Richard Salmon Gallery, 29th January – 15th March
Ella Gibbs: Spare Time Job Centre
Chisenhale Gallery, 29th January – 9th March
Representation of politics? Not half! Blunt satires of the photographic media’s duplicitous manipulation of actuality, Alison Jackson’s scenarios pretend to observe public figures caught in situations which contradict both the public version of their affairs (Blair and Clinton sharing a chummy glass of Champagne with Milosevic), and the temporal sequence of events presented to mass audiences as reality (Diana and Dodi snapped playing with their newborn baby). Deceit and subterfuge in Jackson’s pictures are ‘exposed’ in self-righteous tabloid fashion, through the all-seeing eye of the long-lens paparazzo, but as a true post-modernist, Jackson erodes the moral hypocrisy by which the news media pretend to be the arbiters of ‘true’ and ‘false’.
Jackson’s effective, yet deeply cynical strategy titillates us with our lazy fascination with media ‘revelations’, only then to point out that we are witnessing a fabrication in every sense, whose only truth is that everything is false. Jackson’s new pictures take this unravelling of the spectacle to new lows. Presenting these images in the week that Tony Blair cranks up the his warmongering campaign with insinuations of Iraq’s dealings with Al-Quaida, stretches Jackson’s activity to breaking point; It’s not just that Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are figures already made monstrous by the western media, its that there is no sense in which we might ever hope to find an authentic Saddam or Bin Laden with which would be revealed behind the grotesque fictions that occupy both our media and Jackson’s work. Jackson’s practice, whilst it seeks to ‘expose’ the manipulative expropriation of ‘the real’ by the media, by short-circuiting the signs of documentary authenticity, nevertheless contains a melancholic nostalgia for that authenticity, which emerges paradoxically in the various levels of fantasy and wish-fulfilment present in her images’ most fictional moments. Jackson opposes hypocritical authenticity with the false resolution of a fantasy world in which the distance between the real and its image is comfortingly reconciled.
But in the face of the absurd spectacle of the War on Terror, Jackson seems unable to find any distance between image and reality in which to work. Saddam and Bin Laden are already too grotesque, caricatures perpetuated by a media whose servility to the interests of US and British political elites is so abject that no lie, no distortion is too wild to be presented as truth to secure the assent of a disbelieving public. Faced with this Jackson can do nothing but exaggerate the obscenity till it bursts. Like some half-crazed tabloid lap dog on New Labour’s payroll, she brings us the dirt on Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. You want the proof? Here it is! Osama and Saddam plotting to hit the houses of Parliament, or messing with chemical compounds in cartoonish glass beakers, or drinking and gambling with exotic dancers! And later, Osama in chains, Christ-like, being led away by US troops.
The awkwardness of Jackson’s practice points to the difficulty of making political sense in a culture where the representation of politics has become all but meaningless; subverting spectacular culture only works for as long as the spectacle sees value in appropriating the image of reality in its own interest, in order to divert and pacify the energies of those who attempt to intervene in it to effect purposeful change. But such energies are singularly lacking in our current moment; no point then in talking about the true and the false if no one has any desire to influence reality in either direction. In these circumstances the spectacle of the mass media begins to eat itself, vomiting up every more paranoid and phantasmal threats, for a culture too crippled by fear to get out of bed, let alone stop a war; the paedophile, the asylum seeker, the suicide bomber, under the overarching sign of the War on Terror whose only product is, well, yet more terror.
Confronted with this impossible situation, better to manufacture an idealised society in which conflict and social disintegration are put aside. Ella Gibbs’ Spare Time Job Centre presents itself as a community service to assist the creative use and exchange of people’s spare time. Fill out a questionnaire asking you how much spare time you have, how you use it and how you feel about it, Gibbs’ poker-faced project encourages ‘people to think about how they use their spare time’ and helpfully seeks to find you your ideal ‘Spare Time job’, parodying the patronising baby-talk common to state benefit application forms. Why the residents of the East End need artists to help them occupy their spare time better is unclear, but so far there are spare-time dance classes, a spare-time restaurant that seats two, spare-time walk activities, a bring-and-borrow cupboard and a library. Gibbs’ project smartly elides the distinction between artistic presentation and other social activities, just as it blurs the conventional distinction between work and leisure, collective ties and private life, but the real involvement of local services, community organisations and leisure associations suggests that Job Centre’s aspirations are as real as they may be parodic or critical. But underlying the project is a miserable sense of the low expectations that many people have of contemporary urban existence, as if bettering life was simply a matter of managing your spare time more ‘inspirationally’, of turning leisure time into a form of individuated career path in its own right, complete with meddling counsellors and personal advisors. Also ingrained in Job Centre is the implicitly authoritarian desire to reforge community bonds between individuals, whether they like it or not; Job Centre may be a highly sophisticated satire on the current Third Way political discussion around ‘social capital’; or Gibbs may simply be the socially-engaged artistic cheerleader for a political culture that has given up on changing society, instead turning to changing individuals, making them better, more compliant, more sociable individuals in a society to which there is no alternative. When you’re not too busy working in your atomised, unfulfilling wage job, spend time refining your leisure pursuits, but in a socially responsible way, that encourages those human relationships that make society a safer, more caring place. And who knows? You might even be able to forget the War on Terror… And if not, there are plenty of artists who can give you advice. Whether you like it or not.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated