the online training to convey the difficulties of identifying the dangerous radicals in the population of ordinary people. Zaman selects a very memorable sequence which starts with a cartoon graphic of a bus with its roof ripped off like a tin can lid, a vivid image from the 2005 London jihadi bombings. A shard of wreckage in the foreground transforms into the iceberg of hidden threats that the teachers must be alert to. The term “Muslim” is never mentioned in the training as the avowed intention is to extend the definition of potential terrorists to include the far right. This striking transformation allows a confused subtext to leak out.

Zaman’s employer, Goldsmiths University of London, like all educational institutions, has a statutory duty to identify students at risk of being drawn into “extremist ideologies”. Aware of the controversy this expectation places on her, Zaman is rightly critical of this invidious subdivision of cultural groups. For the government the key divide is between those Muslims vulnerable to radicalization and those safe from it. But Zaman’s interviewee, Farah, points to other divisions important to her: Bangladeshi as opposed to Pakistani, dark-skinned compared to light-skinned. This contrast reappears in the black and brown shades in both the skin tones and the landscape of Zaman’s digital world. Is this a reference to a “melting pot” ideology?

God’s moulding of Man from the soil of the earth is common to the creation myths from nearly every culture anthropologists have studied. Christianity and Islam simply adopted a much earlier widespread belief system. Zaman’s reimagined digital Garden of Eden contains a lone woman who blends and re-emerges from the arid ground. As well as commenting on this almost universal justification for patriarchy, perhaps her heroine’s mottled skin tone critiques the Islamic teaching that different races were created from different coloured clays.

Cooking can be relaxing and creative and this activity allows Farah’s frank testimony to flow. Whether this is scripted or not is irrelevant as it is conveyed with an authenticity that keeps you gripped. The gist of her thoughts is that stereotypes of Muslim women are damaging and she will not allow herself to be boxed in; she has a younger boyfriend and demands space to pursue her interests including skiing.

Earlier blogposts have highlighted Goldsmiths graduates as visually innovative moving image artists with a sharp and subtle political edge.  So the good news is that as a tutor there Zaman continues to inspire the next generation.