Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

Since June 2001 the peace activist Brian Haw has been camped out in Parliament Square in London. At first, his protest, against the Anglo-American treatment of Iraq, was small in scale. Haw raised a banner or two and – for the closer perusal of passers-by – erected a few additional boards with press cuttings and pictures on the suffering of war.

But gradually, over the next five years, the display began to lengthen, creeping along the pavement until it extended a full 40m, with additions not just from Haw but also from visitors and well-wishers. This ragged, improvised peace-line is the subject of Mark Wallinger’s ambitiously titled new installation.

State Britain, a commission from the Tate, was prompted by the sudden irruption of heavy-footed policemen into Haw’s peaceful, if untidy, protest. In May 2006 almost the entire caboosh was swept higgledy-piggledy into a police van and whisked off to some unknown storage unit. Because of new legislation banning unauthorised demonstrations within a kilo-metre of the Houses of Parliament there is unlikely to be anything like it again. As Haw’s protest pre-dates the Act, he himself cannot be judicially removed. But he and his supporting material now occupy a much smaller square footage of pavement.

Working from photographs, and with the help of Haw and his contributors as well as a team of 15 assistants, Wallinger has re-created Haw’s display, as it appeared at its longest extension. Every peacenik teddy bear and wooden Remembrance Day cross, every yellowed news cutting and crudely daubed pacifist placard, every tattered rainbow flag, sheet of plastic and strip of curling gaffer tape – so we are told – is there, right down to the dustpans and brushes Haw used for his housework, and the kettle he boiled for a brew.

The total effect is striking. Some parts of the work, especially the pictures of Iraqi babies deformed, it is claimed, by depleted uranium, are sobering; others are satirical, sentimental or hectoring. But, if the emotional tone is various, the focus is blurred. In one section remembrance is asked for a disparate group of martyrs to the cause: Tom Hurndall, the photographer who died in Palestine; Malcolm Kendall-Smith, jailed for refusing to serve in Iraq; Jean Charles de Menenes, mistakenly shot as a terrorist suspect by London police in 2005; the late Ann Clancy, a peace marching pensioner “assaulted by police”, and Lance Corporal Tom Keys, killed on active service by an Iraqi mob in 2003.

Such disparities are present throughout the piece. State Britain encompasses the views of Marxists and Christians, professional artists and small children, bereaved parents and career libertarians. Haw feels happy to be merely a conduit for these feelings and opinions; he does not impose any particular ideology or plan of action, and he does not discriminate.

Apart from its emotional punch and political variety, the installation raises an interesting question of artistic attribution for which there are notable precedents. In the collection of Tate Modern one can apparently see a complex piece, “The Large Glass”, by the very inventor of installation art, Marcel Duchamp. But the Tate’s “Large Glass” is not the work of that title and was not made by Duchamp. His original, in the US, had some years earlier been seriously damaged, and the object in the Tate is an exact replica constructed in 1966, with Duchamp’s co-operation, by the British artist Richard Hamilton.

State Britain is a parallel case. Haw was responsible for the collection and arrangement of the original components of his camp, which included within it much pre-existing graphic and representational art, some by “recognised” names such as Banksy and Leon Kuhn. Should he so choose, Haw would have every right to claim artistic precedence in the work and, if he did, what is presented here ought really to be described as a replica, as the Duchamp is.

Tate Britain suggests in its publicity material that Wallinger’s purpose is different from Haw’s. Haw was merely protesting against war, it is implied, while Wallinger adds “challenging questions about issues of freedom of expression and the erosion of civil liberties in Britain today”. Haw’s intentions, insofar as they are discernible in Wallinger’s reconstruction, may not be couched in the terms a famous artist might use. But they are not at all one-dimensional. Haw condemns war, and espouses peace and love, yes, but he also refers explicitly to the issues Wallinger claims to be raising by himself: civil liberty, freedom of speech, political accountability and overmighty policing.

It is a great pity Haw’s installation of agit-prop art at Parliament Square was vandalised by the police and, for this reason alone, the re-creation is to be welcomed. Visitors might be less easy if they thought Wallinger had appropriated it whole and entire into his own list of artworks.

‘Mark Wallinger: State Britain’ is at Tate Britain, London, until August 27.
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