Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2007
EAST International
Exhibition schedule: Norwich Gallery, Norwich School of Art and Design, Norwich, England, July 8–August 9, 2006
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Roman Vasseur. Executioner's Tunic & Hat. 2006. Courtesy EASTinternational 2006, Norwich Gallery NSAD.

EAST International, the open-submission exhibition that takes place annually in and around Norwich School of Art and Design, displayed its well-earned self-confidence in 2006, when programming material boasted that, “The trust of artists in the democratic structure of an open exhibition has enabled EAST to become an annual challenge to the expertise of the contemporary art establishment. Not a bad achievement for a small art school gallery in a provincial city.” Perhaps to find this challenge we should look to such galleries in such cities detached from London’s monolithic art establishment (Norwich is in the historic capital of the county of Norfolk in the east of England). In its sixteen years of programming, EAST has drawn a diverse yet accomplished range of international artists at different stages of their careers, as well as prestigious selectors who are themselves respected practicing artists, including Gustav Metzger (2005) and, for the 2006 exhibition, Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller.

The strengths of EAST were particularly clear in its 2006 manifestation, a year that also witnessed a flurry of large-scale, contemporary art survey shows in Britain, including the Tate Triennial and The British Art Show. In contrast to these high-profile exhibitions, EAST is keen to promote the differences it claims are represented by a “democratic structure” as demonstrated not only by the open-submissions policy, but also by a “discourse” process in which, after having been selected, artists join the selectors to discuss their ideas regarding the final production of the exhibition. In 2006 the exhibition was housed in two neighboring buildings: one, the Norwich Gallery, belonging to the School of Art and Design; the other, a functioning art and design school building. This latter site in particular, though spruced up for EAST, provided the exhibition with an air of experimentation that most “white cube” galleries extinguish. It also provided the ample space necessary for artists to construct multi-faceted installations and to present the findings of investigative and often collaborative projects. What became most interesting was the degree to which the “challenge” EAST meant to introduce to the art establishment exceeded the contours of this frame in order to consider the broad implications of democracy outside the art world as well as within it.

The most well-known member of the selection committee for EAST International 2006, Deller is recognized for projects that instigate collaborative practices with groups not usually associated with the contemporary art world and that might be considered democratic in ethos. Perhaps his most ambitious and famous piece, The Battle of Orgreave (2001), reenacted a violent clash between pickets and police in South Yorkshire during the 1984–85 miners’ strike, calling upon local community members—including former miners and police—to restage the spectacle. However, rather than represent a harmonious collaboration, The Battle of Orgreave’s success was rather in exploring traumatic memory through the juxtaposition of differences. Integral to the selection of works in EAST, Deller’s perspective seems a relevant case in point in the debate about collaboration, “social engagement,” and the political in contemporary art. The British critic Claire Bishop has written in October and Artforum about her concern that a straightforward reading of collaboration as ameliorative and democratic actually ignores the critique such work might make. Bishop is especially compelling when she considers how such easy praise of “socially engaged art” can be seen to fall back into the moral agenda of the liberal powers that be who would appropriate art for social policy purposes. She writes, “I would argue that it is also crucial to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art. This critical task is particularly pressing in Britain where New Labour uses a rhetoric almost identical to that of socially engaged art to steer culture toward policies of social inclusion” (Artforum XLIV, no. 6 [February 2006]: 180). Many works selected for EAST involved a collaborative facet and suggest that Deller demonstrated a similar approach, i.e., supporting artists who presented an intelligent and critical, rather than naively optimistic, approach to questions of the social or political in their work

Such a critical stance was manifest in Chris Evans’s A Sculpture for the Ahmed Family, which presented a wall of written correspondence between Evans and a resident of Bangladesh named Justice Refaat Ahmed. Accompanying wall labels explained this work as part of an ongoing project that involves Evans’s collaboration with “people around the world who we would regard as belonging to their country’s ‘elite.’” Evans engages Justice Ahmed in a dialogue focused around the proposed commissioning of a sculptural piece to represent the history of the Ahmed family. Evans’s interpretive wall text suggested that the correspondence with Ahmed probes such questions as “what effect the elite can have in relationship to or in tandem with, the country’s faltering democracy.” Through their letters, the two finally agree that the Banyan Tree might be a fitting symbol for the Ahmed family, but Evans irreverently twists Ahmed’s reading of the Banyan Tree as a sign of “endurance,” explaining in a letter that he has discovered that the tree is also know as the strangler fig because it is parasitic. While their dialogue reveals Evans’s wish to challenge the moral elites he courts, the proposed outcome of the project does not hide a complicity with such elites that the art object must endure in order not to alienate its subjects.

Equally exemplary of the critical tendency promoted by Deller and the selection committee is EAST International 2006 award-winner Ruth Ewan, who shared this year’s cash prize with Jarrett Mitchell. Ewan exhibited A Rebel’s Complaint, a video and archival installation that grew out of the findings of local research. Inspired by the story of a peasant uprising against Norfolk gentry undertaking to fence off common land, Ewan commissioned a new folk song to commemorate this episode of historical activism. The rousing result filled the room, broadcasting from a humble television set placed next to an archival display that documented the project’s process. Investigating a moment when rebellion resulted in the harshest penalties, Ewan continues a train of thought that has seen her elsewhere explore the politics of contemporary protest (previous work has appropriated chants and imagery from rallies at the G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005 and Stop the War in Iraq protests in 2003). Her thoughtful position seems to question the practice of protest in democracy when it is so easily appropriated by the moral and political authorities as the sign of a “healthy democracy.” Her commissioning of a passionate folk song for the martyrs of the 1569 Norfolk Uprising commemorates real politics and activism, suggesting that our era provides little to sing about. Ewan’s work seeks to expose the hypocrisies rife in liberal Britain; however, she is equally committed in her attempt to make critically engaged work that is playful and rich enough for broad interpretation and popular appeal. Her position illustrates the most striking statement made in EAST’s publicity material: “The idea of the artist as a moral force is reappearing, whether musician, filmmaker or painter. Only the artists’ idea of moral choice always challenges accepted morality. Democratic values expressed simply and directly in the work of artists today have replaced the sophisticated confusion of a decade ago.” A further strand of Ewan’s prize-winning installation presented a small-scale collaborative project. Here, the artist exhibited a series of polemical, black-and-white line drawings that are in fact copies drawn by Norwich school children from images originally printed in an 1818 text, The Young Worker’s Book of Rebels. The collaboration drew on both the children’s creativity and their ability to copy and to imitate, thereby suggesting the imbalance in any collaborative gesture and the idea that we always need to look closely and critically to discover what is really going on.

Some works in EAST explored collaboration in order to offer alternate models of democratic communities. For instance, Matt Stokes investigated the distinct communities that form around different music styles through his commissioned compositions for church pipe organ of pieces of Northern Soul, Happy Hardcore, and Death Metal music. These new pieces were then presented during three separate recitals in churches in Norwich for their respective fan bases. For his EAST installation, Stokes used museum cases to present the documents produced throughout his project, including his research into the pipe organ and the development of the ongoing project, entitled Sacred Selections. Indeed, this commitment to historical, anthropological, and sociological research was central to the diverse practices of many artists in EAST, and it was often highlighted by its physical representation in archival displays reflecting a contemporary interest in the rearrangement of knowledge systems. For example, U.S. artist Nate Harrison’s Can I Get an Amen? explicitly addressed the problematic principle of the freedom of information and the business of knowledge. This audio and text installation explained the origins of the “Amen Break,” the most sampled drumbeat in the history of pop music, first heard on “Amen Brother” by the Winstons in the 1960s. Harrison invoked the clash between the democratic principles of the freedom of information and the reality that the institutionalized freedom of information leads to information’s restriction through copyright law. His attitude characterized the commitment to research and investigating information shared by many of the artists in EAST.

Several works were sited around Norwich city for the exhibition. In Rory Macbeth’s No-Place, the entire text of Thomas More’s Utopia was painted in white on the walls of a condemned building on Duke Street, resulting in a mesmerizing and disorientating monument. In resurrecting More’s 1569 political text on a site that would guarantee its immediate erasure from the cityscape, Macbeth’s gesture spoke of the contemporary artist’s indecision at her or his moral or political position, while also illustrating connections between the democratic ideals of “public art”—the other favorite of liberal art-policy makers—and the business of town planning. The question of public art and its relationship to business was also featured in the work of the collective Freee. Their contribution to the exhibition, located on the outskirts of Norwich, consisted simply of an advertising-style billboard that declared in uncompromising, plain type, “The Economic Function of Public Art is to Increase the Value of Private Property.” In what are seemingly one-liner works, both Freee and Macbeth addressed the complicated relationship between public art and the public and alluded to the question of art’s role in a democracy

Leading its viewers through two buildings and out around the city in order to engage with over twenty detailed installations, EAST International 2006 required more of the viewer and seemed less tainted by institutional hands than, for example, Tate Triennial. The freedoms of the artist that EAST holds dear lead to a selection of often courageously multi-layered works and a critical approach; in the 2006 exhibition, questions were invoked of art’s relationship to “accepted morality” and to the ways in which this relationship is precisely that which is excised by more centralized—and centralizing—exhibitions of contemporary art.

Susanna Haddon
independent scholar

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