How important to the understanding of their work is an artist’s political and spiritual stance? Reading an article about Gilbert & George in that quality publication ES Magazine, I was reminded how easy it is to dislike someone on discovering their political views. Apparently they have always been staunch Tories, sticking it to ‘the man’, meaning the art world, with whom they assure us it’s impossible to discuss politics. Maybe they have a point, as Mark McGowan’s Facebook work at the election showed, in which a spat broke out between him and other artists who felt his (presumably insincere) support of Tory politics was one step too far.

Gilbert & George share their ‘rather deferential attitude to statesmen’ with another artist who has been claimed for the liberal left, despite the evidence to the contrary- Andy Warhol. His coke argument has been understood by some as socialist/ egalitarian, since if ‘the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest’ it means in some way we’re all equal: regardless of material wealth, the Queen and the bum on the street are the same in death, and Coke.

As he was reputedly a ‘good Catholic’ it could also be considered a spiritual position- didn’t Jesus stress that in the eyes of God all men are equal? But here’s an interview with Peter Gidal illustrating his (affected?) nonchalance towards social inequality:

AW: So how is everything in England?
PG: Everyone’s poor, things are real bad
AW: It would’ve been better if England had kept the colonies, then things would be ok.
PG: Are you kidding? The rich were even richer, and the poor poorer…
AW: Oh, but then England had all those colonies….

It’s as though, having made that realisation of a basic spiritual equality, we can all relax- if everyone is equal in the eyes of god, why bother changing anything? Improving your quality of life while on this earth isn’t going to make you a better human being or facilitate a smoother passage into Heaven. But that’s no excuse for accepting social divisions and uneven sharing of wealth and resources.

Another way of understanding some of Warhol’s quips could be through Buddhist thought: “If you didn’t have fantasies you wouldn’t have problems because you’d just take whatever was there” (attachment- to material goods as well as thought forms- and desire, lead to suffering). He also claimed not have a self and wanted a blank tombstone, echoing the Buddhist path towards dissolving the ego, whose lifeblood is desire and individuation.

This leads me onto Zizek’s take on Zen, which he sees as completely opposed to the pernicious doctrine of ‘Western Buddhism’. The latter, according to him, is best summed up by the title of a self-help book, ‘Self Matters’: a self-centered notion of an inner journey, towards a more authentic, integrated self, with the built-in promise that the pay off for taking the trip is a more ‘successful’ life. His main gripe is that it allows you to fully participate in capitalism, while maintaining a perception of being outside of it, being able to coolly see the worthlessness of the spectacle but remaining calm in the knowledge of the “peace of the inner Self”.

Also, the self-help movement often advocates the ‘we’re all freelance now’ attitude championed by neo-liberalism that assigns all the responsibility for living, working and surviving in the capitalist game to the individual. Social factors, plus the role of government and corporations are thus rendered incidental when compared to the ability of each person to rise above limitation if they really wanted to.

Anyway according to him, this ‘inner journey’ of self-discovery is almost the complete opposite of Zen proper: if anything it’s “a total voiding of the Self, no “inner truth” to be discovered. What Western Buddhism is not ready to accept is thus that the ultimate victim of the journey into one’s self is this self itself.”

If there’s no ‘inner’ depth in Zen, maybe all there is ‘outer’: surface, exterior, or no self at all. Following Zizek’s logic, Warhol’s blankness and self-proclaimed complete superficiality could therefore be considered strangely native to Zen and against the cult of individuality which capitalism thrives on.


Coinciding with MOVE at the Hayward Gallery, the BFI devoted its Studio Space to Yvonne Rainer’s work and influences, in a programme of videos which explored the interaction of moving image works with choreography, with work by international artists accompanying pieces from Rainer’s series, Five Easy Pieces. Two themes emerged from the selection I saw: language and linguistic structures in video, and movement, in physical and social space. These areas are linked through the logic of the score, prominent in experimental music and dance as well as in conceptual art, exploring the political and aesthetic implications of art based on instructions. Thus the linguistic is inscribed within the works, despite the absence language in the form of voiceovers, dialogue or subtitles, through the score that sets them up.

Exploring movement on a human scale were videos such as Prune Tourne, by Michel François, which followed a woman with long reddish hair spinning; plus two videos of ‘obstructed’ piano playing, the first showing a hand playing while wearing splints, the second, Audience by Bea McMahon following a recital on a piano covered by slobbering snails. These, along with Rainer’s video Volleyball, used a score, or instruction, for the video and followed it through in a deadpan, unvarnished manner reminiscent of her interest in ‘task-like’, quotidian actions. Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966) also comes to mind, a video which shows hands moving in a continuous flow, so that “No part …is any more important”.

In contrast, some of the videos rejected detached coolness, instead using the body to expressive or political ends. Head Hand, by Sonia Kurana showed the artist’s hand caressing and pummeling a black man’s head, supposedly representing a multi-layered negotiation with race, gender and sexuality. Rainer spoke of being opposed to the exhibitionism and narcissism of the body as it is used in most dances, but stressed it was “also true that I love the body- its actual weight, mass, and unenhanced physicality.” These videos brought out the idea that the corporeal, fleshy aspect of the body could act as limit, an opposition to the “pseudo-world” of the spectacle, as Carrie Lambert puts it, acting politically against the endless production of images. She quotes Rainer: “My body remains the enduring reality”, a phrase which suited the screening, with its focus on bodies spinning, touching and feeling their way through physical space.

Another thread running through a group of other video was the human mass, and its movement through physical and political spaces. Yael Bartana’s well-known piece Kings of the Hill silently observes men in Israel driving gas guzzlers up and down steep sand dunes, in an improvised collective dance of negotiating the uneven terrain. Movement here appeared at first to be unconstrained, almost playful, with no boundaries, roads or officials in place to control it, but within that was an ominous undercurrent of containment, a sense of movement only within the allocated space. The Flag, by Koken Ergun, shows the effectiveness of modern brainwashing at mass youth rallies in Turkey, in good socialist realist style: little bodies choreographed from childhood into their allotted place in the dance and in the wider culture. Language in this video was exposed as an instrument of nationalism, fully exploited for its powers of persuasion, emotive storytelling and nation-building.

The capacity of language to create and solidify national identities obviously includes its capacity for activating the opposite impulse: exclusion, segregation and singling out due to language differences. Anri Sala’s video Lak-kat showed young boys in Senegal trying to pronounce words in Wolof which related to variations in skin hue: from dark black to whitey, all words associated with colonialism and its implicit valuation of these colours. Language here sets people apart, and values them accordingly; naming becomes a function of social positioning.

Seen in relation to MOVE: Choreographing You, the moving image works seemed to cast a more sombre shadow, as if to remind the viewer that despite the playful aspects of participation and dance, bodies are equally subject to exclusion, coercion and separation; but also that possibly this is where their agency also lies, as capable of generating their own language against the social and political structures which would limit its movement.