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QUT Billboard Commission, Brisbane Australia 2010.

Weapons on the Wall, 2003 «back next»

The Farm, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Photofeature

HAWAIIAN SHIRTS AND SAFARI PANTS: CHRIS HOWLETT COMES OUT OF THE (POLITICAL) CLOSET WARDROBE.

As we know, trends in fashion are constantly developing and changing. Thanks to postmodern theorists like Fredric Jameson1, we also understand that fashion, like “culture” generally, is a collage of different eras and styles.

The most prominent example of this, at least in terms of fashion, might be the continued popularity of “retro” fashions. The development of and shifts in this popularity denote a hegemonic function in contemporary culture. To explain: as a reaction to the excessive and ambivalent cultural trends of the 1980s and early 1990s, grungers and post-grungers of the mid 1990s began to appropriate particular visual styles from the politicized 1960’s and 70’s.

Weapons on the Wall, 2003

Weapons on the Wall, Installation detail, photographer Richard Stringer, 2003

However (in a typically Jamesonian manner), the political associations generated by these adopted fashions (because they at the very least resemble those worn by anti-Vietnam War protestors), were not employed as a strategy to restate, reinforce or rearticulate the “hippie” advocacy of liberal democracy. Rather, the adoption of “retro” fashion was simply a means to symbolically distance and differentiate grungers and post-grungers from both the dominant and generally conservative populous and other alternative sub-cultures.

Perhaps because of this essentially superficial appropriation, by the late 1990s this reclaimed “retro” fashion was already being consumed back into mass culture. The release and enormous success of the first Austin Powers film in 1997/98 marks the climax of this reintegration.

Effectively a James Bond “spoof”, Austin Powers amplified the sexist and racist undertones of Bond films to humourous kitsch, and combined it with a glorified version (minus the apparent “immorality”) of “free-love”. The result was the official passing of retro-culture as once again “popular”, thus negating the self-differentiating and self-identifying “original” retro appropriation, not to mention the distant memories of a more radical alternative to mainstream ideology.

Here in Queensland we have a reputation for being rather laidback. Our recent anti-war protests were more like “Picnic in the Park” (organized by Brisbane City Council and Channel Seven) than an appeal for radical political change.

Was it a coincidence that at these protests it was not unusual to see people wearing Hawaiian shirts and safari pants? Has the capacity for radical political change been consumed along with sub-cultural identifications with “retro” fashion?

Chris Howlett’s recent exhibition, Weapons on the Wall, sought to question the state of and space for critical debate in contemporary culture. By covering the gallery walls, floor and ceiling in cardboard, Howlett created a new space in which he could present a variety of resources. Collected essentially from popular culture, these ranged from watercolour posters employing the text and image relationship of Time Magazine covers to Cookie Monster videos and old Superman audio-story records. Protest slogans hand written on cardboard covered the ceiling, while sections of wall were plastered with newspaper clippings and magazine advertisements.

In the center of the installation was a Sony Playstation running an interactive game based on the plastic green and grey toy soldiers available from toy stores. Other components included in the exhibition were videotapes of the famous terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, water-pistols, a large cardboard tank with “Big Wood” written on its cannon, videotapes of American “sit-coms”, “home-made” images downloaded from a pro-American website www.deadarab.com, peace signs as well as art and critical theory books.

Through sheer sensory “overload”, Howlett’s installation demonstrated the proximity of information available through media sources. With no distinct agenda or biases other than the re-presentation of cultural material broadly relating to central themes such as war, fashion, violence, comedy, politics and masculinity, Weapons on the Wall amplified the sometimes forgotten assumption that underlies democratic forms of government.

That is, the assumption, stemming initially from Rene Descartes and later the Enlightenment Project, that an individual, when presented with the relevant and accurate information, is able to make an informed and rational value judgment.

This form of reasoning sustains the integrity of democracy, as opposed to other political systems like Fascism and Communism, by presenting individuals with old adages like “it’s nobody’s fault but my own” and “I should’ve known better”. Howlett’s installation, then, by reserving its own value judgment serves as some kind of catalogue through which opinions and subsequently, debate may emerge.

Read metaphorically, Howlett’s cardboard installation could be described as the “cave” that is contemporary art. That is, at once immersed in and hidden from popular culture. In this way Howlett poses two questions: Is art able to provide a space for critical debate? and, How does this humanistic assumption of democracy still pertain to our highly mediated post-industrial information age?

Art could be the activity that neo-conservatives now maintain in order keep those radically inclined (leftists) busy, while they continue to colonize culture in the name of late-capitalism. Alternatively, art could be the last bastion of critical debate, acting with “critical distance” from popular culture.

Generally, at this point we would get to the question of audience: If Howlett, like other artists, has (at the very least) the privilege of time (more like will) for observation, why does he show his findings in a gallery? Why doesn’t he use the mass media or public space so that a larger audience can benefit from his insights? However, Howlett essentially counteracts this argument by demonstrating that all this information is readily available to the general public: not through artistic insight or torment, but rather through simple attention to observation.

Howlett also poses this as one of the problems facing contemporary critical debate, and hence radical political change. That is, because the media (and to some degree, public space) is controlled by companies and individuals directed by economic rationalism, their biases reinforce those (right-wing) ideals. Obviously, there are no clear solutions (yet). As Howlett demonstrates, information technologies like the Internet and cable television have promised much and delivered little – actually, they’ve just delivered more of the same. Howlett’s own solution might be most visible in the appropriated text used for the exhibition invites that, although flippant, sincerely pleas: “MURDER THE PM”.

This article was written by Grant Stevens for the Weapons on the Wall catalogue essay in 2003. Stevens is a brisbane / Los Angeles based artist and writer.

1. For example see: Jameson, Fredric (1983) “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in Postmodern Culture, Foster, Hal (ed.), Pluto Press: London, pp.111-125.