July 2009, Parades and Processions @ Parasol unit

Francis Alÿs, The Modern Procession, 2002, Photographic documentation of an event, New York, New York City, June 23, 2002
Video 7 minutes 22 seconds color sound, c. Francis Alÿs, In collaboration with Public Art

Parades and Processions; Here comes everybody at Parasol unit 
14 Wharf Road
London N1 7RW
28 May through 24 July, 2009

Francis Alÿs, Fiona Banner, Jeremy Deller, Thomas Hirschhorn, Rachel Hovnanian, Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler, William Kentridge, Michèle Magema, Annette Messager, Amy O’Neill and Hiraki Sawa.

The Peculiar Narrative of Celebration

Life and death come into conflict through a macabre dance, structuring and illustrating a human obsession to want to perform its own foregone conclusion. Time and time again, society parades its beauty in a bid to render the toll of death a mere haunting. Through the immortalization of its heterogeneous resilience, life is exquisitely and ritualistically paraded through ghettos and town centres. This has been never more obvious than in the current show at London's Parasol Unit. The gallery itself is haunted with an impotent character of James Joyce's imagination: Here Comes Everybody (HCE) (the protagonist from Joyce's’ eponymous Finnigans Wake.) HCE, the haunted father figure, stands as a phallic reminder of the confusion of human endeavour - a half-way house between life and death. So why must life and death be saluted so significantly? Why does this form of celebration exist and what is its exact versatility? The human condition of wanting parade and to march is a very interesting terrain for artistic practice to de-cypher. The idea of parading is an extraordinary privilege of the human capacity to make an example of itself, and finds a home in not only it traditional street displays but across the board, through pageants, fly-overs and political protest.

Parades and Procession; Here comes everybody spans twelve UK-based and international artist practices. Taking inspiration from the observation of this bemusing idiom, they highlight their own paths through the often unconventional world of the parade and the procession. The show holds together as a collective appreciation of the need, or will, to parade in the very act of functioning as a platform for the idea of creative collaboration - something which is intrinsic to the very heart of parading and coming together. So how is the idea of parading questioned and why the need to demonstrate or unpack this moment? On entering the gallery at Parasol Unit the first work which comes to attention is Rachel Hovnanian’s piece Beauty Queen Totem (2009). A standout, iconic figure, this is a work-in-progress for the U.S artist. The larger-than-life, almost skeletal construction represents the problematic negotiation of the human figure through a relationship with its aesthetic qualities. Encased in white, it could easily be misconstrued as a romantic homage to beauty and pageantry. Faltering in this, what is left is a hollow relationship between the totem and viewer. This vacancy in emotion is painfully mirrored in the work of Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler - both works deal an insightful pause to the abject problem of youth. Hubbard and Birchler’s 18 photographs depict teenagers in marching band attire staring directly into the viewer’s eye-range. The images themselves are incredibly unforgiving. Harsh studio lights pick out every adolescent detail; the lack of make-up and the peculiar, over-sized uniforms work with Hovnanian’s piece to question the quintessential attitude of sub-culture America. They are vacant reminders of the often problematic grey space between child and adulthood. Hovnanian’s ode to teen beauty and Hubbard and Birchler’s photographic series both explore the difficulties in supplanting structural relationships through display and the desire to mimic.  


Amy O'Neill, Ghost Float, 2004
Floral sheeting, vinyl fringe, and vinyl, twist festooning, wooden construction, Courtesy Le Consortium

What is at stake when the idea of the parade or procession is moved into the gallery space? How does it change the mentality of the very coming-together mentioned in the title of this show? Juxtaposing the resplendent silence of the gallery space with that of the chaos and noise of the parade doesn’t diminish the motif of human celebration and triumph objectified by the parade. It almost puts it under the microscope for observation. This is most prevalent in the work of Jeremy Deller. Deller’s collaboration with the artist Alan Kane, Folk Archive, alongside the highly complex theatrical re-constructions seen in the 2001 Battle of Orgreave, evidence a long-standing practice focussed on unpacking obscure social vernacular. It is fitting that Deller’s contribution to the show is a video documenting his 2004 piece On Procession. Originally organised as part of Manifesta 5, this was a procession through the streets of Donostia, San Sebastian. It was re-imagined as part of this year’s Manchester International Festival in a piece by Deller entitled merely Procession. An opening ceremony for the festival, it included a parade of Manchester’s alternative community through the streets of Deansgate. The thought of parades as activity confuses the very idea of what they actually symbolize. A parade is not always a positive reminder of the articulation of what happens throughout the narrative of human existence. Amy O’Neill’s Ghost Float, situated in the garden of the gallery, counteracts the problems inherent in Deller’s overtly celebratory aspect. Silent and subdued, I witnessed the piece on a cold and grey day with wind and rain sleeting the gallery garden. This float exhumes the morbid processional qualities of the dark, surrealist death marches of Mexico that are found in an Alejandro Jodorowsky film. Unforgiving to the conclusion of human life, they twist the vernacular expression of Deller’s investigation into something mournful and remote, cold and distant.  

The parades on show could be anywhere. The problem is that it doesn’t make them more real for the viewer, when faced with the lure of artistic enterprise. Alÿs subtracts the need for any vernacular expression by celebrating the obscurity of art itself. Modern Procession, held in 2002 was a parade of art from outside of MoMA in New York. Declarations of the actual will or need to parade art outside of the gallery space and into the streets, these were hand-carried floats with reconstructions of history’s more famous artistic projects: Marcel Duchamp, Picasso... They were heralded by the artist Kiki Smith, who in herself motioned a mere representation of contemporary art. So in representation, does the platform of parade always become shackled, and is this not so much a problematic concern but a move which engages in its concise methodology as a art practice in itself? The will to perform a expression or passage of speech is signified in Hirschhorn’s deeply collage-based practice. Signifying the shear heterogeneous qualities of human ideology, Hirschhorn is moved by the different vocalizations of political excess. Hands reach upwards, grasping political literature. The work comes from beneath the viewer: deathly, disembodied limbs ooze textured red mass, signifying the many difficulties with freedom of speech. The limbs carry cargos similar to coffins - morgue-like memories of the constant engulfing attitude towards media excess and right to information.  

Jeremy Deller, Veteran's Day Parade, 2002, Video installation, Courtesy Art Concept, Paris

Thomas Hirschhorn, The Procession, 2005, Exhibition view Carried Away - Procession in Art, Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem, 2008, Courtesy Arndt & Partner Berlin

 So where to produce a form of resolution from the obscurity of the parade? The detail is that this current show at Parasol Unit objectifies such an idiom as being peculiar beyond its first aesthetic actuality. On witnessing anything similar on the streets of our cities, towns or villages, it comes across as the adjacent norm or de rigeur. The thought that such moments of expression would be lacking from the grammar of the day-to-day seems almost obtuse. William Kentridge finalizes this experiment into the sublime mentality of the procession by becoming the curatorial ‘last say.’ Born in Johannesburg, the artist’s phenomenal work looks towards the uneasy parade of exile and nomadism. Lines of people in the shadow-play walk endlessly, carry carts and belongings, all to a soundtrack caught between the moment of loss and celebration. When figuring the actuality of parading, Kentridge reaches for the very act of walking in line, moving and living amongst ourselves. The act of parading looks less act-like through Kentridge’s black and white, timeless investigation, and in fact resolutely becomes a way of communication and a passage of literally existing.

Sophie Risner

Sophie Risner is a freelance art writer and critic living in London. "I am less art critic and more art writer - I find the idea of critiquing art through writing difficult in a purely formalist fashion. I often lean towards the difficulty of language as a way into the inherent difficulty of art. Embracing all aspects which observe and inspire artist practice as a way to create a more fruitful and less didactic approach."

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