Friday, December 04, 2015

Paris, Syria, and Ai Wewei

I have only provocations.  I have no answers.

Last night I was at a diplomatic party - and I met Hilary Benn.  I hadn't really expected to run up against the man who, less than 24 hours before, had won applause in the House of Commons for disagreeing with his party leader and voting to bomb Syria.  It seemed more than a little odd, given what he had said only two weeks before.  Click here and marvel.

The air strikes on Syria are a response of sorts to the killings in Paris, but they are a knee-jerk response.  Like everything David Cameron says or does, the decision to go to war was an unconsidered reaction to a short-term news agenda, playing for what he regards as immediate popularity, rather than looking towards any longer-term plan or future possibility.  I recognise, of course, that we must do something - but an intensification of the conflict Daesh desires is not it.  We are casting ourselves in exactly the Western crusader role they have given us in their apocalyptic narrative. The best analysis I have read of the ISIS / Daesh movement is by Graeme Wood, writing in The Atlantic.  If this article makes one thing clear, it is that the escalation of conflict is exactly what they desire.

So the current response is not only inadequate - it is dangerous.  And this begs the question -  if not by bombing, how should we respond?

On one level, as Diane Abbott and Caroline Lucas articulated very clearly on last night's Question Time, there are diplomatic and economic measures that can be taken.  We could start by stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  You can watch the debate and consider for yourself...

For me, as an artist, the question of response is not so directly political - though of course I recognise that the directly political is central.  The contribution of artists is in the cultural arena, and is to do with interventions in public space that shift the quality of thought.  Cultural activity changes the emotional temperature, the atmosphere.  It allows certain things to become thinkable, and certain things to become unthinkable.  At the moment, the unthinkable is becoming policy - and so the need for cultural response is very real.

I'm not saying that art can "Stop the War".  I'm certainly not saying it can stop Daesh.  What I am saying is that a mature society responds to events on a variety of levels, and that the response of artists is often the most profound - the response that can help others think through matters on a more practical level.  In pre-colonial Ghana, the role of the seprewa player was to provide music in the chief's hut, as a way of enabling him to think through what to do.  In Ancient Greece, the Athenian populace watched the plays of Euripides as preparation for jury service and the legislative process.

So - what music, what theatre do we make at this moment?  How do we counter destruction with creativity?  How can we re-member what was blown apart?  How can we find any sort of beauty to set against the violence?

The day before the Paris massacre, I went to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy.  A great deal of this show seems to me to be grappling with precisely the questions that Paris has thrown at us.  His subjects are almost always to do with meaningless oppression, destruction and death.  He makes art from his own imprisonment, from the vandalistic inheritance of the Cultural Revolution, from the bones of Mao's nameless victims.  Most strikingly of all, he memorialises the children who died in the Szechuan earthquake.

Straight is an overwhelming artwork, particularly as shown at the RA, where it is framed by the collected and catalogued names of the children, placed on the walls like a war memorial.  The 150 tons of steel bars that constitute the artwork are taken from the wreckage of the schools where the children died.  The buildings collapsed because these bars buckled so easily - Ai's video in the same room explains the engineering failures, and the huge challenges of gathering the names, finding out what he could about the children, straightening the bent metal.  But it has been straightened, and lies in the RA as a testament to an intense and difficult dedication.  The bars have to be straightened, the artwork says, because their not being straight is the reason 5,000 children died.  To straighten them is a memorial, an act of reparation, a political gesture.

If we can begin to inject something of this depth and emotional intensity into our own cultural space, if we can begin truly to memorialise our lost youth, then perhaps we can begin to move beyond the current simplistic 'eye for an eye', revenge-driven militarism.  Perhaps we can begin to think, and feel, a little differently. We desperately need to.