I was invited to take part in a socially distanced, drive through art exhibition called ’Hatch‘. The venue was an old battery chicken farm in Langport, Somerset. The huge battery chicken shed, once tightly packed with poultry living in conditions of dubious hygiene, ironically was so big people and cars could occupy it with a safe and healthy distance between them.
It was an unusual piece of sculpture to make as this work was going to be seen primarily from only one perspective – the window of a car as it stopped in front of it.
There were three functions of the collection of furniture and bric-a-brac that the Scalextric track sits on. The first of these was to raise the track up to the level of the average car window; the second was to make a homogenous context for the collection of old TV’s and the third reason was to make some kind of landscape or terrain for the ‘chariot bus’ vehicle to travel through. In the Shakespeare monologue there are several references to land and country and I wanted to echo this in the construction. All these objects in the construction were actually borrowed from the farm. The present owner had a large collection of old furniture and other miscellaneous stuff mostly picked up as job lots from auctions and house clearance. I spent several days making my selections based mainly on the height of each object.
Image: Still from the film 'The Italian Job'. The Mini's passing through a shopping arcade in Turin.
I was excited by the ’drive through’ aspect of the show. Driving through a building in my mind gave an edgy feel to the show and made me think of the film ’The Italian job‘ . It’s a very particular kind of British film that most people know. The central element in the film is the car chase which is a long choreographed, sometimes humorous sequence where the heroes make their escape after stealing gold from an armoured security van. The gold is transferred to three red white and blue Minis that out manoeuvre the Italian police as they drive through a giant traffic jam in Turin taking an off road route down steps, through buildings and underpasses and a sewer eventually escaping across the Alps where the minis are driven onto a converted bus. The iconic opening credits of the film also feature mountains as the setting for a glamorous sports car making its winding way along a precarious mountain road. Something I also tried to tenuously reference with the Scalextric track on top of the pile of furniture.
Photo: Neil Smith
The Mini is a British icon and chosen by the screen writer of ‘The Italian job’ (Troy Kennedy Martin) for, among other reasons because of its "cheeky and classless image". The film was made whilst England were still the football world cup holders and the getaway scene is even aided by football fans. It has a particular kind of patriotism that celebrates the type of working class culture that embraces the fact that the hero’s aren’t just rebels but professional criminals. Arguably it was this strain of nostalgic patriotism that Brexit and the ‘vote leave’ campaign tapped into very successfully.
I found the ‘Boris doll’ on E-bay. Obviously it isn’t an official ‘Boris doll’, just a dumpy looking baby doll with messy blond hair that somebody labelled as such as a bit of a joke. In this context of vintage toys however it actually works well. The doll sits on top of a toy Route master bus. Buses seem to be a repetitive theme in Boris Johnson’s story. When he was mayor of London the new Route master was unofficially christened the Boris bus. In 2008 in Beijing, the Olympics were officially transferred to London in a ceremony that symbolically featured Boris Johnson and a bus. In 2016 there was the famous lie about 350 million pounds being re-directed from the EU on the ‘vote Leave’ campaign bus. A few years later there was the bizarre story about Boris claiming to make model buses from old boxes in an attempt to redirect his Google search profile away from the previous story about the campaign bus.
Image: Detail of the Triumph of Aemilius Paulus by Carle Vernet, 1789
I use the bus in this work as a kind of chariot to carry the victorious doll on a victory parade or Roman Triumph. From the trumpet comes Handle’s coronation music ‘Zadok the Priest’. Written on the side of the bus and also the title of the piece is - 'What is the Truth But a Lie Agreed Upon' - This is a quotation attributed to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Although he wasn't anti-semitic Nietzsche's work along with Darwin’s was often appropriated by the Nazi's.
The TV’s are built into the construction and actually support the weight of the Scalectrix track. They are playing the 'This Sceptred Isle' Speech (‘John of Gaunts’ monologue in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II). There are actually three versions that play one after the other and are from BBC television adaptations of the play. They had to be strategically placed within the structure so that they could all be seen from the perspective of the car window. As I did this it reminded me of my experience working in art centres and alternative theatre spaces. Audience sight lines are a constant preoccupation when it comes to laying out seating etc. Here I was doing the same thing with a sculpture that happened to be made of TV’s but showing ‘proper’ acting.
Image: from 'The Hollow Crown' Patrick Stewart recites Shakespeare under a commode.
Photo: John England
I originally thought of playing the Shakespeare speech though the trumpet on the bus but it didn’t quite work. I had heard bits of the speech before quoted in various nationalistic contexts but before this project I had never heard the entire monologue which to my surprise builds up to a bitter finale about how the country has been ‘sold out’ and generally lost its moral compass. When I accidentally played it at the same time as ‘Zadok the priest’ I realised that the building crescendo of the music matched a similar building crescendo in the speech. The bus and the music are on a separate movement sensor to the TV so when they are triggered by the viewer (or passing car) they start at different times. However whenever they start they always play off of each other, welling up and reaching a peak that somehow gives an emotive and sometimes contradictory sense of ecstatic bitterness. I like to think that it repurposes these nationalistic cultural symbols and either reclaims them from the populist right or perhaps turns these symbols in on themselves as if to demonstrate the inherent self destructive essence of jingoism and unbridled nationalism. When the exhibition ended I was making frequent trips to the farm to document the work and eventually dismantle it. Just before I had finished the filming the owner of the property told me one morning I had narrowly avoided disaster. He had a group of seven boisterous pigs that had escaped the previous night. Luckily they hadn’t found the art exhibition which he assured me they would have easily destroyed. I finished filming but couldn’t help thinking that a shot of the pigs destroying the art work in a kind of ’Animal Farm’ finale wouldn’t make a perfect end.
Image: Ian, the farms owner, trying to redirect an escaped pig using one of the signs for the exhibition.
Generously he agreed to restage the escape in an attempt to create this scenario. The pigs didn’t cooperate. As they were let out of their compound, instead of following the food bucket to the art exhibition as intended, they were more interested in fresh grass and trees. Pigs can’t be herded- If you push them they seem more determined to stay in one place. We slowly encouraged them by stopping them going in the opposite direction with boards and eventually they reached the entrance to the art exhibition. Of the seven, three were encouraged inside with an apple on a stick. Half interested they found my art work; munched some strategically placed food on the floor but were generally indifferent for about ten minutes; refused to perform then wandered off again bored. The rest of the morning was spent trying to put them back in their compound until we gave up. Sometime later, having experienced freedom and got what they wanted, they gradually sloped back into their pen. For the rest of the day they periodically knocked down their fencing again to escape a few more times but this seemed to be for no other reason than to just prove they could do it if they wanted to even though they seemed to know it was pretty pointless.