Tuesday 18 July 2017

Essay: ‘The end is where we start from’. Laura Moreton-Griffith’s history painting of the future

‘The end is where we start from’: Laura Moreton-Griffith’s history painting of the future

In a series of lectures delivered at the University of New Brunswick in 1950, professor of political economy Harold Innis decried the ever-increasing loss of respect for the past and the future. This ‘present-mindedness’, as he termed it, was, to his mind, a symptom of capitalism, which had fostered the measurement of time, facilitating the use of credit and the rise of exchange-based calculations of futures that were deemed predictable and insurable. In his 2016 essay, ‘A New Politics of Time’[1], Professor John Keane similarly discusses the ‘myopia of democracy’, ‘encouraging a fixation on the here and now […], discriminat[ing] against younger generations [b]y allocating health care resources for the elderly and financing social insurance schemes out of current taxes […],turning a blind eye to long-term environmental degradation and […] the risks associated with bio-genetic engineering and burgeoning population growth’. These beliefs, Keane adds, are all ‘egged on’ by claims that we are facing ‘the end of history’ (as proposed by the American political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 essay of the same name [2]) and the arrogant conceit that we have solved all the problems of the past.

The idea of a politics of time plays a key role in Laura Moreton-Griffiths’ dystopian installation, Truth Lies Within (2017). A ‘three-dimensional history painting’, it entraps and entwines the viewer in the act of storytelling, implicating her in the denouement of its disturbing plot. Walking amidst the ensemble of characters, she takes on a participatory role, bearing the burden and the guilt of every false decision. It might be described as a postmodern, post-truth, post-whatever-you-like scenario, but this would, in fact, be a misnomer, since the real key to Moreton-Griffiths’ work is the fact that it stands outside of time, or, at least, outside of the linear model of time on which modern – western – history is predicated. Instead Moreton-Griffiths employs the concept of non-linear, cyclic time, and weaves the elements of her work together as an author might weave a work of speculative fiction.

The term ‘history painting’ was introduced in the 17th century to describe paintings with subject matter drawn from classical history, mythology and the Bible. Derived from the wider sense of the Latin word historia, it essentially means ‘story painting’ and is a genre defined by its subject matter rather than any specific artistic style. In the 18th century, the term began to be used to refer to more recent historical subjects, usually depicting a moment in a narrative story, rather than a static subject. Typically a history painting would be large scale, made as a propaganda piece for those in power to represent and demonstrate the effect(-iveness) of their regime. For Moreton-Griffiths, however, history becomes the future – and a future which, discordant and undesirable as it seems, ‘could’, as Margaret Atwood says of her own works of speculative fiction, ‘really happen’. The social structures and power relations necessary are all already in place; they are all already (mis/dys)-functioning – the artist merely mirrors and exaggerates what she knows.

Each laser-cut standing figure adds to the painstakingly constructed tableau of cultural and art-historical references, conflating past, present and future in one pictorial event; a timeline of interacting and cascading cause and effect. Classical and Renaissance sculptures stand in ruins, symbols of the true democracy of times gone by, when oral tradition enabled the collective achievement of a healthy balance between time gone by and time still to come. Semi-bionic, the victims of technology, these sculptures are transitioning to computer-directed automata. Yet even these robots are at risk, positioned – helplessly rooted – amid armed putti on hoverboards, swooping menacingly, dancing the dance of the demon alongside dragonflies, which, on closer inspection reveal themselves to be military drones (sourced, Moreton-Griffiths says, from the CIA flickr site). Virtual reality headsets, voodoo dolls and segments of indecipherable binary code: the closer you look, the more threatening the scenario reveals itself to be. The work collages themes of propaganda, false information, and algorithms that target us with personalised political messages. The installation, or combination of elements as a whole, takes precedence over individual painted or constructed elements: the crowd, rather than an individual; the complex and daunting narrative of a mob. Them against us. But who is the us? Clearly, the ‘Other’, the lesser, the victim. Do we, the ‘Othered’ viewers, then stand united, or is it each man and woman out for him- and herself?

Moreton-Griffiths wants her timeline to be multidirectional – like a choose-your-own-ending teen fiction book – but does this allow for undoing one’s false decisions, redressing one’s mistakes, redeeming society from the sins of the past? In One Dimensional Woman [3], philosophy lecturer Nina Power speaks of ‘a feminism of failure’ – a model in which women would have the freedom to fail, to be uncertain, to question, experiment and ultimately define – and redefine – themselves. Might Moreton-Griffiths’ dystopia be read as a dystopia of failure – a dystopia that might yet be inverted, rescued, even rendered utopian?

Perhaps what is represented is a form of limbo, or purgatory, an indefiniteness of time as much as of identity and direction, a place of looping back in order to move forward, or of looping forward in order to move back. A place of the conditional perfect, of would-have-beens and could-have-beens, but not necessarily ought-to-have-beens, for in a model of non-linearity, such uni-directional modals cease to exist. Anything becomes possible. The actors becomes the directors. We, the protagonists, build and arrange the next act. ‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past,’ writes TS Eliot in Burnt Norton (1935). ‘What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning/The end is where we start from.’

© Anna McNay, July 2017

Images: © the artist 2017

Laura Moreton-Griffiths' website

[1] John Keane, ‘A New Politics of Time’ in The Conversation, 2 December 2016, http://theconversation.com/a-new-politics-of-time-69137 [accessed 16/07/17]
[2] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’ in The National Interest (16), 1989, pp3–18 https://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents [accessed 16/07/17]
[3] Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman, Zero Books, 2009

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant piece on what must be compelling art to say the least