Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Words Failed Us

God's Wars.

"There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice,
but I do know that art means nothing if it simply decorates the
dinner table of power which holds it hostage".
Adrienne Rich. 1929-2012.

                                                                    Detail, 'Proconsul'. Margaret Hassan and children.


For those who have arrived here via May Ayres' website expecting to read an account about the processes and materials that go into producing her work, then I must apologise for disappointing them.
I work as her technician but to my recollection May has never written or spoken to me about her use of oxides and clays, and so I recommend that anybody sufficiently interested in this aspect of her work contact her directly.  
She has big ideas, but only a small kiln, and so we frequently work together to assemble and join component pieces of a sculpture, grinding and shaping joints and sometimes gluing them. 
We suffered some spectacular disasters in earlier days, but we have gradually developed techniques which we are now able to adapt for each new piece of work.  
May asked me to organise the literature to accompany her Gods Wars exhibition, and so here the reader can find the foreword to her 'Ceramic Pictures' booklet that accompanies the 'War of Aggression series, in addition to the notes provided for 'God's Wars'.
They can be found by scrolling down to the oldest posts.
People arriving here via her website might be aware that the majority of her output since 2003 has focused on what Chief Justice Jackson defined at Nuremberg in 1946 as '..the supreme international crime..' the war of aggression.  
Historically, 'legitimate' war has always been undertaken as a last resort after diplomacy and negotiation have failed. The war of aggression on the other hand is described as 'pre-emptive' or 'preventive'.
The wars waged since 9/11 have used this 'pre-emptive' parlance, and getting up to speed with another commonly used deviation, we now have wars of 'humanitarian intervention', complete with 'humanitarian bombing'
We can only wonder whether one day, wars of 'humanitarian extermination' might even form a part of the grotesque lexicon.
Today May and I both regard this lawless war as also the strangest and most sinister conflict that our country has ever been involved in. It is described for example as a 'war on terror'; in other words a war on a noun. President Obama's war differs from President Bush's 'Global war on terror' only in its branding, now renamed 'Overseas Contingency Operations'.  
As a consequence of the criminal attack upon the US mainland in 2001, our nation now exists in a state of perpetual war, and our leaders have warned us that this war will last not just for our lifetimes, but those of our children also. 
With these realities in mind we obviously need not labour under any illusions of ever achieving 'victory', and this is merely one more word rendered archaic in the fight against our elusive enemy.
Previous US presidents Madison and Eisenhower would have each been appalled at this turn of events, and their words are clear, for whatever they are now worth. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, warned in 1795 that war is the most dreaded enemy to public liberty, and that " nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." One hundred and sixty years later, Dwight Eisenhower declared that "Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. Frankly I would not even listen to anyone seriously that came and talked about such a thing."
The very fears which Eisenhower voiced in his retirement speech in 1961, warning of the emergence of a 'military industrial complex'; where making private money and making war in the name of the state becomes a closed and self perpetuating system now seem to have come to pass.
For May and myself and many others living in Tower Hamlets today, we recognise that this war has the potential to catastrophically polarise both our own community and wider society also, and this is why we both feel compelled to speak out whenever and wherever we can, using whatever medium is available to us. 
Over the years since 2003 we have had ample opportunity for discussion and study, and we have used our time as best as we have been able. Our conclusion is that an odious attack upon an entire faith, one of the three Abrahamic faiths, has been provided with a cloak of legitimacy, and this simply should not be the case. It is an inherently evil thing and we should be asking ourselves where is it coming from? It is eerily reminiscent of the Russian Czar's pogroms against the Jews in the 1800's, and of Hitler and Stalin's civilization shattering rampage through Europe in the 1900's.
Our own conclusion is that our nation did not arrive at this present woeful condition by accident, but rather by intricate design. We consider many of the minds around us to have become corrupted by a lethal confection of public relations campaigns and psychological operations embedded within the mainstream media, indoctrination by any other name. As a consequence of this skulduggery, many among us have now abandoned any regard for civil liberties and human rights, and are seemingly comfortable even while our elected government and their allies torture, kidnap, rape, displace, starve and murder innocent people on a daily basis, all in our name. There are those among us who seem content not only to sacrifice those innocent lives that they will never have to know anything about, but even their own democracy also, all for a highly questionable cause known as 'national security'. Those of us who reject the very premise of this war today are labelled 'dissidents', and it becomes more dangerous by the day to be identified as one of these 'enemies within' seemingly now defined as anyone who still insists on thinking for themselves.
It was the famous dissident James Madison who recognised that '..war is the parent of armies', and that 'from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honours, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both.'
Madison's 'inequality of fortunes' clearly resonates with the Occupy movement today, while our 'degeneracy of morals' is nowhere more clearly charted perhaps than with the issue of torture, otherwise known as 'cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment'. The policy of lawless indefinite incarceration has rendered even Habeas Corpus itself into a deep dark pit, but few among us are as yet even aware of this reality. This is a war which has bankrupted the US and played havoc with the dollar based global economy. Former senior Vice President and Chief Economist to the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz, has warned that it has already cost the US taxpayer $6000 billion dollars; borrowed money that will have to be paid back one day, a burdensome legacy that honest people will admit has now been bestowed upon our grandchildren.
During the period that separated the two onslaughts, with the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 followed eighteen months later by the invasion of Iraq, growing numbers of us had begun to sit up and take account of what was going on and to question the morality, not to mention the questionable legality of launching an attack upon yet another sovereign people.  
May and myself both turned out for the huge rally in Central London on that chilly sunny February morning in 2003, to protest the attack which our nation's leaders were clearly hell bent on launching, and in every democracy across the world people went out on to the streets to take part in the largest global protest in history. The lesson which all of us who marched on that day eventually understood though, is that in this democracy where we are all free to protest, our masters are equally free to ignore us. The millions of words of rational opposition which this war has generated, the countless books and documentaries exposing the lies and the horror and cruelty, can sometimes appear to have been for little purpose, and might not have saved even a single life.
Prior to the emergence of this new dystopian landscape, May's working hours were largely spent observing and drawing what she saw around her. She sought to interpret through drawing and sculpture the enigmatic humanity of the people in her local community, including the strangers who traverse the neighbourhood daily on their way to and from a desk in the City or in Docklands. May's work today tries to remember the lives destroyed by this war, because the whispers of the dead are the voices we perhaps most need to be listening to.
Whether or no words failed us, energy failed me on the opening night of 'God's Wars'. I packed up my tools and went home and slept for twelve hours, exhausted from setting it all up and having worked to make and install the plinths for the pieces up until the minute before the doors opened. I failed to assemble 'Demonic Principals' in time, and this work didn't go on display until two days later, on the first Saturday. May stayed on that evening talking with people about her work and about the iron grip of the iron heel upon the neck of another human being. An uncomfortable reality to articulate, she was constantly in jeopardy of becoming something of a party pooper, and I suspect that she has since developed a somewhat more refined understanding of 'private' views.
Prior to opening we had many arguments about the booklet that we had commissioned. We had taken on a large debt to have a thousand copies produced, along with all of the other necessities for organising a show, and now that they were here, what to do with them? I advocated giving copies away to people on the bus and in shops, people that you meet everyday. May disagreed, so I went ahead and to the best of my knowledge none of my efforts met with any degree of success. I took as many copies as I dared along to St Paul's Cathedral, and left them in the Starbooks library of the newly emerging commonwealth of ideas. The booklet has been criticised by artists for focusing on 'politics' to the point of excluding any words about May's work itself, but this was quite intentional given today's realities.
Just prior to opening, we learned that we might have made a big mistake in printing the publicity material before talking to the administrator, who now informed us that Sundays were in fact a dead day, with some previous exhibitions failing to attract a single visitor. This was unfortunate because our publicity material was already in circulation, and it committed us to opening on Sunday, from twelve midday until 9pm, in addition to the same hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There was no way to reverse this error and so we had to stick to the advertised hours. Two ageing babies in the wood then, and the loneliness of the long distance invigilator lay before us, and our first days in the chilly vestibule at St John were indeed bleak ones. The hours dragged by, but they began to be punctuated by occasional visitors, some of who returned bringing others along with them. After the second week, I had May explaining to me that we needed accompanying texts because people were generally unaware of any of the history which the pieces address. Between us we produced a give-away guide to the work, four A4 pages of densely packed notes. We would wind up having difficulty in keeping pace with the demand for these, until a young man who runs a local printing business offered to continue to do the photocopying for free. Half a dozen or so dear friends steamed in to help with the invigilating also, while at the same time spreading word about the show. Between them they were responsible for bringing in scores if not hundreds of visitors, and Sundays in fact turned out to be a well attended day.
The show opened on September 1st, and on Sunday 25th the administrator asked us how was it all going? It was twelve noon and the numbers of people walking in were still rising. She advised us to keep a record, and on that particular Sunday we counted sixty-five visitors to the show. This actually represented something of a high point, with Sundays averaging around forty five people for the duration, which was extended by a fortnight. By this measure, and sometimes despite our own efforts, the show was something of a success. It is I hope understandably difficult for me to write about the changes that it has wrought for us, but I need to try. First and foremost we feel vindicated. The past eight years have often been lonely and at times difficult and deeply unsettling ones for both of us. For myself, one particular reality had manifested itself clearly from the very beginning of the show. May and I both share a common recognition of what we would call 'the synaptic'; the free association of the thoughts and ideas of common people. This already existing system is organic and we like and trust it, and it's good enough for us. We also trust it as an antidote to any erstwhile corporate driven publicity machine that happens to be operational at any given time. Against our own instincts then, we had decided to employ the services of a professional journalist, whose empathetic press release was entirely ignored by every mainstream publication that it was sent out to, just by way of confirming our expectations. The show was entirely ignored by art critics of all political hues, John Molyneux being the notable exception, and a review of the work of Pam (sic) Ayres was duly published under Mr Molyneaux's byline in Socialist Worker. It was also visited and favourably reviewed first by Felicity Arbuthnot, and then Victoria Brittain, both respected British journalists. Felicity Arbuthnots's article appeared on Global Research shortly after she visited, and eventually, a week before the scheduled finish date it was also published in the British daily Morning Star newspaper. Victoria Brittain's review appeared on the Cage Prisoners website.
Six weeks of exhibiting, three days or more each week, nine hours per day, twenty three days in all, were gruelling for us at times, but we drew enormous strength from visitors and helpers. I'd never seen May's work gathered together on display before, and along with many others I was more than a little shaken with the result. The work of course always sits in her studio, but normally as an unassembled jumble of pieces, and this was her first solo exhibition in twenty seven years.
So far as I am able to see, the coming years are only likely to become harder in fighting against marginalisation and isolation, and so this show served as a brief respite. The people around us, with some quite remarkable exceptions, have provided little support since May began working on this series some eight years ago now. We have been abandoned by some individuals, old friends and family members alike. The very nature of the subject matter invokes an “I don't want to know” response from the overwhelming majority, and questions such as “Why are you doing this?”, and “Don't you ever make nice things?” and “Well I wouldn’t want it in my living room!” have been what we have come to expect, the norm rather than the exception. For my part, having had years of emailing links to crucial stories about our crimes to people who 'didn’t have the time' to open them; of trying to foster an open discussion about our alarmingly similar condition as a society to that of the 'Good Germans' of the 1930's and 40's, I now feel as though I received a first class university education in those six or seven weeks, a crash course in the true humanities. Our criteria was simply to establish the work in a public viewing space, so that it might spark contemplation and conversation. For the sake of holding on to our own humanity we need to remember these people.