Thursday, 22 May 2008
Giving the middle finger to the Hayward Gallery's exhibition
I can't help but think that this whole 1968 exhibition is nothing but
a huge, marketed, branded, pre-packaged cliché. It is so very
Southbank, so very Verso, so very liberal left. If the Guardian has
reviewed it, they probably love it.
Why? Because anything exhibited at the Hayward brings with it a kind
of love-hate guilt-trip, a 'what will happen if someone finds out?'
appeal about it. It's like the Starbucks Latte. It's creamy, it's
frothy, it's warm and it soothes. Even better, it's Fairtrade.
Yet at the same time, it's a white coffee (so imperialist and
non-Left Bank) and is made by a multinational corporation who,
despite their greatest efforts to convince us otherwise, have
destroyed all hopes of local business flourishing. How to reconcile
the 'Free Palestine' regalia and the green-tailed siren? Just don't
buy a Frappucino. You're saving the ice caps, right?
The environment aside, the Hayward is cool. And that's why it's
fitting that a new exhibition of posters from the 1968 revolts in
Paris should be put on there. I couldn't think of anywhere better. In
many ways the Hayward epitomises 'New London' – of which the
Southbank is the epicentre. Here is a clash of the urban and the
conceptual; the '60s meets the 21st century.
I am talking about the difference between sixties war-crimes which
supposedly count as architecture (the BFI, the Royal Festival Hall,
etc), and the new Southbank Centre and accompanying Hayward Gallery.
The clash is strangely epitomised by that random skatepark which sits
next to Centre, just underneath the walkway.
I've always wondered how that popped up, and why there always people
there. I remember asking my dad as a child: 'Why aren't those men at
work?' I was a naïve soul.
So, why would the Hayward make a fuss about some '68 posters? Well,
it's forty years on, as if I needed to remind you after the million
and one supplements, special editions and culture spreads about '1968
and all that.'
How many old-time reactionary socialists have been dragged away from
the non-existent picket line, from the long-abandoned factories, to
comment on '68? They've been waiting for this for forty years. No
doubt Chomsky, Zizek, Eagleton et al. wrote their 'reactions' about
ten years ago, when postmodernism got a bit boring and there was
nothing conceptual left to critique.
But now that 2008 has come along, they can lift the lid of the
dustbin of history, accustom their eyes to the harsh light of the
twenty-first century and furtively make a list of all the
contradictions they can feast their eyes on in their Moleskine notebooks.
So the Hayward has got together a pretty wide collection of these
posters. And they are impressive. They are striking. In fact, I got a
real sense of being there. It must have been the Hendrix and Dylan
playing. It must have been those grainy photos – instilling within me
a feeling of fraternity with my fellow étudiants. A single sentiment
grew within me: a feeling of contrariety, of rebellion.
The slogans enveloped me: 'La Lutte Continue' (the struggle
continues) with a pumping wall of a fist resounds throughout the
exhibition; symbols representing the police state with 'Pour la
violence, la haine et la repression' (For violence, hate and
repression) scrawled in black and white lettering.
For it was this lutte contre le cancer gaulliste which drove
thousands against the police in the streets of Paris. The photos
prove it. It must have happened.
Immediately striking is the sense of immediacy which characterises
all the art on display, even forty years on. An impression of urgency
thumps out of the canvas, as if one of the huge fists had burst forth
from it and given me a good shake, before proceeding to stick its
middle finger up at me.
And this in many ways reflects the apparent spirit of the movement –
the urgency was real as the posters were rushed off presses in the
ateliers populaires and onto the walls of the Sorbonne.
The artist, in this sense, becomes a kind of guerrilla operative; the
art of flyposting no longer means putting up posters for 'Sex on the
Beat' next to cashpoints, or advertising the Trinity garden play in
the KA. Instead, it becomes a cloak and dagger movement – the
steadfast of the bicycle riding, baguette wielding anti-fascist brigade.
Nonetheless, it's important that I felt a 'real sense of being
there'. Because I don't have a clue what it was like to be there. All
I have to go on are the numerous accounts, poster exhibitions, The
Beatles' 'Revolution' and Dylan's shameless publication of his song lyrics.
And yet I was convinced, on walking out of the Hayward, that I had
'been there'. I could relate. I had felt the urgency of the cause,
and soaked up the atmosphere of '68. I was a Child of the Revolution,
in the purely T-Rexian sense.
Yet I am a member of an entirely different generation. I am by no
means a soixante-huiter. Even my parents were only 7 at the time. So
what was it that made me feel so alive?
It appears to me that the exhibition, for all its glory, for all its
good faith, is a clear example of the relationship and fine line
between revolutionary art and propaganda. The posters, with their
bold, iconic images and unequivocal messages, are hard hitting. They
are direct, like the action they propose.
And while they may have been convincing when they were stuck up on
the walls of the Sorbonne forty years ago, today they have but one
function: the perpetuation of a myth of '68, and all its associated
There are several reasons for this – and, at the centre, is the very
basis of the poster itself: the image, the nature of which has
changed dramatically over the last forty years. Today is the day of
the electronic image – there is no way getting around this. Online
advertising, forums, downloadable media, podcasts, RSS feeds, YouTube
politics: all are the lynchpins of the technological revolution, and
all influence and feed the 21st century opinion.
So for these posters to have any real effect, they'll have to go
online, or at least be marketed on electronic billboards. The
exhibition will have to be made into a YouTube music-video montage
('La Lutte Continue' with a mish-mash of Dylan and Hendrix). And
then, for full effect, Justice will have to do an electro remix. The
day it is played in Eclectric will be the first day of the revolution.
And why is this? Because the image has become a commodity. I can't
walk to the Taylorian without being bombarded by a thousand images:
advertising and marketing has appropriated all 'space'. Forty years
ago, in a massive reversal, this 'space' was the commodity, to be
used as a means to a revolutionary end by students and workers alike.
This is why the posters worked, this is why they stirred, this is why
they moved people to action. Not so today. With posters and images
all over town, the popular protest has changed direction: the
revolution has sold up, packed up and moved from the Faculty wall to
the Facebook wall.
So, the Hayward's collection doesn't really do a great deal, apart
from give a false picture of popular protest. It makes a myth of '68
and turns it into the herald of a golden age. Now detached from any
real significance, the image of '68 is the spectre no longer haunting
Europe. It is pure surface – just giving a quick-fix sensual effect,
before being shooed away.
I've always held that the single thing which makes or breaks an art
gallery is its gift shop. So, before consigning '68 to the dustbin of
history, let's see what's on offer. We have the usual: the memento
rubber, pencil and sharpener set – this time complete with pumping
fist; this is the stationary which will topple the order, or at least
rub it out, and rewrite its literature. We also have 'copies' of the
posters, at £50 a pop. Baudrillard, anyone?
But most entertaining are two gifts in particular. The first, a
Converse sneaker, complete with the 'La Lutte Continue' image on the
reverse side to the Converse emblem. Never before have I seen such an
incredible representation of this appropriation of space.
In a single revolutionary sweep, the left has appropriated the means
of production and redistributed its literature upon the stamping
ground of the capitalist regime! Or they've just sold out.
The second are the Peace Dolls, made from 100 per cent biodegradable
material, and a snatch at £9.99. These 'Peace Dolls' probably come
complete with a 'peace scarf', organic snacks and a free one year
trial membership to Hezbollah – get yours while stock piled nuclear arms last.
You can imagine my disappointment when I couldn't find the '68 Action
Man – complete with stones, placard, a copy of Sartre: A Guide for
the Perplexed and a jump suit, ready for quick escape when the
fascist pig policeman comes to drag him to servitude (all made from
organic produce by collectivist workers in South America, or back
issues of 'New Internationalist' and 'Red Pepper', and carbon
neutral, of course).
But enough railing for now. I suppose what really emerges from the
Hayward Exhibition is this: that '68 has become nothing more than a
myth. It has been used by the intellectual liberal left, forty years
on, for a specific end: the proliferation of discussion about the
counter culture, about the nature of revolt.
For old time trade unionists, '68 has become revolution – the real
McCoy. Any deviation from this is reactionary, in their eyes. In
actual fact, the myth they have created will haze the direction of
any real action.
So is the exhibition worth the time of day, and, if so, what's the
point? Firstly, yes, it is worth a look. For all its inauthenticity,
for all its harking to a golden age, the posters do serve an
important point: they show the importance of resistance, and the
power of the popular voice. So long as '68 is appreciated as a
historical phenomenon, and not drawn upon for future action, all will be well.
For all his irrelevance, Dylan was right in one case: the times they
are a changing. If we're going to play his records over images of
'68, we should really take heed of his message. By all means, go
along to the numerous '68 conferences. Read the special issues of New
Statesman, Prospect, and so on.
Just don't reminisce. If you do, imagine the fist popping out of the
canvas and giving you a shake. And then, before it has the chance,
stick your middle finger up at it. It's probably for the best.