What better way to approach the myths of Liverpool than through refracting not only history but the nature of myth itself? Liverpool artist David Jacques has accomplished this well through his first installation at the Walker Art Gallery, and the accompanying street banner which is opposite the municipal buildings and which is shown above. The work marks the centenary of Liverpool’s general transport strike, and also the death of Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
To the left here is the text beneath the street banner. In the gallery, the short text accompanying the Walker exhibition tells of the discovery by the caretaker on the fourteenth floor of Irlam House, a tower block, of a stash of banners and designs left by the mythological art collective which has abandoned the dwelling. Jacques has long been fascinated with trade union banners, and the imagined banners here are set in contrast with the commercialised production of slogans, mottoes, banners by nineteenth century entrepeneur George Tutil whose work was commissioned not only by trade unions but by the likes of the Orange Lodge and temerance movements.
The caretaker (now embarked on an hilariously titled PhD) negotiates with a curator leading, one assumes, to their eventual exhibition, classification and so forth in an art gallery. The last line of the text has the caretaker saying that he personally thinks his find would be best left in the street. There is thus set up a quirky tension between Jacques’ street banner and the more conventional setting for ‘works of art’. The themes of representation and art itself are brought to the foreground. One of the exhibits in the Walker has painted upon it “Smash the White Paper”, at once a literal reference, and a playful invitation to tear apart the very medium of the reference.
The grids of the main piece at the exhibition and the street banner resemble type setting mechanics; a range of fonts and punctuation symbols is superimposed over each individual tile, these, like the texts and images beneath the banner designs looking like the technology of letters stamped over the paler images of the past. From the letters whole phrases emerge, subversive to the implicit imperative to control and order, tell the story of, the past. Apart from the phrases, there is no apparent order to the letters and symbols, yet closer inspection of any part of the design may bring out seemingly random but sensible patterns such as the repetition of numbers, or an open and closed bracket. The overall feel is of the materials that order the world being fragmented and unstable, yet still with the potential for great power. The use of superimposition – of signs, motifs, letters, symbols stamped over paler images – suggests a palimpsest. Here there is no obvious orienting centre but a swirl of imagery that cannot be fixed, at odds with the technology that exists to fix: history here refuses to be made true or final, it is always in motion. History, like the imagined history in Jacques world is often a myth, what Barthes called ‘depoliticised speech’. Art too, in its conventional setting, with its invitation to encounter a framed finality – of expression, or representation, or place in the order of things – cannot accomplish the task of conceptualising itself, history and thought itself as being at once locked into a series of myths yet also once demythologised opening up to limitless freedom, and specifically the possibilities of subverting dominant representations and discourses.
An ongoing characteristic of Jacques’ work is that it doesn’t make statements as such, although it uses statements all dislocated from their original mooring. The freedom for an individual, and the possibilities for radical action are largely dependent upon the questioning of our current myths – about the past and the present, the same thing really – , about unlocking ourselves from fixed patterns, and our continuous scanning of the world for its action potentials as well as its radical actions. Beneath the headlines, between the lines of dominant discourses, only there will radicalism be discovered.
In a wider context, I am reminded that much of history is “stolen” from the past in terms of its debris of imagery, concepts, words, shapes. It may then be arranged, as we would arrange our furniture, to form an order; it’s often displayed in a museum where we literally walk, or in books where we mentally walk. Much of the historical debris is thin or empty of significance in the dominant historical discourses – a broken doll, an old tram ticket – while some of it fits into a pattern which allows historical significance as determined by the arbiters and traditions of history industries, curators of the past being the clerks in orders. Some fragments -such as the critical mass image above – do have significance in alternative strands, orderings of culture and history. As we contemplate “Liverpool” and “Liverpool History” and “Radicalism” we may be wise to appropriate stuff from the rubbish tips and disregard the rest. We may also be concerned with the methods of appropriation, the quotation marks that are like <<diggers>>, and bricoleurs though we may be, employ our thefts to construct obliquely (imaginatively) memories that are a continuum of past and present.
David Jacques: The Irlam House Bequest