Issue 276 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
Whether it's the monarchy or the new celebrity aristocrats, we should sharpen our guillotines writes Mike Gonzalez
|Where does one put one's army?|
The queen's latest state visit was to Legoland. Meanwhile the other princelets visited sites of national significance. William attended the Toytown annual parade, Edward visited the Bassett's liquorice allsorts museum annual open day and Anne opened the International Velvet pony retirement home.
At one level, staring at this gallery of grotesques making conversation with red plastic bricks is quite amusing. And it's easy enough to dismiss the blue-rinse ladies who mourn the passing of the queen mother. Sometimes we even make excuses for these faintly ridiculous and deeply dysfunctional people. After all they're just the harmless icons of middle class Britain.
The truth, I think, is very different. In reality they are effective ideological weapons in the class war--as well as ruthless class warriors in their own right. Their outlandish views, Philip's neo-fascist tirades, Charles's glum defences of traditional architecture and long dialogues with short trees are not the point. The queen went to Legoland to attract tourists and invest commercial decisions with an ideological authority.
When Diana was killed, the reaction drew in millions of ordinary people. They delivered flowers, teddy bears, precious items from their own lives. But they were also renewing a mythology, a perception of the order of the world and pledging themselves to maintain their own allotted place within it. Blair, of course, seized the time to mark out his place among the elect. His tears at the funeral were more than hypocrisy--they were a reassurance that in such times New Labour upheld the traditions and the rights of the powerful, and at the same time staked a claim to a seat at the high table.
These were modernisers when it came to the defence of trade union rights and the welfare state, but dedicated traditionalists when it came to the dominant ideas about the social order. New Labour's aggressive pursuit of market forces could lie down happily with a notion of a natural aristocracy. The queen may be playing with toys, but her massive investment portfolio is managed by the most ruthless financiers and with no concessions to eccentricity or the habits of the past. This is a very modern ruling class underneath the flowery hats. They have enormous fortunes, huge estates and power over the lives of millions. There is nothing harmless about them.
Now it might seem a big leap from Balmoral to the Beckham's Manchester palace or Madonna's place in Holland Park. Hello and OK offer weekly glimpses of the lesser Legolandiae. Oh, they're mostly drunk or foolish or awkward as they smile their twisted smiles at the paparazzi. They're often ignorant, brutish and very short. But in a strange and distorted way they reproduce and give legitimacy to the idea that society will always, and must always, have an aristocracy. They are the princesses, kings, queens, lords, ladies and princes of the tabloids. In a kind of grotesque caricature of the pre-revolutionary monarchs they wave their diamonds about, stuff down the caviar, ride the carriages, say little and work less. Yet behind their brutal banter are ruthless accumulators of wealth and the labour of the millions that pays for the tasteless wallpaper and the ice-sculpture swans at the banquets.
Ignorance, stupidity and prejudice are not the discoveries of the new aristocracy. Centuries of inbreeding and indolence produced an ancien régime that was equally rich in wealthy idiots and bigoted aristos. I'd recommend Patrice Leconte's brilliant film Ridicule for a glimpse of the savagery behind the glitter.
When Edward Said read Jane Austen's novels, he asked a simple question: how did this rural gentry live? Their homes and gardens were all order and elegance--but who paid for them? No one would be so indelicate as to mention in those whispered after-dinner conversazioni that these families were slave-owners, plantation landlords, racketeers and exploiters.
And a similar kind of diplomatic silence seems to fall over the British royal family. Behind the eccentric masks are the hardened faces of ruthless capitalists. As long as they're indulged by sycophantic Labour politicians who yearn for a little ermine on their collar or a nod of approval, we could easily let ourselves forget that the revolutionary movement of the modern age began with the severed head of a French king. They may look like lifeless statues or figures made of plastic bricks, but they are still the class enemy.
Long live the republic!
Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Dir: Paul Justman
|Music to the ears|
Brecht's famous musings on the part played by anonymous workers in the construction of temples and cathedrals didn't quite run to asking which band of musicians played on more pop hits than those of Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined!
The Funk Brothers produced 'the sound of young America', the soundtrack to many millions of dates, parties and car journeys, the sonic inspiration to a multicoloured, post-Kennedy, pre-Vietnam world. Essentially a bunch of Detroit car workers or semi-pro musicians, they jammed late into the night in the city's jazz clubs and then segued into the Hitsville studios to realise the musical dreams of Tamla Motown songwriters, singers and producers.
We all know the singers. We all know the songs. But who pounded the bass strings to the Supremes' 'You Can't Hurry Love'? Who shimmers a tambourine just as Marvin Gaye starts to tell us 'I Heard It through the Grapevine'? And who plucked that immortal six-note guitar intro to The Temptations' 'My Girl'?
James Jamerson, Jack Ashford and Robert White are neither the household names nor the multi-millionaires their craft helped to create for the front men and women. Indeed both Jamerson and White are long dead, victims of the vicious regime run by boss Berry Gordy. But Ashford is one of the stalwarts who came together to tell their story in this wonderful film.
Constructed around a Detroit reunion live performance in 2000, where a series of guest vocalists lead the ensemble of original sessioneers, the pure joy of the music is demonstrably timeless. In between the artists swap reminiscences, humble and hilarious, of exactly how certain tunes were born and sounds honed. It is still incredible to see the poky main studio area which was able to create some majestic, sweeping rhythms and vocal textures.
It has to be said that the quality of the original vocals is sorely missed. Though Gerald Levert and, surprisingly, Ben Harper do worthy stand-ins, the likes of Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan and Me'Shell NdegéOcello make fools of themselves.
There is enough material to remind us of the riotous, murderous cradle this music was born into--not least the huge impact of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In focusing on the music more than the business politics producer Alan Slutsky has delivered a ten-year labour of love. Contributions such as Dennis Coffey's, for example, about the intricacies of funk rhythm-guitar playing, stay a sensible side of technical. Nevertheless, it would have made for a more dramatic report if the producers had attempted--Michael Moore style--to doorstep Berry Gordy or his early lieutenant Smokey Robinson, to force them into an explanation of exactly how and why their employees were so shamefully short-changed. Martha Reeves's Bolshie dissent is the best we get. In avoiding bitterness, some truths are left untold.
But this movie promises to be one of those rare cinematic events--a crowd-pulling hit documentary. Whether you first snogged to the Marvellettes, got stoned to the sound of Junior Walker or lost a lover with Jimmy Ruffin's 'What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?' looping round your brain, you'll want to see who put the sounds out there for you to experience.
However, if you're tired of your elders telling you music was better in the 60s, go and see this film to be sure of your riposte because, though as manufactured as any General Motor coming off the city's assembly lines, Motown music relied on the skills of a very talented, remarkable and generous bunch of people to create a magical body of work. The end of innocence? Yes. Forgettable art? Never.
Dir: Jia Zhang-Ke
|Lifting the veil on poverty in China|
In 1978 Deng Xiaoping introduced free market reforms in China. The increasingly bureaucratised economy had stagnated under Mao, but in the 1980s its average annual growth rate was 10 percent. China now has the world's third largest economy. Yet the vast majority of Chinese people have benefited little from these reforms.
Unknown Pleasures centres on two unemployed 19 year olds from Datong, Shanxi province. Datong's state-run factories are bankrupt, and their parents are also unemployed. Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) roams the city on his motorbike, while Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) lusts after one of the dancers on a promotion team for Mongolian King Liquor. That her boyfriend--the only wealthy character in the film--is a violent thug doesn't seem to bother him. This is a sleepy provincial town and injustices thrown up by the trudge of life seem to be accepted by all.
At the heart of the film lies the contrast between life in Datong and the unreachable riches of the modern world. When Xiao Ji's father finds a one dollar bill, everybody is excited by how rich he will be. But the bank doesn't let him exchange it. Television news reports frequently interrupt the film to remind the characters that this is a globalised 2001, that they are in the third millennium. Beijing is hosting the 2008 Olympics, the news reader tells us enthusiastically. They don't care.
There seems to be no escape from the baking sun, dusty streets and stifling poverty that frames their existence. But this is a generation well versed in American crime dramas, with a future dictated purely by financial gain. Pushed to breaking point, we see a sudden, almost surreal, exclamation of defiance; it results, of course, in failure. The slow build-up of despair reaches a frenzy and our heroes' hopelessly absurd response almost seems like the logical thing to do. This is their 'unknown pleasure': according to director Zhang-Ke, 'In desperation, violence can be their ultimate expression of romance.'
The film closes with Xiao Ji driving down the newly opened highway to Beijing, in pouring rain. It leaves us in no doubt that this is about as likely to result in a better life as the street-corner lottery announcements over loudspeakers which opened the film. After all, Datong was always in the modern world: it was the opportunities that were unreal.
Perhaps most striking about Unknown Pleasures is its similarities with western films about impoverished youth. The social exclusion of Zhang-Ke's China reminded me very much of Kassovitz's Paris, in his masterpiece La Haine, and the feeling of violence borne out of hopelessness was reminiscent of Larry Clark's Kids. While capitalism around the world can differ in form, it seems that it always has the same content: dejection, hopelessness, alienation, and tauntingly unreachable glimpses of wealth. Here is a reminder that China is no different.
Dir: Ron Shelton
|Kurt Russel in Dark Blue|
In the US on 29 April 1992, an all-white jury acquitted four white police officers of the assault of an African-American man, Rodney King. This despite a videotape showing the officers hitting King with their batons 56 times, kicking him, and shooting him with an electronic stun gun.
Dark Blue, a film about the life of a Los Angeles police detective, is set during the days leading up to the infamous rioting that followed the Rodney King verdict. The film is based on a story by James Ellroy, author of LA Confidential, and reanimates many aspects of that celebrated film noir, this time amid the rage of the early 1990s.
Dark Blue chronicles several days in the life of Sergeant Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell), a member of the LAPD's Special Investigations Squad, who routinely assaults citizens, plants false evidence and has no qualms about murdering suspects. In relating Perry's investigation into the bloody heist of a Korean grocery store, Shelton takes us into a world of police corruption and self redemption that acts as a metaphor for LA's wider awakening.
In spite of its somewhat simplistic storyline--there's Perry's younger partner (Scott Speedman), who is on his way into similar corruption; their even more monstrous SIS boss (Brendan Gleeson); and a righteous assistant police chief (Ving Rhames) intent on exposing their corruption--the screenplay is thematically multifaceted, filled with the usual Ellroyan irony, and particularly skilful in the way it trades off the Rodney King riots. Added to the blend is a plethora of early 1990s West Coast gangsta rap--from CPO to Cypress Hill--which provides the soundtrack to the unfolding story.
Serious screen time for rappers like Master P and Kurupt also lend the film an unmistakable authenticity. And while at times it may not be easy to watch, it presents violence not with the usual theatricality, but with a certain graphic abruptness. While many movies attempt to imitate the personal psychologies of cops and criminals, Dark Blue hits closer to the mark than most. And as Perry, Kurt Russell revels as a complicated, prejudiced police officer who treats those around him with little more than an afterthought. Perry is a man unbound by laws and morality, and Russell conveys that in a performance of emotional volatility.
But where Russell excels, the rest of Dark Blue has trouble maintaining that standard. The film is unconvincing at key moments and it is easy to pick holes in its plot. While it is captivating within its boundaries, those boundaries ensure that it is little more than a generic portrayal of police corruption and brutality. Nevertheless, what Dark Blue lacks cinematically, it endeavours to make up for politically and socially. Whereas most directors would have shied away from something as politically explicit as the LA riots, Shelton manages to integrate the poverty, social exclusion and police complicity that many African-Americans experience into the actions and themes of the story.
Buffalo Soldiers is a film that suffered from poor timing. Acquired by Miramax on 10 September 2001, a day later it was the sort of film that Hollywood didn't want. Its release was postponed again due to the Iraq war. At its first showing in the US an outraged critic threw a water bottle at the director because of its negative portrayal of the US military.
Buffalo Soldiers shows the US military away from home in a dark light. Racism is rife. People die unnecessarily all the time and their next of kin are sent letters about it being 'in the line of duty'. Buffalo Soldiers is a depiction of an out of control US military base in West Germany where the soldiers drive the tanks doped-up, and joined up to avoid prison--having been ordered to 'serve time or your country'. It is about bureaucracy, crime and the dehumanising nature of the military.
So much for the good news! The problem is this black comedy by director Gregor Jordan isn't as clever as it thinks it is. The movie can't shake the ghosts of M*A*S*H, Catch-22 and The Phil Silvers Show--and the nodding references to all three in the film simply highlight its shortcomings.
Based on Robert O'Connor's novel, the film has Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) running a racketeering operation under the nose of his eccentric and clueless superior officer, Colonel Wallace Berman (Ed Harris). Elwood is dealing heroin, and his new no-nonsense superior officer, Sergeant Robert Lee (his name a symbol of tried and true American militarism), dislikes Elwood not only because he's profiting from the sale of drugs and stolen goods, but also because he's dating his daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin). It all spirals down out of control, in a somewhat predictable direction.
'Men with nothing to kill but time,' bemoans the narrator, and that is the message, if there is one: that without a war soldiers will turn on each other. This is grafted onto the 'anti-hero fights authority' plot, which means the climactic showdown between Elwood's supposedly rational insubordination and Lee's bloodthirsty army loyalty comes across as hopelessly muddled.
The film wants to make a statement, but instead becomes a familiar and jumbled mess. I wanted to like this movie, but just because the movie-marketing climate is all gung-ho it doesn't mean that confused cynicism is an entertaining response. Shame, really.
Dir: Orson Welles
|Power and greed in Citizen Kane|
This DVD release of Citizen Kane (1941) in a brand new print is a moment for celebration. Firstly, it is a dazzling story about power. Loosely based on the life story of William Hearst, the newspaper baron who was the Berlusconi or Murdoch of his day, the film sets out to provide a portrait of the vanity and excesses of a contradictory elusive personality.
Secondly, Citizen Kane was also made at a time when the Hollywood cinema language reached a new maturity. Creative technicians embraced the opportunity to push the potential of the technology to the limit. This period was also a moment of enormous social turmoil, post-Depression, where writers were sharpening up their social critique in genres such as gangster and social problem films. Welles entered into this arena from a background in radical theatre. His career was to express the contradictions at the heart of 'Hollywood art cinema'.
Welles disdained Tinsel Town for threatening to reduce all its great ideas and talent into a homogeneous product, so his deal with the studios, unique to this day, was to allow him full creative control. Liberated from the need to justify his work to the studio bosses, he set about experimenting. The result is a film that combines the stylistic ideas of German expressionism, the craft of American theatre and new technical innovations directed at expressing reality in a more heightened way than ever before. It's rare to see a film where the harmony between style and narrative function is always perfect. Every frame of Citizen Kane seems to have been designed to at once underline the story and amaze us with its pictorial brilliance. The story itself flits between emotional tones with enormous confidence as Welles narrates a tale of a megalomaniac capitalist in the throes of collection mania, ill at ease with himself despite his riches.
At the time William Hearst fought to keep the film away from an audience. There was to be no mention of the film in any Hearst newspaper, and an influential critic worked behind the scenes to block the film's release and blacken the name of Welles. Welles just about managed to extricate himself from a tabloid style sting involving an underage teenage girl. In addition the original negative was burnt in suspicious circumstances.
The audacity and sheer exuberance of the film are still impressive and the informative documentary sets the context for the film, debunking some myths surrounding the project. The print has an amazing sharpness and clarity, with stronger contrasts, and a richer grading of tones. A feature shows a technical comparison between the new and old print and one is soon in no doubt about the need to shell out for this DVD copy. Welles's notorious broadcast of HG Welles's War of the Worlds, which terrified an unsuspecting nation of radio listeners and brought him to the attention of the studios, is also included. Citizen Kane is an enormously influential film and this is a must-buy DVD.
Cathy Come Home
Dir: Ken Loach
At long last the British Film Institute has started to release on VHS and DVD some of the treasury of TV classics that it keeps in the National Television Archive.
One of the best of these is Cathy Come Home. Working from a script by the campaigning journalist Jeremy Sandford, it established the creative partnership between Tony Garnett and Ken Loach, and in some respects it is their masterpiece. It tells the almost impossibly moving story of a young couple, Cathy and Reg, who fall in love, get married, start a family and make plans. But the romance sours into tragedy when Reg loses his job and the couple become victims of what Sandford called 'the housing famine'. Steadily they descend into homelessness and the forcible break-up of their family. Anyone who is not moved by the final scene of Cathy Come Home really should consult a psychiatrist.
There were two big dangers in a project like this. There was the risk of mawkishness, but this is prevented by the sheer artistry of the cast and crew who committed themselves to the project with a passion. Loach, Garnett, cameraman Tony Imi and editor Roy Watts give this simple story an intensity and a realism which are still overwhelming. The second danger was a political one. It would have been all too easy to make Cathy into the story of feckless losers or victims. Sandford, Loach and Garnett avoided this by giving the story a social context. The visual imagery and still more the soundtrack are constantly reminding us that what we are watching is not just the tragedy of a couple--it is the shame of the Labour government, it is not just fiction but social reality.
So although Cathy might be a 'classic' it is anything but a historical curiosity. Of course it has dated, most obviously because it is in black and white. So much of the visual furniture of Cathy Come Home--the clothes, the cars, and the haircuts--looks antiquated even to someone who lived through the times. But beneath this superficial distancing this programme burns still. Two things strike me as supremely important here.
Firstly, the politics is still scarily relevant. The problems of housing might have changed, but the dread of inequality, debt and homelessness is rising all the time under Blair.
Secondly, it reminds us of just how brilliant socialist television productions could be. When it was shown it was watched by mass audiences--Cathy Come Home was repeated within weeks of its first broadcast and on both occasions it was watched by more than a quarter of the population. This is as good as television can be and as such is a testimony to the power of socialist artistry--committed, angry, audacious and popular.
Cruel and Tender
Tate Modern, London
|An American family in Alabama in the 1930s|
'Cruel and Tender' focuses on photographers who take up the challenge of representing the complex relationships of modern life. The show takes as its point of reference two photographers of the interwar period, August Sander and Walker Evans.
Sander was a German commercial photographer who, in the 1920s, began to build an archive of portraits that, in total, was to have presented German society in cross-section. His portraits do not pretend to provide insights into the individuality of the subject, but rather each sitter was categorised according to their profession or social status. Yet, for all that, Sander did not impose a stereotyping vision on his subjects. Each of his sitters was allowed the space to present themselves as they wanted and, for Sander, the overall description of society would emerge out of the collection and comparison of these hundreds of gestures, expressions and surrounding details. Sander's project was effectively ended after Hitler came to power--his collection was too inclusive for Nazi racial theory.
Walker Evans saw Sander's work as a model for the future of photography, and in his own photographs of America during the Depression of the 1930s we again see this patient attention to detail and commitment to the calm description of the world. In the mid-1930s Evans produced photographs for the Farm Security Administration, a body set up under the government's New Deal, with the purpose of documenting the effects of the Depression on the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the Southern states. Around the same time Evans collaborated with the writer James Agee on the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an extended study of the lives of three farming families in Alabama. Evans's images from these projects combine portraits, street scenes and architectural studies, along with interior details of the families' homes, to build up a multi-faceted view of the depression in the South.
Both Sander and Evans rejected the view that a single dramatic image could possibly express the complexity of the world it depicts. Instead they produced collections of images in which quiet observation amasses a wealth of social detail. Both photographers are well represented in this show, which would be worth seeing just for these images.
From these two historical precedents, the exhibition moves on, tracing the themes raised by their work as they are developed by a number of photographers (24 in all), mainly contemporary.
Robert Frank's The Americans, first published in 1959, was slated by the establishment because of its dark vision of the American Dream. Frank took a road trip across the US, photographing what he saw. His images often focus on facial expressions (the subjects usually caught unawares), and are about people's experience of an unequal and racially divided society.
In the 1970s Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams concentrated on the shaping of our environment by new industries. Baltz's 51 images of the monotonous and repetitive architecture of America's new industrial parks are presented as a huge minimalist grid. Adams, on the other hand, takes us on a trip through new construction in Denver--wasteland, building sites, trailer parks and shopping malls--in a commentary on the destruction of nature and degradation of human experience.
Since the 1960s Bernd and Hilla Becher have applied Sander's commitment to categorisation, not to the portrait, but to industrial forms. Their apparently dull images of grain silos, blast furnaces and water towers are categorised and grouped, forcing us to home in on details of construction. Though humans are never present in the photographs, human presence is emphasised through foregrounding the conscious activity of design. The Bechers' attention to detail has been continued, in different ways, by their students Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky. Struth's massive colour image Shibuya Crossing reflects on the relationship between humans and the urban environment. Standing back from the picture, the humans appear as an undifferentiated mass, dwarfed by the buildings around them, but step up close and countless social interactions are revealed. Gursky produces similarly scaled images of the monotonous spaces of capitalism. He focuses on the structures that bind us, but in removing the chance occurrence from his images (often digitally manipulated), he seems to discount any possibility of upsetting those structures.
Struth and Ruff also work with portraits, as do many others in the exhibition. In the 1990s Fazal Sheikh used a traditional portrait style to produce beautiful images of the Somali women housed in Kenyan refugee camps as a result of the civil war. Here people normally represented as victims or statistics are for once treated with dignity and respect.
This is a huge and fascinating exhibition, including work by many of the major figures in contemporary photographic art, and a rare opportunity to see the work of some of the most important photographers of the early 20th century.
Dreams and Conflicts, the Dictatorship of the Viewer
|'Stateless Nation' by Sandi Hital|
The 50th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is an immense event which runs until the beginning of November. It consists of the work of hundreds of artists in exhibitions spread over 64 national pavilions, themed shows in the Arsenale and Museo Correr, and numerous additional exhibitions and events at venues around the city. Established in 1895, one of the original ambitions of the Biennale was to promote a 'universal language of art'. Today the problems of such an aspiration and the complexities of processing the amassed contemporary art from every continent are considerable. The viewer is presented with constant dilemmas in negotiating work that operates on such disparate levels and is cast adrift from its original context.
'Dreams and Conflicts, The Dictatorship of the Viewer', the theme given by director Francesco Bonami to the largest ever Biennale, establishes an overtly political note from the onset. Concerns with globalisation, identity, technology and the role of the artist in articulating conflict and proposing new models permeate the different shows and are spelled out within the literature. However, after many miles of art it is not clear exactly what this massive art fest is: a glitzy trade junket, an attempt to convey a 'spirit of the times', a crude proclamation of national identity (with awards of merit for national presentations)--they all seem to play a part.
The permanent pavilion buildings themselves, situated in the historic Giardini della Biennale, act as sites for national posturing. The British pavilion strikes an almost self parodying note like some colonial residence, accented in the flags in Marcus Garvey's pan-African colours that Chris Ofili (he of glittery elephant dung) displayed outside. The German pavilion built by Hitler's favourite architect Albert Speer exemplifies the queasy alliance between a Modernist aesthetic and totalitarian pomp. The Palestinians do not have a permanent site but the Giardini was punctuated this year by seven foot high free-standing Palestinian passports, a project entitled 'Stateless Nation' by artist Sandi Hilal--a succinct statement about territory, identity and culture. Artist Santiago Sierra elected to deny entry to the Spanish pavilion by breeze-blocking the entrance and obscuring España with black plastic bags. Only those with a Spanish passport are permitted entry--a sardonic comment on both the spurious internationalism of the event and a critique of the barriers imposed by the 'free world'.
Artists from the Middle East and Africa frequently make use of video. Their work predominantly focuses on specific historical or political events, in a documentary form far removed from the obscurantism of much western gallery art. The collisions between the different approaches created uncomfortable juxtapositions that were arguably at the heart of Bonami's intentions. Peace flags still flutter everywhere throughout Venice and radicalism was one of the dominant themes of the Biennale, but the event never quite escapes either preoccupations with national representation or the corporate hand that feeds it. Sponsor Illy provided 'chill out zones' serving free coffee and their colours and logo pervade the exhibitions.
Open-air seminars were held to discuss the legitimacy and efficacy of socially committed artists participating in an event which operated within the constraints of prevailing national, institutional and corporate agendas. Fred Wilson in the US pavilion investigates the 'moor' in Venetian history. Displaying original paintings borrowed from museums, photographs of sculptures and artefacts depicting racial stereotypes, he addresses the relationship between culture and oppression. But most disconcerting was the young Senegalese man Wilson had employed to sit outside selling fake designer handbags spread before him on a blanket, creating palpable discomfort in the queue jostling to get in to see art about black oppression.
The different shows within the Biennale--'Delays and Revolutions', 'Fault Lines', 'Utopia', 'Zones of Urgency' and 'Clandestine'--are 'zones' where multiplicity, diversity, and heterogeneity are the buzz words. Cynicism comes easily as the elegantly heeled drift through, clocking what's 'in' this year. However, beyond a style magazine anti-aesthetic was the sense of a genuine desire to reach out to the world beyond the solipsism of white cube gallery and insider art language. The very indigestibility of what was on show was salutary, requiring a constant reappraisal of reactions, criteria and prejudices. Despite the contradictions and sometimes trite attempts to fit in with the theme, the attempt by the curators and artists to engage in wider debates is significant.
Music and politics are frequently fused. What is striking about the Unpeople is the sheer extent to which this is the case, their debut album marking a welcome return of agitprop--the open use of music as a medium for agitation and through which to deliver both a complex analysis and inspiring message.
We are presented with a mixture of hard hitting urban hip-hop, of dark tunes and sinister sounds creating a sense of the frustration of seeing lives wasted through poverty and alienation. But there is also the hope of transcending it all as, above all, the album celebrates and encourages the struggles against war and imperialism, basking in the new internationalism so many of us feel.
The rapping is first rate--a series of lyrical masterpieces, biting political analysis combined with humour, empathy and anger fiercely polemical but equally sincere, fast moving and free flowing but under tight control. Overall the success of the Unpeople's project is that it makes you feel as if listening to tunes about Zionist oppression or globalisation is the most natural thing in the world and that John Pilger is far cooler than Jam Master Jay. This is only possible because the quality of rapping is matched by the sophistication of the music, the tracks 'Ayopara' and 'Pipedreams' standing out as particularly atmospheric compositions.
If your thoughts and emotions have been at all fused by the 'war on terror' you will identify with this album with its brilliant but humble delivery. A weapon of struggle and a great inspiration--credit to the Unpeople for bringing politics to their scene in such a challenging way. This album just cannot fail to get respect--Rage against the Machine meets Roots Manuva meets East London meets John Pilger.
Available from www.subversive-elements.co.uk