Bob & Roberta Smith, Help Build the Ruins of Democracy, Baltic Centre, Gateshead - review

Tom Jennings examines the political pretensions of a contemporary art show.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on January 16, 2008

The Art of Brill O’ Pads
Help Build the Ruins of Democracy (November 2004 – April 2005) surrounds a copse of birch trees adorned in sketchpad pages with jumbled banners, plaques and furniture. ‘Degraded’ materials, found objects and amateurish typefaces refuse conventions of beauty or the sublime, and the personal identity of Patrick Brill is effaced by the multiply-gendered open-ended fictional Smiths – an identity supporters are encouraged to inhabit like a “cultural virus”* spreading worldwide.

Various conceptual art strategies mobilise DIY aesthetics into creative expression as part of everyday life rather than the preserve of elites and genuises, and viewers add their sketches and sayings to the artist’s own texts. The latter – cast in cement or painted on plywood lining walls and sofas – combine the absurd and irrational with bile towards New Labour, the media, celebrities and art heroes. Alongside, a video replays a performance event staged in the parliament of Bremen, Germany, with actresses improvising histrionic debate among Jesus Christ, Mozart, Jacques Tati, Churchill, etc. All of this is mildly amusing, while Eileen – a new commission – clads a shed’s exterior with concretised fragments of a North of Ireland biography beset by communal cleavage, false ethnicity and “the stupidity of prejudice”.

Unfortunately, history is reduced throughout to mere accumulations of individual attitudes and attributes. The satirical offensiveness and Little England eccentricity therefore resolve the fascination with fame and leadership (in both politics and art) into timid liberal whingeing about today’s “flaws in democracy” – guaranteeing the artist safe passage into globetrotting art stardom and lecturing at fashionable Goldsmiths. No more profound than public opinion surveys sampling the momentary whims of passive publics, the “participation” of viewers amounts to a few hastily-scribbled cartoons and slogans chosen by gallery staff (using criteria of political correctness) – but if punters attempt to remove any they are frogmarched out. Brill will then cannibalise the archive of used and unused contributions for future projects – mirroring his recuperation of utopian Dada, Lettrism and Fluxus desires. Touted as ‘oppositional’ – even “anarchic” – this whole sordid deception is lent populist gloss with mantras like Make Your Own Damn Art (book accompanying the exhibition) and “Create Your Own Reality”. Ultimately, Bob & Roberta Smith practise neither – instead inoculating a largely contemptuous contemporary art scene against the “catalyst for change” that radical artists hope their germs will mutate into.

*quotes from exhibition blurb and catalogue.

Art review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 66, No. 5, February 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: