- 20-21 Visual Arts Centre
Forming part of the exhibition, 'Conflict', at the 20 -21 Visual Arts Centre in Scunthorpe, Richard Bartle's large-scale work Pow Wow emerges in the threshold space between fact and fantasy: it is located somewhere between the poles of political reality and utopian desire. On the one hand the work functions objectively as a visual map or record that documents the shifts and fluctuations within the landscape of global politics, whilst on the other it speaks of an individual's relentless attempt to organise and gather the world's leaders together in one place such that they might begin to talk and reach reconciliation. Since 2001 Bartle has been tracing and documenting the rise and fall of world leaders, laboriously reproducing their images on a series of small canvases through a process which reflects and measures the almost daily changes and disruptions in the political arena. Each canvas catalogues the recent political history of a specific state or republic: it serves to capture each new leader's ascent to power and then charts their subsequent political demise by erasing or burying them beneath the image of their successor. Political stasis is suggested in the more readable images whose visible record marks only a small number of changes in leadership; whilst in others perhaps the dense palimpsest of innumerable layers evokes a more volatile or unstable past.
The act of burial is an ambiguous ritual that is a marker of both protection and repression: it serves to erase or hide an object, individual or event from the past and locate it beyond the realm of the visible. The event of burial can be understood as a gesture of care where the valuable or vulnerable are placed beyond the reach of harm; or else it might speak of a more wilful concealment or deception at play where certain facts or occurrences are deliberately hidden or corrupted so that they may never be brought to trial. Hidden within the cloudy recesses of both personal and political memory; located in unknown archives and in unnamed graves; or else concealed within coded and impenetrable pockets of the world wide web, the ghosts of unspoken and unspeakable histories still stir from under a fiction of normality. In different ways, both archaeology and psychology work to uncover or reveal these latent layers and historical fragments; drawing them to the surface such that they may be forced to account for their role within the events of the present.
Pow Wow similarly attempts to document or make visible the latent power structures of global politics, but in doing so the political landscape is revealed as a mutable and ever changing topography where it becomes impossible to ever achieve a fixed or coherent map of leadership. Paradoxically the attempt to catalogue and record the political lineage of a place, instead serves to bury or blur any possibility of recognition. Individuals perform their brief role on the world stage before disappearing into political obscurity where they will no longer be held responsible for the trajectory of future actions or events. Politically speaking then, the promise of responsibility and accountability serves the rhetoric and hyperbole of the speech podium but often falters or stalls in any practical sense. Bartle's insistent search for and record of changes in political power is perhaps a relentlessly futile gesture: the desire to bring together the sprawling mass of political leadership in order to propose the possibility of discussion or Pow Wow collapses as the terrain is never certain or stable and there are only ever a limited number of visible or identifiable individuals that could be petitioned and taken to trial. Bartle's actions however reveal a subtext of complex patterns and unexpected visual parallels, where there is an unlikely symmetry between the iconic presence of leaders in both dictatorships and popular democracies; a dark and unreadable register of the transfer of power both where the government is efficiently elected or anarchically absent and out of control.
Like all utopian dreams, Bartle's Pow Wow is perhaps a figment of the imagination, yet at the heart of all such delusional plans lies the irrepressible belief in the possibility of rewriting or re-conceptualising reality as something other or as something different; a desire for a world beyond that of the present reality. Whilst the global discussion proposed by the work may never happen, the attempt to conjure it in a different form remains a marker of human hope and of necessary protest.