No Hope without the Possibility of a Wound

By Gareth Evans

mark-wallinger-exhibition.jpgPhoto by Sam Drake  – Tate Photography

Brian Haw and Mark Wallinger: Activism – Art – Activism

"… time was not a single river but something always branching into every possible outcome; time was a tree growing at infinite speed to produce infinite branches, so that there were many pasts and more presents and this very moment is begetting many futures.” – Rebecca Solnit, writing about the Merced River, Yosemite, USA

“I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life's brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.” – John Berger

Place: London, Tate Britain and Parliament Square; Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran… centres of power and then where power acts; centres of resistance…

Time: 2001; 2006; 2007; the long clock of injustice and its justice, now and ever on.

This is a partisan account.

Facts then, begin with them…

He starts by arriving. With a sleeping bag and a stick of painted signs, the word on cardboard, damp. Parliament Square, 2nd June 2001. Blair will be in again, just days later, and then all the years we now know to have come. It’s too familiar now, too close to a kind of franchise of despair, but even then, in that almost ‘golden age’ summer before everything changed, Brian Haw, Redditch father of seven – carpenter, merchant seaman, believer – could see the way it was going, knew that extraordinary measures were required.

If you find yourself homeless, you find shelter – something derelict, somewhere so the sky is not your sheet, even just a doorway – you search for some place clear of thoroughfares, where sleep might breed less threat. But Mr Haw was not for this removal. He had not found himself homeless, he had made himself live completely in the world. He had not given up his life, as previously conceived, to go off-road. ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All’, ‘Stop Killing Kids’, ‘Let Iraq Infants Live’. If you break your being into pieces for justice and against the sinful sanctions on Iraq, against the cluster bombs that do anything but gather together, against the terrible unpicking of countries entire, then you accept the road is maybe a life long. Longer.

You sleep under rain and ice and snow. Under blows from roving, afterhours Marines, under the sometimes very heavy hand of the Met. 24/7, for five years. And counting. Soon to be six. But more than sleep you make, you make the disgust visible. In placards, newsprint, information, more. And soon it follows, the wider noticing of your being, the building response; uncounted articles now, Sunday papers’ photo shoots, Mexican radio, documentaries from Iran to CNN. With thousands from the planet wide and London, all the towns, adding to the weave of pictures, poems, rage. You live on nothing except the goodwill of others, notes thrown down from passing cars. You win all the cases brought against you, in the High Court and the other halls of justice.

mark-wallinger-exhibition-2.jpgPhoto by Sam Drake – Tate Photography 

You are an orator of anger and straight sense, but more than that, you simply are. Your secret? You refuse to leave. You stand against the war on terror, and first it stops with you. You will not be terrorised. And slowly, you accumulate your own environmental time. Build it and they will come… You run the Square’s length with a wall of words, the people’s Commons, DU babies crying you to speak. And you so disturbed the ‘peace’ of Parliament that swathes of them, livid for you and your longest protest in this island’s life, went all out to stitch up laws to oust you and those around who claim such rights to speak and act across the city’s power-broking centre. So there is crafted the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), prohibiting unauthorised protest within a mile of where you stand, with clauses scripted just for you.

Time 2: 23rd May 2006. In the night they come. And they take it. They police you almost clear. They almost take it all. They seek a ground zero. The order of the old square again. Grass and pavement unsullied by reminders of what this State is doing, somewhere else. In this way, you link our power players straight with Chile’s Pinochet and all the squalid rest who lift a person from their life and never set them down again, in grave or cell or any system filed. They want you absent, distant, gone, they want you disappeared.

Time 3: 15th January 2007. In his exhibition State Britain, artist Mark Wallinger unveils an exact facsimile of your protest site, as it was before its almost complete erasure, in the high columned halls of Tate Britain’s imperially funded Duveen Galleries, the very spine of the building, marking on its floor where the mile-wide protest cordon ends. Here, what you have made crosses the line it generated else

Time 4: 10th February 2007. You are named, by people’s vote, The Most Inspiring Political Figure of the year in Channel 4’s poll. First you were a man in his skin (you remain this through everything; it is the foundation of your great act of witness). Then you were a member of the public but, through certain acts, you became more so, more public, busy in the world. Now you have become your name.

The extensive media coverage is overwhelmingly favourable to the work. It is fascinated by the tensions and questions such a sitting raises. It ponders whether the replica is art, thinks hard on the fact that a state-funded gallery can show a display made illegal by that same state on the public street (and wonders whether the positioning enhances or neutralises its polemical statements: can a site of authority speak against authority?). It places the commission in a fine tradition of artistic statements around both protest and historical events. It endorses a liberty of speech, as both Wallinger and Haw do, of course. As art itself does, being its very breath. It reveals the malicious, absurdist farce that is SOCPA, by making re-visible what the Act sought to erase. In this way, ‘State Britain’ is simultaneously a demonstration, a folk archive, an altar, an elegy for something still living, a moment of history caught to remind that history is not over.

It is among the most remarkable, and necessary, and demanded collaborations between artist and subject that one is likely to encounter

It lives on the line between presence and absence. Haw apart from his making yet in position still along the river. Wallinger sublimating his own original making into Haw’s assembly, but curating his own interests through relocation. Just as Haw dissolves the boundary between life as it is regularly lived and the timetable of protest if its urgencies were truly felt, making the hour and place of his own body indivisible from his intention, so this duet of involvement between artist and activist, whether they are in exact agreement about the political realities of the age or not, seeds the possibility that Solnit describes above.

By separating Haw from a culminating moment of his own life, Wallinger brilliantly embodies him in the piece, in the way that the originating protest cannot be unanchored from the man. It’s a kind of Zen parable, forty metres long, alerting us to what is not there. Protest, after all, is always a person, always people. Words and images are tools. Without lungs and sinew and mind to act, opposition becomes as untenable as that it opposes. This is seen most poignantly in the fact of being able to look behind the screen of slogans at the wood and tape, the kit of street survival, the scavenger stores and the business of encampment. A man made this, and then another man re-made it. They slept (if they could) then woke up, and made some more.


However, the mobius strip so made out of the two identities, the crossing of their paths yielding a single trail, does not ultimately inform a conversation about the creation or not of an art object. It speaks to the impact that any individual can make in the world, so long as they act. No person an island. No action an island. Haw acts and is seen. Wallinger acts in response and things are seen again. The possible grows. Do nothing and the journey stops. That is all we know for sure.

And the journey unfolds, as the rivers and branches do, in possible times. Haw has succeeded firstly by enduring. He is. And is again, the next day, month, year. In his patience and his effective permanence, reinforced by judges and popular mandate, he challenges the ordering tenets of a society fixated on impermanence, appearance at the expense of depth, information over knowledge, acceleration over reflection. He threatens merely by being.

So it is with art. An art object is a moment in time that continues. It too is patient. Both of its birthing moment and for all moments afterwards, it can operate, as Haw does, with the timeliness of a particular response and in a seeded future. It can live longer than the body but, like a body, it can now travel.

Place and target. How it is that where something is both makes and changes it. The site specific. In a digital age, in an environment of permanent war, where all territories are active and threatened, the idea of place itself becomes fragile. State Britain reminds us, if it is needed, firstly of the place and role of art and art sites. And it restores place to art, just as Haw restores the place of parliament to the street opposite parliament. To the public highway, to the meeting by the haw/thorn tree on the blasted heath of the battle.

mark-wallinger.jpgMark Wallinger

And both restore place to history, to the present, to the politic, to conflict, to power and its effects. They move beyond television and the internet to return to a place before the screen, where suffering is not just the pixellated rain from a broken zone that exists only as long as the twitching remote allows. The remote.

The noticeboard here is as the old newspapers were, pasted up, page by bloody page. How the old true joke goes: black and white and red all over. And we would stand huddled together, peering forward into history, our shoulders tense, our hands deep in pockets or open in a gesture, measuring disbelief, as if we were trying to hold the weight of the report, to feel it in the arms. The child ballooned by toxic artillery into the fullest extent of her pain. The parent bearing the child, a drenched sack, from the market blast. Holding the weight of the report. Feeling it in the marrow and the heart.

And what was it Neruda said; that the children do not die like this or that but like childen. And so, like all that is or might be.

These are images that stare through, stare out, the exhaust fumes and downpours, the wind and walls of time. Viewed or not, they do not go away. People age in their image, even if years dead in their body, alongside a man who preserves their memory, and now alongside a work that preserves his. They both speak of causes and effects, something most distasteful to power, which seeks to disassemble history and function only in a moment that is imminently about to be realised (and therefore, one which can be endlessly displaced, further into the receding future). They speak of them here and now. There are con/sequence/s.

State Britain is a work against abuse. The abuse of an individual, a nation, a collective humanity. Against the abuse of language and image by power for its ends. Against power’s contempt for what is held to be just by that very majority in whose name it claims to speak.

mark-wallinger-exhibition-3.jpgPhoto by Sam Drake  – Tate Photography

It is a work about the strength of vulnerability. Of flesh against the machinery of power. Of ragged flags and torn placards against the cool stone of sanctioned space.

It is about the capacity of certain people; and how, in that capacity, there is an openness that can be reached by those intent on harm.

So, it is a moving image.

Finally, it is a plea for the authenticity of a faith. It is a service in silence, unfolding in one of the shrines of our secular age; a meditation on all the noise of conflict – the planes, the bombs, the falling masonry, the sirens, the suspension after the blast. On the myriad, unheard screams all the continents away, and a single voice, amplified in outrage above the traffic.

And the voice is a tired, hoarse, defiant hope.

And the voice says No, and Yes.

It is the voice of a body, of a body of work.

How the mind works. How sometimes, by looking elsewhere, in what might seem, from casual glance, to be the unlikely corners of a certain poetry, one finds the words needed to meet the challenge of describing a person or an act that enriches the fact of being alive. Finds the words in the world and brings them back as evidence. Attaches them to the person so that one can fully accuse them of the crime, in our times, of being human. And this describing becomes inseparable from the act of honouring. Because it says, ‘you are’. I see you and believe you. In your right to be. And the rightness of your being. I look across the road. And there you are. Still there.

Our chests open, arms back,
the teacher said, ‘This is a position
I thought, that’s it, that’s
exactly a position one could live
toward, to stand in permeable faith,
and yet such force in that stance,
upright, heart thrust out
to the world, unguarded, no hope
without the possibility of a wound
‘to hold oneself in this pose,’ he said,
‘takes incredible strength’

Mark Doty, from Notebook / to Lucian Freud / On the Veil

Marches come and marches go, but Haw, thorn, you remain

State Britain continues in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries until 27th August. Daily 10.00 – 5.50. Admission Free Brian Haw continues in Parliament Square.

Gareth Evans is a writer and cinema programmer. He edits the moving image magazine Vertigo.