Art Propaganda and Politics: Goshka Macuga at the Whitechapel Gallery

With her exhibition titled The Nature of the Beast, Goshka Macuga’s intention is to question not only the roles of the artist and the spectator, but also the notion of contemporary democracy. Bringing back one of the most iconic works related to politics in modern art history, Guernica (the original was previously  exhibited in 1939 at the Whitechapel Gallery), is both a reference to the history of The Whitechapel Gallery’s space, as well as to the current relation of art, propaganda and politics. Macuga’s suggestion to rethink  socially engaged art includes inviting the spectators to be active participants; not in terms of creating the work physically, but in terms of being a part of an attitude of protest that the exhibition demands.  Over the course of a year, the gallery space will be open for discussion groups. Through this provision of a space for debates and meetings, an attempt is made to examine the function of the gallery space. The entire exhibition stands as one piece of work, an architectural installation. Contrary to traditional exhibition methods, it does not exist to be visually consumed by the viewer. Rather than a typical white cube space, it resembles a meeting room featuring a video projection, a portrait sculpture, newspapers, architectural elements such as a round table, a carpet and a tapestry. However, are these merely decorative objects, or is the intention to disturb the establishment?

Seventy years ago, Picasso’s Guernica was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery. Accompanying the exhibition invitation was a call for help to the public: “Women and children are starving in Spain. On their struggle depends your freedom. One million pennies will send a food ship from East London. Will you help?” Remarkably, Guernica was displayed in a strong socio-political context, with an open call to the spectator. Seventy years later, when The Bloomberg Commission invited Turner-nominated artist Macuga to create the annual site-specific artwork at the Whitechapel Gallery and inspired by the history of the location, she cleverly focused on Picasso’s politically engaged exhibition, relating it to today’s issues. In her own words, she argues that, “Instead of being presented as a great work of art, Guernica had immediately been appropriated as a political symbol. The Whitechapel’s mission had always been ‘to bring the finest art in the world to the people of the East End’ and local organizations used the gallery as a cultural center. In this case, the event had been organized by the Stepney Trade Union Council who approached the gallery for help with their ambition to fight Fascism and to promote a Communist spirit within the working classes. They wanted to use a painting by ‘a famous Spanish painter’ to help enlist volunteers for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War[1].” At this point, there is a clear reference to the gallery’s contemporary attitude, politically engaged exhibitions and the historical context of Guernica. Comparably, these two exhibitions have a parallel approach, both emphasizing a strong political context. This time, instead of re-exhibiting the original Guernica, a life-size tapestry of the work[2] has been included in the exhibition. Re-showing the original work could have been a repetitive action, rather than one which questions links between then and now. However, what makes The Guernica Tapestry a suitable choice is its previous location. The tapestry witnessed one of the most tragic political speeches of the last decade, albeit behind a bright blue curtain drawn for the occasion. In 2003, the former United States secretary of state Colin Powell held a press conference in favor of the Iraq war, ironically while standing in in front of the hidden anti-war piece. The tapestry, which was hung at the United Nations Headquarters since 1985, was covered up in order to

avoid any potential, and indeed justified, criticism. The blue curtain was once again hung next to the tapestry in Macuga’s exhibition, yet this time the curtain was behind the work.

Another politically engaged work within the exhibition is a bronze bust. According to the historical art traditions of early civilizations, the representation of a portrait proposes power, authority, and a cult of personality, as well as functioning as a symbol of propaganda. This portrait gives the same timeless impression and without knowledge of its identity, it can be classified by codes of modernist sculpture. It may relate to socio-realist art, German expressionism, or cubist sculpture forms. Nevertheless, the dialogue between the works is strong enough that the audience can connect the pieces and grasp the context. The bust illustrates a very ironic and a considerably absurd moment with an unsettling expression; Colin Powell presenting the so-called evidence; a test tube, to justify the Coalition invasion in Iraq. The pose appears to attempt to impress and persuade the viewers, however for Macuga, it criticizes those political decisions. She portrays the contemporary politician in a playful light. Applying a specifically cubist style relating to Picasso, she highlights the link to Guernica and to the memory of the gallery once more.

Different film works, selected by Macuga, are shown in the corner opposite the  bust of Colin Powell.  These films, which are rotated monthly, include works by other politically engaged artists, particularly ones with an anti-war viewpoint. This helps Macuga to reinforce the concept of her exhibition, and in a sense, it allows her to curate her own exhibition. By including the films she attempts to challenge the role of the artist, as well as intensifying the exhibition’s context. The film shown in November 2009, titled “Winter Soldier” recounts the experience of a pair of young American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War, and attempts to show the true colors of war. It is footage from a real life conference in 1972, produced by the Winter film collective. Showing the human face of the war effort, it describes their journey from voluntarily joining the army and ultimately becoming killing machines –  a role they were required to adopt. From the start to end, it shows how the volunteers’ views change along the way.

At the foot of the video lies a carpet, a seemingly decorative element in the room that almost creates a little space of its own in the exhibition. Complementary to the video, the carpet is in fact an Afghan rug with a weave that depicts a map of Iraq, American weapons and the text, “Welcome United Nations in Iraq” dated 2003. Although its composition resembles a traditional rug design, it includes modern war machinery such as cars, battle tanks, rockets and rifles. The same gesture captured in the Colin Powell portrait can also be found within the carpet, which combines modernist or conventional media and methods, with contemporary notions. In fact these war rugs are originally made in Afghanistan as folk art for tourists and they actually have a big market. Such rugs have inspired other contemporary art, particularly carpet works, collectively done by Can Sayinli and Jørgen Evil Ekvoll. Although their works entitled Saddam Forever and War are more abstract,  design-based and even have different intentions, the medium and the subject are similar. However, the carpet chosen by Macuga is distinctly different from the other works in the exhibition, in that it is ironically welcoming the United Nation invasion in Iraq and its designers are serving the ideology of the war. These types of rugs are mostly hung on interior walls,  but also sometimes in public where they functionas billboards. This makes them notably practical tools in the propaganda effort of the Iraq war. However, the way it is used and the position of the carpet in the exhibition decontextualizes it and makes it critical. Watching the documentary film about the UN invasion in Iraq Baghdad Stories, while standing by the carpet; creates a perfect contrast. , Baghdad Stories was made by Julia Guest[3] in 2004. She uses images of the Iraqi people and urban scenes of Baghdad, while autobiographically describing her reasons for visiting the war-torn country. She explains that she wished to satisfy her own curiosity and see the situation on the ground for herself. The film shows a group of young Iraqi Journalists in the process of establishing a newspaper soon after the occupation of Baghdad in 2003. Apart from this, the film chiefly focuses on the image of the city; a city which has been bombed, with hospitals full of critically wounded people, with a huge shortage of doctors, and inadequate equipments. It offers a tragic image wherein “art” might be considered a luxury. Perhaps, this is one of the motives behind installing a big round table in the center of the exhibition room: to provide a space to discuss political issues relating to war, art and aesthetics or in fact for housing any kind of cultural debate.

The exhibition room has its own strong character; with the round oak table, video projection, leather chairs, carpet, dark blue curtain and bust. All these objects occur as typical decoration for a conventional meeting room, a place where significant decisions are made by those in authority. Without any theoretical and conceptual engagement, at first glance it may appear to be a meeting room for the gallery’s staff. Yet, it is strongly reminiscent of the United Nations Security Council Chamber and appears to be a space symbolic with power. However, all the exhibited works propose an attitude of protest against the political authority. The duality of this antagonism interpenetrates each element in an artistic language. The layout of the Spanish Pavilion in 1937, and the UN Security Council Chamber, inspired the exhibition’s design. This time however, the central table is accessible to the public, it is free of charge, and open for discussion groups. The only requirement of those that use the table is to send  recordings and photographs of their meeting(s) to the gallery for  its archive.

The round table presents itself as the epicenter of the exhibition. Apart from being a part of the installation, it also functions as a separate exhibition space. The tabletop is a glass case, where assorted documents are displayed. Pamphlets from the 1930’s  that describe how to make reactionary art, as well as various contemporary fliers and posters from independent activist groups, present a brief history of art as propaganda. Norman King’s leaflets for the Watney Street Propaganda Art Course from 1938, which included a poster design, pictorial banners and typography, reveal the teaching methods for visual propaganda of the communist party as well as photographs of political demonstrations in East London from 1938. The exhibition deals with the relationship of art and politics, from the time of Guernica to the present day.  It also reveals the history of Guernica through a number of photographs such as those of a protest of Art Worker’s Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group in front of Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 1970, and images of students using the image of Guernica on anti-war placards in 2003. In terms of site-specificity, the exhibition has a link with the history of the building and the photographs, poems, and facsimiles that lie within the circular glass tabletop evoke the idea of a library. A response perhaps to the gallery’s previous tenant – the local Whitechapel public library.  Both the Guernica Tapestry, and the method of exhibiting printed matter in the glass case, refer to the memory of the site.

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[1] Spira, A (2009) ‘A Conversation Between Goshka Macuga and Anthony Spira (Curator at Whitechapel Gallery), Goshka Macuga: The Nature Of The Beast, March, pp. 3-8.

[2] Guernica Tapestry was created in collaboration with Picasso, by weaver Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach, in the Durrbach Atelier in Paris, 1955 and commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller.

[3] Julia Guest’s diary and report format e-mails about her Iraq visit in 2003, can be found at the website of Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq,

Goschka Macuga was born in Warsaw in 1967, she is based in London.

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