Solemn and Bedazzling

LISA GODSON EXAMINES ARTISTS’ BANNERS THROUGH A MATERIAL CULTURE LENS, SITUATING THEM WITHIN THE BROADER HISTORY OF SOCIAL PROTEST MOVEMENTS.

Among the placards, signs and posters held aloft at the sixth annual March for Choice in Dublin on September 30 were a set of remarkable banners created by artists Alice Maher, Rachel Fallon and Breda Mayock. As Fallon explains: “We had a meeting at the beginning of the year about what way the artists’ campaign could go, in terms of repealing the Eighth Amendment. It was important to do something that was ‘us’ and that spoke of our expertise in making things”.

Until the early twentieth century, processions with spectacular banners were a widespread feature of civic life. Their vibrant colours and narrative content provided visual excitement as well as exhortation, amidst all manner of social gatherings and events, whether convening for religious devotion, political rallying or as part of the annual cycle of commemorative occasions. The practice of formal banner display on the island of Ireland now tends to be the preserve of conservative, even reactionary organisations, such as the Orange Order, the Irish National Foresters, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and so on. In keeping with their archaism, these organisations each flaunt their own particular claim on the past. Their banners bear iconography that invokes tradition and asserts continuation. This is aimed at servicing a teleology, where some foundation myth continues to uphold and reinforce present-day political claims.

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The Game Has Changed

This column was originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet.

In my column for this publication a few months ago, I called for a new negativity, in the spirit of Herbert Marcuse’s claim that the proper function of art was to be a “Great Refusal”. What better answer could I get than the massive ‘NO’ painted on the grass of Parliament Square in London during one of the recent series of protests against government cuts in the UK? Only four weeks ago, this kind of negativity still seemed to be only a distant possibility in a place like the UK. When, at a conference on public art and civility organised by SKOR in Amsterdam at the end of October, I suggested that there would soon be expressions of massive public anger in the UK, some of the UK-based delegates were sceptical, accusing me of “revolutionary nostalgia”. I was confident that they were being unduly dismissive – but I still didn’t anticipate the scale of the recent protests.

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