Christopher Howlett
Christopher Howlett said 15 years ago


Christopher Howlett
Christopher Howlett said 15 years ago

Weapons on the Wall – Institute of Modern Art, Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane, Australia

This is an article published in the Courier-Mail in 2005 titled “Lets Get Political” by Rex Butler.

Looking good is not enough when it comes to art with a message, writes Rex Butler.

POLTICAL art always suffers from a dilemma: as political, it has an argument to make; as art, it must be complex, ambiguous and open to several different interpretations.

This second requirement is usually expressed as the work “putting forward a number of points of view without choosing one” or “allowing the spectator to make up their mind”.

In this, the political work of art is typical of the wider condition of art today, brilliantly diagnosed by the critic Michael Fried as “literality’: a state in which the work of art ”depends on its beholder, is incomplete without them, has been waiting for them”. The work of art becomes like a mirror reflecting viewers’ prejudices and preconceptions back at them, allowing society to see itself in all its glory and misery.

It is a rhetoric we currently see everywhere, every time a curator says that a work of art is “about” some issue, without telling us what it is saying about it; everytime some reviewer speaks of a book or movie “bringing some important issue to our attention”, without telling us what it is saying about it. And so it is with these four most recent collections at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

The first thing to say about the shows -three large scale installations and an exhibition of photography – is that they look good, or at least engage with the extremely difficult spaces of the new IMA.

The long middle room there is an art graveyard, looking much like a low slung airport hangar or the inside of a slightly too-warm refrigerator truck.

It is presently occupied by Chris Howlett’s Weapons On the Wall – a screaming jeremiad against what used to be called the military-industrial complex. Howlett covers the walls with mock-Time covers declaring Henry Kissenger a war criminal, includes videos of terrorists beheading hostages, and erects placards with slogans as “No Blood for Oil” and “Stop Killing People for the Benefit of Americans.

Rex Butler Quote

It’s an aggressive, snarling visual cacophany – a kind of anti-universe of murder and pain, with sex and sport as the new opiates of the masses. You’d think, then, that the catalogue writer could come up with something better than: ”There are no simple answers to the questions being posed, only a never – ending series of linked ideologies, oppositional arguments and conspiratorial connections.”

Either Howlett is saying that our contemporary “society of the spectacle” is complicit with the war in Iraq or not; either he wants to analyse the relationship between young soldiers brought up on violent computer games and Internet porn and the hyper-real battlefield in which one no longer sees one’s opponent or not.

It is not enough to say that the viewer can make up their own mind – in this the work would precisely be part of that same mobilisation of vague threat and indeed that it opposes, would merely substitute one non-existent conspiracy for another.

We see the same thing with the show by Nat & Ali, not only but also… a similar looking scatter piece in which the artists have apparently upended the contents of their studio in the gallery.

It’s predictable, if depressing, that the only time art ever gets on the front pages of the paper is when someone disputes an artist’s will, when someone claims to be indigenous and they’re not and when a work of art sells for more money than the Prime Minister will earn in 100 years.

But it’s just as uninteresting for artists to take this situation as their subject matter, artificially producing such scandals and then letting them resonate in a solipsistic echo chamber.

Another of the works – Pat Hoffie’s Drift – was not the most immediately challenging of the works, but was the one most conscious of the difficulties of doing political art.

The work is simply a long corridor made out of masonite that replicates the dimensions of the so-called SIEV X, a boat which sank off Indonesia in September 2001, drowning 353 asylum seekers.

Dark rumours circulate around the event – if the Australian secret service did not actually sink the boat, it is likely that overcrowded and under-resourced vessel was heading into our waters and did they knew an nothing about it.

The work does not hector or narcissistically refer to itself, but simply presents the facts, allowing us to imagine what happened in a room in which an image resolutely refuses to form.

Dr Rex Butler is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland. Has written extensively on Australian art and published or edited four books: An Uncertain Smile [Artspace, 1996], What is Appropriation? [IMA, 1996, 2004], A Secret History of Australian Art [Thames and Hudson, 2002] and Radical Revisionism [IMA, 2004]. Has also written two books on theorists: Jean Baudrillard: Defense of the Real [Sage, 1999] and Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory [Continuum, forthcoming]. Writes regularly for the Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane and is the Brisbane correspondent for ABC Radio’s The Deep End. (Contemporary Visual Arts+Culture broadsheet, vol.34 No.2, june-august 2005, p.74)

Christopher Howlett
Christopher Howlett said 15 years ago

Seduction is Important1: Chris Howlett’s Weapons on the Wall, writes Chris Handran.

Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. – Bertoldt Brecht2.

The title of Chris Howlett’s ongoing series of exhibitions comes from the description of World War II propaganda posters as Weapons on the Wall3. This phrase indicates the extent to which such wars are not just about fighting the enemy, but also about waging a war for people’s hearts and minds. Support for a cause cannot be assumed, but must be won through reason, inspiration emotion and, if necessary, deception. Seen in this light, propaganda can be seen as advertising for an ideology; a very particular type of hype, designed to ‘work on people until they are addicted to us’4. Today, the tactics of propaganda are so deeply imbedded within the fabric of our culture that they are indistinguishable across the fields of media reporting, advertising, cinema or reality television.

It is in this context that Chris Howlett attempts to explore the relationships between art, politics and propaganda. The earlier editions of Weapons on the Wall drew heavily on representations and reporting of September 11, the US invasion of Iraq and the resulting protests against US imperialism. They presented an eclectic array of hand-drawn protest placards, digital prints, paintings of magazine covers ranging from TIME Magazine to Art in American and videos including news reports from ‘ground zero’ of September 11, the cartoon violence of the Simpsons, episodes from M*A*S*H and imagery from internet hate sites. These seemingly radical juxtapositions point to a certain equivalence amongst these varying statements: whether protesting against war or waging in, spearheading an advertising campaign or a terrorist strike, reporting on world politics or on contemporary art, all seems to come down to sloganeering and spectacle.

The most recent addition to the Weapons on the Wall project brings these investigations closer to home, examining the legacies of colonialism and nationalism within a local context, alongside the media critiques and political interrogations of the earlier exhibitions. An important aspect of this project is an acknowledgement of the complexity that is inherent in the issue under examination. In Howlett’s engagement with politics the idealism of Brecht’s statement is undercut by the awareness that there are no simple answers to the questions being posed, only a never ending series of linked ideologies, oppositional arguments and conspiratorial connections to be explored.

Chris Handran Quote

This complexity takes form in the construction of equally labyrinthine environments in which to pit the opposing forces of ‘conservative’ and ‘radical’ politics and aesthetics. The use of objects and images to explore these issues mimics, even as it questions and critiques, the practices of museum display. Howlett’s quasi-museological environment is one in which truth is always uncertain and open to debate. Howlett presents items ranging from ‘tribal’ artifacts (both ‘authentic’ and ornamental) to live animals and insects. He cajoles us with manipulated footage of sporting kings and emperors, engages us in simulated warfare with sci-fi colonialists, entertains us with outdated ethnographic texts.

Importantly, the appropriations pf prosaic landscape paintings,re-presentation of tribal artifacts and provision of computer games consist of a mixture of ‘authentic originals’, ‘assisted readymades’, and items painted, carved, moulded or generated by Howlett himself. While in some cases the products of these labours are more apparent than in others, it remains unclear whether these are acts of tribute, parody or one-upmanship. These acts of appropriation raise questions of ownership and value, perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the landscape paintings purchased from ‘op shops’.

To these paintings, Howlett has added various figures and slogans, some political and some advertorial. Is the alteration of their content an elevation from the ‘merely decorative’ to the politically purposeful, or is this an act of colonisation in which one artist claims ownership of the work of another? This would certainly seem to be the case when he signs a work on behalf of the original artist – as if their anonymity renders the work authorless and therefore ripe for reclamation. Or is this an act of unrequited collaboration, as evidenced by the listing of the artist’s names in the gallery alongside Howlett’s own.

Similarly, the use of artifacts would seem to reflect a coloniser’s desire for the fetishes of ‘primitive’ superstition, or at the very least for exotic souvenirs. Yet alongside these artifacts (authentic or otherwise) are objects that Howlett has crafted.

As with the landscape paintings, the distinction between the genuine and ingenuous articles is not always clear; some are originals, some have been modified or fabricated from scratch, to varying degrees of plausibility. The more obvious fakes include weapons made using everyday ‘Western’ objects such as cricket bats and fence pailings. These objects appear to be the products of some sort of extreme suburban primitivism or the trappings of a very dangerous game.

An equally ominous game is found situated amidst a confusion of monitors and computer games. Here stands an arcade style game and an invitation for the viewer to assume the mantle of Coltan5 the barbarian, using a virtual reality helmet modelled on Pupua New Guinean mud masks. Donning this mask, we become a player in an environment made up of fragments of the gallery environment itself. Our perception is both focused and distracted by the mask itself. The mask, like the story behind it, not only frames our view of the world but also adds yet another layer of complexity to the worlds in which we operate.

It seems that the one task that Chris Howlett sets for himself is to articulate this complexity; to question the view of the world that is presented to us. Yet perhaps the most pressing question that can be asked by (or of) Chris Howlett is this: how can artist engage with politics in a meaningful way? When as Brecht suggests, art does take on the responsibility of shaping society, how can it do so other than playing on our ideals and aspirations – and consequently taking on the strategies of advertising and propaganda? In other words, is an artist’s desire to ’make a difference’ compromised by this very desire, inherent in it the necessity for ‘taking sides’. Is it possible for an artist to engage in politics without taking sides?

It appears that this is the task that Chris Howlett sets for himself – to present his own voice amongst (rather than above) a million others. Rather than a one-sided debate, we are presented with a cacophony of dissent and argument, not simplified or diluted but dispersed around the room. It is up to us to pick through the rubble of ideologies, to tread the fine line that Chris Howlett draws between seduction and repulsion, and to make up our own minds.