A History of Irritated Material probes art’s relationship to politics and the archive through examples of art activism from each decade since 1945, many on show for the first time in Britain. The meaning of “irritated” is twofold: the art is (politically) charged, so that like an electron disturbed it transcends its static orbit; it also conveys a sense of anger. Spread across the three floors of Raven Row, the archives and installations all employ art as a tool to critique social inequality, highlighting individual alienation, injustices in national and international socio-economic policies, as well the crusading instinct of Western democracies.
Two TV screens are set up at the entrance as personal viewing stations. They play a selection of psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik’s ambitious memory-building project, Lygia Clark, from Object to Event (2007), a meticulous compilation of 65 one-hour interviews with friends and collaborators of the Brazilian artist, like the singer Caetano Veloso or the art historian Yve-Alain Bois. Rolnik’s project is an impressive response to Clark’s Structuring the Self (1976) and the problem of posterity posed the original perfoemance, which relied on bodily experiences and the use of “relational” objects as a therapeutic process of breaking down her “clients’ ” unconscious fears ingrained by society by living with them in a protective, long-term arrangement. The installation impresses the importance of repeat and committed viewership.
A flight of stairs leads down to Disobedience, An Ongoing Video Archive (2010), a sub-section of the show curated by Marco Scotini. Consisting of a cacophony of documentaries, it is arranged in a poly-focal structure of stacked televisions, inspired by El Lissitzky’s Sovient Pavilion of 1928. The installation includes 40 videos by activist groups like Critical Art Ensemble and artists like Chto Delat, who address international economic, social and political issues—from the hegemonic power of the G8 to the effects of bacteriological experiments. The common thread is the pivotal role of the aesthetic protest as an instrument of critique and self-representation – an effect buttressed by the sheer number of videos on show simultaneously, pictured as it is in any given one. For the anarchist group Black Bloc, portrayed in Bernadette Corporation’s Get Rid of Yourself (2003), violence becomes a means of creating images which symbolically wound Capitalism; while for the Bike Writers, interviewed in Department of Space and Land Reclamation’s Retooling Dissent (2004), who trace with their ink-stained wheels a number of messages of protest across New York during the 2002 World Economic Forum, images become an accessible way of popularising their messages of dissent, as well as a space for voices different than those of mainstream media.
Neo-Situationist détournements is exemplified by Group Material’s Shopping Bag (1989), a plastic carrier bag that lists on one side the names of world capitals of shopping and on the other those of arms trade. The exposé-style installation by Sture Johannesson in his chilling A Cut in the Groin (2009) documents through letters, newspaper cut-outs, photographs and an orphanage’s keys, Sweden’s horrific state-sponsored sterilizations carried out to “purify the race.” They’re all strategies that manifest distrust in the government as an institution, but are embedded in the specific social context that produced them. It’s a paradox embodied in the chaotic display here, in which image balances ephemera and the unconscious.
IMAGE: STURE JOHANESSON AND ALEXANDER BALDAL, AGENT KNALLRUP WITH THE RIGHT TO PUSH, II, 1966. COURTESY MALMOART MUSEUM