Art as an activist tool

The main aim of Art being used as an activist tool is to fight back any political and social injustice by challenge them.  These injustices can vary from raising awareness about the people living in poor living condition in underdeveloped countries, environmental concerns, immigration issues and so on and so forth, in simple terms an Art Activist seeks to address the collapsing states that construct an ideal modern society. There are many opinions regarding Activist Art, some Critics state that Activist Art in not an artistically high level due to the reason that the message behind the Activist Artwork is replaced with artistic quality, while others Critics state that high aesthetics quality can deviate from the political and activist aims of Activist Art, turning it into a spectical which defeats the purpose (Boris Groys, 2014).

Activist Art is highly associated with Feminist Art due to its activist nature against social and political injustices. Feminist Art flourished with the second wave Feminism in the late 1960s mostly in the United States and United Kingdom. The Feminist Art Movement began producing art around that time, tackling themes such as the female body, life experiences as a women, and the female’s domestic role, themes tackled by female artists such as Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois, who did not self-identify with Feminist Art. The Feminist Artists of the second wave later started to abandon these themes, focusing more on proto-feminist art, producing art that asked for gender equality (Tracy DiTolla, 2016. a .).

In 1972, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro created the installation titled “Womanhouse” which consisted of an actual house in Hollywood, as the result of the “Feminist Art Program (FAP) at California Institute for the Arts”. The project also involved  a 21 year old female student who renovated the house, as it was listed for demolition, before being taken by the project. Then they installed a sculpture of a woman stuck inside a closet full of linen sheets and fried eggs that looked like beasts on the walls and ceiling of the kitchen. The project wanted to address the indoctrinated relationship between the woman and the house, challenging the idea of the female out of traditional domestic roles (Tracy DiTolla, 2016. b .)

kiJudy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, 1972, Womanhouse. [Photograph].

Jumping to 1989, we see the emergence of the famous Feminist Artist Group the Gorilla Girls. The poster titled “THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A WOMAN ARTIST” was one of the group’s earliest work with their typical use of humour to address the more serious issues, such as discrimination in the art world itself, addressing the disadvantages that woman artists still had to face in the 1980s in a tongue-in-cheek way. The poster displays a list of “advantages” which in reality are disadvantages, to point out the bias of the art world against the female artists, as Lee Krasner better stated;

 “The world of High Art, the kind that gets into Museums and history books, is run by a very small group of people. Our posters have proved over and over again that these people, no matter how smart or good-intentioned, have been biased against women and artists of colour.”  (Tracy DiTolla, 2016. b .).

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Gorilla Girls, 1989, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. [Digital Art].

In the more Contemporary scene of Activist Art, we see the political artist Ai Wei Wei who is mostly known for his political artworks questioning the actions of the Chinese Government. In 2008 Ai Wei Wei blamed the Chinese Government, regarding the collapsed Government constructed schools during the Sichuan earthquake, which killed over 5,000 students. His installation listed the names of the children killed, demanding the Government to take accountability regarding the tragedy. This caused him to be arrested for 81 days, as well as his passport being held for 4 years, making him unable to leave the country (Dominique Bonessi, 2016).

Having moved to Berlin in 2016, Ai Wei Wei witnessed the refugee crisis that hit Germany as well as the rest of Europe. He addressed this issue by hanging up to 14,000 life jackets , that were left on the shores of Greece by the refugees, on the columns of the German Concert Hall in Berlin (Dominique Bonessi, 2016).

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Stefanie Loos/Reuters, 2016, Workers build up an installation by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei with life jackets left by migrants on Greek beaches on columns at the Konzerthaus Concert Hall during the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin on Feb. 13, 2016. [Photograph].

In another attempt to address the refugee crisis the Artist wrapped thermal blankets ,which are given to refugees the moment they entered any shore, to warm up, around his 12 sculptures, representing the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals that where exhibited in front of the National Gallery’s Trade and Fair Palace. There was no direct connection between the statues and wrapping them in thermal blankets, as it was more of a solidarity symbol towards the victims, as the Artist himself stated;

“A Gesture in defending the dignity of refugees.” (Dominique Bonessi, 2016).

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Anon, 2016, People walk past the ‘Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads’ sculptures by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei in front of the Trade Fair Palace run by the National Gallery on Feb. 5, 2016 in Prague, Czech Republic. [Photograph].

 

In conclusion, I do believe that Art has the power to affect culture and therefore can be used as a powerful tool by activist artists to address the injustices around us, to aim for a better society that delivers equality to all minorities. If culture affects Art, then Art should have the same impact on culture, raising questions in a striking visual manner that might be easier for the viewer to relate to and change their views.

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Ben Quilty and his view on masculinity

Ben Quilty is an Australian contemporary Artist, at the height of his artistic career, having over 30 solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas as well as being the winner of various prizes such as, The Doug Moran Prize in 2009, the Archibald Prize in 2011 and the Redlands Westpac Art in 2012.  Quilty can be considered as one of the artists who explores the concept of masculinity in relation to “rituals” that best display the characteristics of male rebellion and anxiety. Quilty’s  work is usually autobiographical, often recalling his teenage years, full of no sense of authority, boldness, restlessness, spontaneity, pleasure seeking, alcohol, drugs, cars and recklessness, and he uses such events to explore how we define what is being a man, and how boys become men (Caddey, n.d, p.7).

In the painting “Self-Portrait Dead (Over the Hills and Far Away)”, 2007, the artist depicts himself heavily drunk after a whole night of drinking (Caddey, n.d, p.8). The paint is thick and heavy, composed of patches of dull colours that make up a blurry representation, portraying through medium the mood of being heavily intoxicated. The artist states “it’s a comment, about reckless masculinity rather than a celebration of drunkenness” which acknowledges the fact that he’s aware of how the idea of masculinity has affected him personally, which might be the reason why he heavily drinks. The artist then follows by stating “It’s me as a willing participant in the mayhem that is modern man, it’s quite critical the statement I’m making. I want people to see the vulnerability” acknowledging the fact that he’s consciously taking part in activities that make man today, himself included, chaotic, showing the viewer the state of vulnerability that ensues (Caddey, n.d, p.8).

hjk Ben Quilty, 2007, Self-Portrait Dead (Over the Hills and Far Away)

Quilty also tackles the aspect of guidance, or rather the lack of.  Teenage boys acquire from boyhood to manhood, in white Australian culture, “rites of passage”, such as getting legally drunk on their eighteenth birthday, which symbolize some kind of passage from boyhood to manhood. In the “Crash painting series” the artist choose to represent, with his bold application of paint, this issue the iconic powerful cars of the 1970s such as the Torana and the Falcon, cars that “reeked of rebellion”, as a metaphor for the idea of masculinity which consists of strength, power, swiftness and intimidation. In this series Quilty depicts the powerful cars after they all had crashed, to intentionally send a visual message that masculinity is just as vulnerable to self-destruction, such as the high injuries and death rates in males caused by reckless behaviors encouraged by this idea of masculinity (Caddey, n.d, p.9).

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Ben Quilty, 2012, Crash painting 1.

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Ben Quilty, 2012, Crash painting 2

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Gregory Crewdson, beneath the roses and ambiguity

Through my journey of researching the theme of ambiguity in Historical and Contemporary Art, Gregory Crewdson has been a very fundamental contemporary artist and shaped the way my work is currently visually developing.

“Beneath the roses” is a series of 36 photographs by the Artist Gregory Crewdson, completed after four productions, some on location in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, others in a soundstage specially constructed. Crewdson’s method of photography is quite unique, often resembling a movie set with a crew, composed of around 40 people from production designers, personnel in charge of lighting and even a director (Amy Larocca, 2008). As a matter of fact many film production techniques and technologies are used, for example lights are held up by cranes, fog is produced from fog machines, rainmaking machines to create a downfall and even shutting down main streets to be used for a location (Kenneth R. Fletcher, 2008).

loooGregory Crewdson, 2006 (image Online). Untitled (Sunday Roast) from the series ‘Beneath the Roses. [Photography].

huiGregory Crewdson, 2006 (image Online) Untitled (Shane) from the series ‘Beneath the Roses’. [Photography].

Gregory Crewdson often tackles the idea of ambiguity in his photographic series. As he states himself “There are two possible interpretations, one is the possibility of impossibility and two is the impossibility of possibility. I know there’s a sadness in my pictures. There’s this want to connect to something larger, and then the impossibility of doing so” (Amy Larocca, 2008). If one takes “Untitled (Sunday Roast)”, it is quite evident that there is a sense of sadness from the characters facial expressions but the reasons why are ambiguous. Maybe is the father late again? Maybe he passed away? The guests didn’t turn up or maybe it’s a single mother who just had an argument with her son. This makes the image part of a larger narrative but the photograph limits you from finding it, thus making it impossible to have a clear conclusion. The ambiguity grows when looking at the whole serious which provoke more questions rather than answers. Just from comparing the two photographs above, which are from the same series, makes you question if the two images are even connected, making part of a larger narrative. If they are, is there a timeline where each image falls? Are the characters indifferent to each other or not?  Is the child in “Untitled (Shane)” part of the family in “Untitled (Sunday Roast)”?

The fact that many questions arise from an individual photograph, as well as from the whole series, creates ambiguity on different levels and scales. Just from comparing two images from 36, the sense of narrative already grows and so does the ambiguity in each photograph and the entire series.

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