City Gallery City Gallery

Questioning Revolt

Olivia Lacey talks to Chief Curator Robert Leonard about his new show, Iconography of Revolt.

Olivia Lacey: What’s Iconography of Revolt about? 

Robert Leonard: The show looks at some of the ways revolt and revolution, protest and insurrection, have been pictured in art, film, and elsewhere. It takes in the Bolsheviks and the Black Panthers, the Zapatistas and Pussy Riot, the barricades and the catwalk. The earliest works are from the 1920s. The latest were made this year, specially for the show.

What does the show cover?

It’s sketch. It’s such a big topic; the show can’t cover all aspects. It’s quirky: I’ve included eccentric things. It changes register: I’ve included images of revolt from within and from without, and where sometimes you can’t tell. The show encompasses works that are politically righteous and others that are frivolous. I wanted to show a perplexing variety—a clash of codes. People will have to pick their own way through.

Where did the idea come from? 

For me, it dates back to seeing a parody fashion feature, ‘Who’s Shooting Who?’, in the July 1986 issue of The Face. Photographer Oliver Maxwell dressed male models to represent factions in the civil war in Lebanon. There was an Israeli Naval Commando, a Palestine Liberation Organisation sniper, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Mujahadin, a Phalangist Militiaman, an Italian Marine, a Druze Machine Gunner, a Syrian Commando, an Israeli Defence Force Infantryman, and an Israeli Defence Force Military Policeman, all posing in their distinctive outfits.

The piece scrambled fashion how-to with tribal anthropology. The images were captioned fashion-feature style. For instance, the figure representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Mujahadin was labelled: ‘Lizard-pattern fatigues; T-shirt (Men-Only ones are a favourite); Syrian Commando badge (worn also by PLO); red and white keffiyeh and balaclava; Puma trainers; Adidas bag carrying RPGs; M-16 with spare magazines; American .38 snub-nose (not usually cocked) in trousers.’

On the magazine’s cover, the teaser read ‘Beirut Fashion: The Trappings of Terror’. It was hard to know if he was making light of political struggles or of the co-option of signifiers of revolt by commerce and fashion. I tore out and filed the article at the time and it’s been in the back of my mind ever since. I guess it was the germ of my exhibition. Maxwell revisited his project specially for the show.

A lot of space is devoted to two Australian artists.

Before I came to Wellington, I was running the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, where I made solo shows with two Australians who explore the aesthetics of revolt: Jemima Wyman and Marco Fusinato. Wyman, now based in LA, explores the rhetoric of camouflage and masks via the Mexican Zapatistas and Anonymous. Marco Fusinato creates industrial enlargements of news photos of riots, where protagonists brandish rocks against backdrops of fire. He also invites graphic designers to remake a historic protest banner in their own distinct styles. Wyman and Fusinato haven’t been seen so much in New Zealand, and I think audiences here will enjoy their work. For a curator, a nice thing about changing galleries and changing countries is getting the chance to revisit artists and ideas—to work with them again, to share them with others.

Does the show include New Zealand artists?

Yes. Three works by four artists. A collaborative work by Giovanni Intra and Michael Parekōwhai, 14 May 1968 (1994), re-presents a news photo of the May 1968 Paris riots. The artists were born two days apart, either side of that day. Michael Stevenson’s drawing, Donald Judd Incident 3 (1995), is based on a security-camera photo of Patty Hearst carrying her assault rifle exiting the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco in April 1974. Abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army, an American terrorist group, the glamorous heiress participated in their heists. Stevenson changed the background, replacing the bank scene with an art-museum one, with a Donald Judd sculpture. Here, social history rudely intrudes on a minimalist art that wanted to hold it at bay. Finally, there’s Dane Mitchell’s Untitled (Flag) (2007)—a red flag hanging from a spade thrust into the wall. It comes from his project The Barricades, which explored improvised strategies of dissent, and included shields made from the cladding of the gallery’s walls and Molotov cocktails.

How do you go about making a theme show like this?

I start with a few key things, then add, add, add.  I follow my nose. Shows crystallise slowly over months. They’re mind maps.

Does this show take a political position?

No. There’s no ‘cause’. The show isn’t for revolt or for any particular ideology. It’s not directing people what to think. It’s playful, while addressing a not-so-playful topic. I want the show to engage visitors’ curiosity, while also being thought-provoking and disorienting, through its shifts in register.

‘Iconography’—that’s a big word.

‘Iconography’ means both the visual language used in art works and the study and interpretation of that language. I called the show Iconography of Revolt to emphasise that it isn’t simply about revolt. It’s about the way it’s pictured, about the way images work. I could have called it Picturing Revolt or Rhetoric of Revolt.

So it’s semiology—the study of signs? 

Exactly. When I was at university in the late-twentieth century, Roland Barthes’s book Mythologies was required reading. It stuck.

You’re known for adding non-art material into your shows. Iconography of Revolt includes movie trailers, fashion videos, and CD covers. How do these things fit into the context of an art show?

There are plenty of precedents for including non-art exhibits in art shows, begging the question of what is and isn’t art. I take full advantage of that in making my shows. For instance, I added evangelical Christian videos to our Corita Kent show in 2016. I like mixing the formats of art and social-history shows. I like bringing other things into the art frame, and to consider how they read as art, to consider how art might read as social history. Perhaps I play that card too often.

There’s violent content in this show.  

Rather unavoidable, given the topic. Pussy Riot’s clip for ‘Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland’ includes footage of Cossack security officers attacking the punk girl group in Sochi in 2014, as they attempt to perform under a sign advertising the Winter Olympics there. It’s harrowing. Visitors may also find Johan Grimonprez’s 1997 collage documentary Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y tough going. It chronicles airplane hijackings through their heyday, the 1960s and 1970s. Made just before 9/11, it now seems eerily prescient. It includes some nasty images, including blood being mopped off the floor at an airport hamburger stand, and ends on a compilation of shots of airplanes crashing to a disco soundtrack—Van McCoy’s ‘Do the Hustle’. The film combines nostalgia and terror. But what’s upsetting about it has less to do with individual images, more to do with the way it’s put together and edited. Like the show overall, it clashes registers and turns images against themselves—it’s disorienting. The situationists called it ‘détournement’. A lot of the film’s power comes from David Shea’s brilliant spooky-ironic soundtrack, often running in counterpoint to the images.

Commerce features in the show. What’s the connection?

Revolutions need to brand themselves—Mao and Che became icons. Meanwhile, commerce—which isn’t usually trying to change the world—will often cite images of revolt to imply its products are edgy, tapping our will to dissent. Freedom! The commodification and co-option of revolt is a theme in the show. It’s there in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967).

It’s big in fashion too.

It’s interesting to see fashion borrow from the iconography of revolt. In the show, there’s videos from the London fashion house Maharishi, marketing what has been described as their ‘jihadi chic’. The revolution can become a commodity. Pussy Riot now has a fashion label (something eerily anticipated by German artist Rosemarie Trockel, with her range of branded balaclavas from 1986).

Was there anything you couldn’t include?

Actually, I wanted to open the show with 1984, the TV ad Ridley Scott made to herald the arrival of the Apple Macintosh computer that year. In the US, it screened nationally only once, during the Super Bowl. It’s set in a bleak totalitarian society. Grey-uniformed, shaven-headed men—looking like prisoners—lock-step shuffle into a room, to be addressed by a miserable, gaunt, tyrannical Big Brother–type on a screen. Then a beautiful young woman athlete, in a tank top and red shorts, runs in and hurls her hammer at the screen, exploding it. (She reminds me of the javelin-throwing glamazons on the cover of Roxy Music’s 1980 album Flesh and Blood.) Then the explanation: ‘On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.’ Not surprisingly, people identified the totalitarian society with Apple’s competitor, IBM. Apple appropriated the idea of revolution for its marketing appeal. Its Macintosh may have been technologically innovative, but the implication was that it was politically revolutionary as well—saving humanity from conformity.

Why couldn’t you include it?

Apple corporate said no. So much for the revolution. So much for ‘Think Different’.