Considering two works by Tadhg McGrath

Poetic licence operates like a hiatus – an “agent provocateur”, a short circuit – into the atrophy of situation that finds itself in a state of political, social, confessional, ethical, economical or military crisis or lethargy. Through the absurd and sometimes impertinent nature of the poetic act, art provokes a moment of suspended meaning, a sensation of senselessness that may reveal the absurdity of a situation. Via this act of transgression, the poetic act makes one step backward for an instant from the circumstances. In short, it may make us look at things differently.’

Francis Alÿs [i]

Protest art, art as protest, political art; whatever you call it, it’s a tricky one, surrounded by an expanding culture of confusion. As I write this (April 2011) overtly political art is enjoying a period of relative popularity in public and commercial art institutions – it could even be said to be fashionable. While Tate’s current Turbine Hall artist Ai Weiwei remains in captivity in an unknown location, arrested by the Chinese authorities without charge or trial, a whole series of acts of protests have been programmed by Tate and artists in support of his release. Tate Modern’s lightbox, a vast ribbon of glass and light on top of the enormous industrial building on London’s Southbank, normally used to advertise exhibitions with their name and dates only, now displays a plea to ‘Release Ai Weiwei’. 

It is hard to ignore the cynical marketing side and hypocrisy of this scenario and the complex relationship between power, protest and co-option. Tate’s Turbine Hall exhibitions, including Ai Weiwei’s – an installation of millions of hand-painted ceramic sunflowers seeds, are sponsored by the giant multinational Unilever, which is currently sailing on top of the recession, benefitting massively from its Chinese market share. But that’s not to say that intentions of individuals and certain parties involved might not be earnest. It is, as I said, complex.

‘Safe Riot’, a 2010 video piece by artist Alexis Milne features a couple of guys throwing seemingly random objects; plastic bins, tables, a toy motorbike, at a screen showing documentary footage of 60s civil rights protests.  The soundtrack consists of protest songs, the first 60s style, the second more a punk song. An obvious reading is that Milne is mocking contemporary protests which have for a long time resembled Sunday walks with the family and friends in the park on the one hand and disenfranchised adolescent outlets for petty violence on the other, a sharp contrast to the fervent sincerity and hope of the 60s when mass protests actually had some impact on broader political decisions and movements. Milne could be making a comment more specifically on his own generation who have grown up with a spirit of lethargy and disengagement pronounced by the vivid backdrop of 60s activism. Milne’s piece is punk poetry. The nihilism, the sardonic piss-take humour and openness to interpretation are an appealing combination.

Irish artist, Tadhg McGrath’s work is very different to Milne’s and certainly very different to Ai Weiwei’s. But Milne hits upon something central to McGrath’s art and his activism and indeed something highlighted by Ai Weiwei’s current predicament and Tate’s reaction; what matters is how you protest. As the Middle East implodes into civil war sparked by very real protests (for basic civil liberties) and western military intervention gets messier, governments in Europe and America are busy dismantling state welfare institutions and systems, handing over the title deeds of all that rightfully belongs to everyone or no one and all that has been developed with public money, time and effort to bafflingly powerful corporatism. It’s not completely fair to say that the common person is taking it lying down. People are protesting but the governments aren’t listening. Why? Because they don’t feel they need to. And it could be said that the people are unsure of what they are saying. For the most part protest in the western world has become impotent, following the now expected and much too easy marching and jingle shouting rituals. Protests in the West no longer challenge, no longer demand real change or even reactions. The more we falter with our own imagination and ability to understand and react appropriately the more we look to artists.

Situating himself within the tradition of “activism tied into a conceptual and absurdist approach”,[ii] a tradition that extends back to the early twentieth century Dadaists and more obviously (and arguably their third generation descendents) the Situationist International group, McGrath creates opportunities for people to recognise generally hidden realities and truths. From there, the reactions of the public and the ‘powers that be’ activate his work.

When McGrath restored an old post box in Dublin city centre (‘Box 21’ on Emmet St) to its original red Edwardian colour scheme, he brought it back a century to its colonial identity and signification, thereby reminding anyone who witnessed it in this state, of recent Irish colonial history and the fact that the box was indeed most likely originally red. Not only is this post box a potential symbol of colonialism but so are the terraced houses that line Box 21’s street. The fact that McGrath has chosen a post box is a nice touch in that its purpose is to transport information around the world, a side effect of colonial activity the world over, of course with both negative and positive effects. McGrath’s intervention provoked a strong reaction from at least one member of the public who, not long after it had been painted from green to red by McGrath, daubed the post box with green paint, attempting not to completely restore its currently rightful Irish republican identity but just enough to destroy the perfection of its anachronistic red. It is doubtful that this person realised that it was an artist who had painted it. Their decision and action was a protest of sorts too, a provoked reaction; passionate in its immediacy and certainty.

Box 21 reminds me of the work of French artist duo Jeanne Claude and Christo, famous for wrapping monuments, landmark buildings like the Reichstag and most notably an entire island in varying materials and often with parcel-like string. Ireland is an island and the manner with which its buildings, landmarks and national symbols were painted from green to red and then again from red to green depending on its owners identity is called to attention by McGrath in a witty gesture. McGrath’s statement draws on the language and behaviour of marketing and its subliminal effects, just as artists like Les Levine and Jenny Holzer have done to great effect. There can be little doubt that ‘Box 21’ succeeded in jolting passersby, possibly alerting them to a different sequence of thoughts. The effects of artist interventions are immeasurable but the intention is often such that their effects run deeper than more obvious discussions, touching poetic sensibilities. 

As a committed supporter of the Shell to Sea campaign, which opposes the proposed construction of a natural gas pipeline through Mayo in the West of Ireland by oil company Shell, McGrath’s piece Saro Wiwa Street deals directly with a hot topic in Ireland and with the broader issue of public space and again ownership. Ken Saro Wiwa was a Nigerian environmental activist, who as spokesperson, and then as President, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People – an ethnic minority from the Niger Delta region,  led a non-violent campaign against the environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the multinational petroleum industry, especially Shell. Speaking about the work McGrath explains that just a few hours after he personally renamed the street where Shell’s Irish offices stand on Adelaide Road in Dublin as Ken Saro Wiwa Street using a perfect replica of Dublin Street signs, ‘Shell had organised to have the sign opposite their office removed.’ McGrath continues that ‘The sign was really nothing to do with them, so they had no more business getting up on ladders doing this than I had, which was interesting, I thought.’[iii]

Further down the road another sign which McGrath had replaced with his own remained in place for a few days and ‘oddly enough when I went to take a photo of it, there was a police officer standing on the pavement underneath it. Initially she tried to tell me I was not allowed to take pictures, and then she removed her identification numbers.’[iv]This anecdote goes somewhere towards explaining the photograph above, showing McGrath holding a placard with the words ‘THE GARDAÍ WORK FOR SHELL’ while a member of the Gardai [Irish police force] stands in disbelief reading the sign. 

Another interpretation of Alexis Milne’s aforementioned ‘Safe Riot’ could well relate to artists’ aloof interplay with and reaction to socially engaged topics. Are artists engaging in a safe riot against society, hiding in a world of concepts and fringe forays, protected within the talismanic world of art? Critical theorist, Theodor Adorno was vexed by the common criticism leveled against him that while he could criticise society he did not act to change it directly. But the question then begs – is the direct way always the best way? Is poetic provocation potentially not a more long term and powerful approach? Consider the words of Guy Debord, leader of the Situationist International group, “The point is not to put poetry at the service of revolution, but to put revolution at the service of poetry”[v]. There is a wicked humour in McGrath’s photograph of the artist with protest placard and police-woman and one that sums up McGrath’s best work; its bold dissension and exposure of corrupt power by provocation, creating a space for learning and dialogue through interventionist statements that interrupt our daily routines, challenging the dangerous ideologies we live by and live in – something we may not have the time, the courage, the imagination or poetic sensibility to do ourselves.

Claire Flannery  
London 2011

[i] Francis Alÿs, interview with Russell Ferguson, in Francis Alÿs, Phaidon Press, 2007

[ii] Interview with the artist.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] ibid

[v] Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006


© The author and Tadhg McGrath 2011

frame from Safe Riot  Video Alexis Milne 2010 www.alexismilne.com