Earlier this week, as you probably know, Assemble won the Turner Prize. An exciting result and very well deserved. Curiously, Assemble, an 18 member collective, are being described in the UK media as ‘non-artists.’ And ‘non-artists’ creating art with a social purpose at that.
Back in November I headed to Bristol to experience a new work by an artist who also has social purpose at the core of everything he does. Theaster Gates. Gates has been regenerating, remodelling and inspiring change in South Side Chicago since the sub-prime mortgage crash in 2008 when he started to buy and renovate derelict properties for the local community to use and share. He is now an A-list art world celebrity. Yet he set out on his path by making change his priority, not art world recognition. He was a town planner and a potter before he found himself in the ‘art world.’ In Bristol he created a new work called ‘Sanctum’ inside the ruin of Temple Church, which sustained 24 hours of sound, day and night over 24 days, by performers, spoken word artists, musicians, choirs, bands and speakers.
(Photo 1. At Sanctum, Bristol, opening weekend)
And then at the weekend I finally made it to art activist Ai Wei Wei’s retrospective at the Royal Academy. Another artist who is also an architect. But above all, he is an activist, who needs and wants to make change, major social change. And he has paid the price with detention, physical beatings, fines designed to bankrupt him. He has huge support from around the world. His art is awe inspiring. His work ‘Straight’ currently at the RA is a dense carpet of steel reinforcing bars from the poorly constructed schools that collapsed in Sichuan, China following the earthquake there in 2008. The bars, mangled and twisted from the quake were recovered by Ai and his team and then straightened out, one by one. (Photo 2. Ai Wei Wei’s Straight.) According to Chinese officials 69,181 people died. Citizen investigators provided Ai with the names of more than 5,000 children who died when their schools collapsed after the quake. These names too are listed in the exhibition. (Photo 3.)
The Ai Wei Wei exhibition was mobbed. So many people. Queues. I’d love to have seen the work quietly. Alone. To spend time to absorb its power. But at the same time, how brilliant so many people care. So many are moved and inspired enough to queue for work that, to be honest, needs some explanation to understand its true depth. You have to work to get it. But that’s not stopping us.
At Sanctum in Bristol, no one knew what they’d experience when they arrived at Sanctum. It was like a lucky dip. But on the opening weekend there were queues for that too. I don’t know if these continued, but how brilliant to have so many Bristolians co-creating their own wall of sound for 24 days. Taking ownership of their space. Speaking out for their city.
So, for ‘non-artists,’ it’s exciting times. The public are taking part. Let’s do more of this, here in Bedfordshire, people.