Unreliable Witness gathers together art that explores truth and fiction, the telling of stories and the creation of myths.
Michael Fullerton opens the show with five huge posters that glitter under spotlights. They bear a press shot of a.c. acoustics, a now-defunct Glasgow group whose biography reads like the template for a cult indie outfit, complete with critical acclaim, modest sales, devoted fans in more famous bands, a handful of Peel sessions and high profile support slots that hinted at the possibility of mainstream success. Fullerton’s memorial offers a glimpse of an alternate history, where ac acoustics, despite their defiantly unambitious lower case name, were pop idols, gracing the cover of Smash Hits instead of languishing on the middle pages of the Melody Maker, headlining all the big festivals and mounting bloated international stadium tours. It’s a good joke, if you’ve heard of ac acoustics, which, as Fullerton is well aware, most people haven’t.
Fullerton’s Colour Study of the Painting ‘Elizabeth Foster’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1787 (Leon Trotsky) is a more complex investigation into propaganda, possible histories and the politics of aesthetics. Lady Elizabeth Foster led an interesting life, living in a menage a trois with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire for a quarter century, while, rumour has it, merrily conducting affairs with a string of Earls, Counts and, for variety, a cardinal. There’s no hint of this in Reynolds’ portrait, of course, which casts the Lady as a rosy-cheeked innocent in virginal white lace. Fullerton takes this act of revisionism and applies it to another, borrowing the colour scheme used by Reynolds to paint a version of an anti-Bolshevik poster which showed Trotsky as a slavering maniac, his features twisted into an anti-Semitic stereotype. It’s an intriguing synthesis, matching Reynolds’ subtle propaganda, which promotes an image of a powerful elite as morally upright, to the decidedly unsubtle casting of Trotsky as an unhinged monster, in a bid to secure the position of another powerful elite.
For Knowledge Will Break The Chains of Slavery (Alexei Radakov) turns again to Russian history, borrowing its title from an early Soviet poster extolling the virtues of education, but this time instead of rewriting history or merging two narratives together, Fullerton obscures it, presenting a thick strip of audio broadcast tape, unlistenable behind glass.
Gabriela Vanga takes a more whimsical approach to possible histories with George. Installed on a low table are fragments of a portrait of the titular George, and a text which tells of its making. At thirteen, Vanga didn’t have a boyfriend, so she invented one, telling her school pals new tales about him every day. Years later, after confessing to the deception, Vanga described George to a police artist without revealing that his subject was a figment of her imagination. The text then instructs the viewer to mentally reconstruct George’s face from the fragments, following Vanga’s own process in remembering the details of her teenage fiction. It’s a rather twee piece, unless you entertain the notion that Vanga has made the whole thing up, from the fibs at school to the police artist to her wish to share the experience.
There’s no sign of whimsy in Peter Friedl’s harrowing video loop, Liberty City, which shows a gang brutally beating a defenceless man. The shaky, grainy amateurish footage looks absolutely genuine, but it is in fact a short drama, based on a 1979 riot in Miami, sparked by the fatal beating of a black insurance salesman, Arthur McDuffie, at the hands of white policemen. Friedl’s fiction is, in effect, a reversal of these events - in his film, the gang is black, and their victim is a white police officer - but, thanks to its chilling realism, does more than make a simplistic point about race relations in the US, questioning the illusion of objective truth created by the shaky camerawork and grainy quality of documentary footage.
Similar questions are posed by Nedko Solakov’s installation The Truth (The Earth is Plane, The World is Flat). This collection of paintings, drawings, newspaper cuttings, wall texts, handwritten notes, snapshots and a convincingly realised documentary film presents ‘evidence’ that the world is not a globe, but a thin disk. Centred on physicist Dr. Haraldar Gustalsan and the cosmonaut Vitaly R., the overwhelming barrage of made up facts, crank theories and conspiracies are arranged like an eccentric child’s science project, building to a wonderfully silly conclusion. Solakov’s point is, though, deadly serious, his sharp sense of humour masking an angry indictment of the former government and media of his native Bulgaria. The work was made in the early 1990s, in the wake of Bulgaria’s first free elections after decades of Communist rule, and the implication is clear: if a totalitarian government tells its citizens that the earth is flat, it might as well be.
After this, Andrea Fraser’s satire of art world foibles might seem to be aiming at an easy target, but her filmed performance Official Welcome is a sophisticated critique of, well, sophisticated critiques. The piece opens with Fraser, as herself, welcoming visitors to a mid-career retrospective of her work, before adopting a series of personae, acting out introductary speeches by jaded artists, obsequious curators and blethering critics. It’s a blistering attack on the indulgences of the art system, but one that is itself indulgent, allowing the subjects of Fraser’s satire to laugh at themselves.
Susan Hiller is interested in the underlying systems of the art world and the making of art, too, but her installation feels more like a celebration of curation and presentation. From the Freud Museum (Unique Prototype) is a vitrine housing custom-made boxes which in turn house small collections of objects, inspired by Freud’s own collection of artifacts, including soil samples from Ireland, various representations of hands, a ouija board with instructions and small vials of holy water. The result is a sort of commentary on cultural history, archeology and archiving, expressed as an archive.
Hiller’s work is concise, coherent and carefully put together, but the same can’t be said of Unreliable Witness. It’s a fine collection of works, but, while each of the artists here is, at root, making work about crafting narratives, whether they contain profound truths or outrageous fibs, the show itself fails to match up to the work it contains, presenting artists and their practices individually, without telling a convincing story about them.
This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 28th November, 2008.