We've lost the hearts and minds...

Artvehicle 7/Review

8th December 2006 — 21st January 2007

Reza Aramesh, Lewis Amar, Gordon Cheung, Henry Coleman, Gian Paolo Cottino, Dan Griffiths, Anthony Gross, Cyril Lepetit, William Hunt, George Kontos, Steve Klee, Goshka Macuga, Cristina Mariani, Theo Michael, Redux Project, the hut project, Theo Prodromidis, TemporaryContemporary, Alex Zika, Jen Wu.

For the purposes of writing this article, I did an online search of the show's title, 'We've lost the hearts and minds...'. Here is a selection of my results:

We've lost the hearts and minds...
of the Iraqi people.
of ordinary Iraqis and no wonder.
of a generation of young Muslims.
of every Iraqi and every Muslim in the world.
of most Arabs. of the Arab street.
of most constituencies in the Middle East.
of many Americans.
of the American public.
of a swath of the world.

And the particularly astute:
We've lost the hearts and minds...
and the arms and legs.

Between 1964 and 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson used the phrase "hearts and minds" a total of 28 times. The expression, at the time referring to the U.S. operation to win the allegiance of the South Vietnamese people, has now come to mean the PR exercise both preceding and during any military action set in place to convince the civilian population to accept the behaviour of its subjugators. It is no wonder the phrase has undergone somewhat of a revival in the last four years.

The artist and co-founder of Centrefold Scrapbook, Reza Aramesh, has borrowed this phrase for the current exhibition at the E:vent space in Teesdale Street. The fragment 'We've lost the hearts and minds...' assumes that at one point we already had them, although whose hearts and minds we had is left unclear. Deliberately left unfinished, it implies a degree of exhausted defeat rather than a self-assured call to arms; a suitably open-ended starting point for the purposes of a group show.

In a letter addressed to the visitor, Aramesh explains how he invited 19 artists, most of whom had contributed to Scrapbook 5, to address the relationship between art and protest, posing the question, 'Can art be political?' There is a lot of work here, some of which attempts to tackle this question directly, some of which merely hints at it. One of the benefits of the scrapbook is of course that visual material can complement that on the adjacent page or indeed happily sit at odds with it.

When I arrived at the gallery in East London (perhaps a little too punctually for a Sunday) all the AV equipment was yet to be switched on and I was faced with a table showing the evidence of a late-night, drunken gambling session. In fact, the empty chairs, table littered with poker chips, cards and beer cans are intended to act as a metaphor for the intricacies involved in collectively curating a group show such as this. Group Show as Poker Game, by Temporary Contemporary hints at the long alcohol fuelled evenings of intellectual parlaying and bluffing with one's peers, where the object of the game is one's personal gain - not that of the collective. You're really only in it to score for yourself. Sod the group!

There is a definite aesthetic to the overall show of the make-shift and the make-do. With the dazzling yellow walls, spray-painted crass branding and list of works scrawled onto the back wall in black marker, Aramesh makes a strong link back to the scrapbook format of Centrefold. As far as I can tell, this is no bad thing. The exhibition has a slight tone of a Max Ernst collage novel, drawing seemingly incongruous imagery together to form a loose narrative. Collage is indeed used throughout by several of the artists, often with nods to the surrealists. Mixing line-drawings with newspaper cuttings, an open-mouthed chick waits for a slew of regurgitated stories, feeding on tragedy and loss in Aramesh's wall-piece. Gordon Cheung's image of the neaderthal man with club, victorious atop a mountain of rubble, is made up of impossibly thin-cut strips of the Financial Times. The title, Hardcore, implies that human kind, even in it's world conquering glory of capitlaism, is still all 'ug-ug's', stubbornly resistant to change. It brings to mind that Banksy slogan, strategically positioned in the path of the morning commuter: 'Win the rat race, still a rat.'

Theo Michael's illustrations of Arab men drawn with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths next to George and Laura Bush in jumpers (the former with red felt-tipped eyes), is reminiscent of Joe Sacco's graphic novel, Palestine. Here, the speech bubbles are left empty (in the face of U.S foreign policy, the Middle East has no voice). The muted voice seems to be reiterated in Dan Griffiths' work, Art is What Makes Life More Interesting Than Art. 5 images of the familiar revolutionary symbol, the clenched fist raised aloft, are formed through cut and mounted wood veneer. The use of this shallow material along with the variations in the image from one panel to the next lessens the potency of what is a politically charged logo. They appear here as placards without slogans, implying that protest can at times be reduced to shouting a lot yet saying very little.

This deliberate obliteration of text is even more apparent in St. Paul, Storyboard from a Scenario by Pier Paolo Pasolini by Redux Project where 30 painted scenes cover the print of various pages of found newspapers. This may be a reference to Pasolini's declarations of his leanings to Communism on the cover of the Italian newspaper Libertà but the narrative is hard to discern and through nothing more than laziness, I gave up trying rather quickly. It seems I was second guessed. In Jen Wu's Nail Text, a photograph of hand, the fingernails painted white with tip-ex, rests on the page of some academic text (apparently some critical inquiry of French anti-colonial essayist, Frantz Fanon). Words on the page are partly obscured by the artist's fingertips, onto which has been written 'Bore' and 'Deviate'. When read as running into the body of text, "Bored the Marxist theme..." and "Deviated from anything", it reveals a world-weariness and lacklustre attitude to engage with ideas. Wu asks an important question here: Are we really bored with socialism, too preoccupied to effect change? The viewer can share in this apathy. Like notes in the margin of a borrowed book, it is someone else's outlook we can choose to take or leave.

I was similarly bored waiting for the 6 video pieces to come on, played in a clockwise sequence of monitors in the centre of the space. I'm sorry to say I missed the majority of them in my impatience. This is a shame as the snippets I caught of Theo Prodromidus's film, Serenade to Spectacle, looked promising, as did Lewis Amar's Of Land & Tilte, whereby a comic character runs, trousers down, through the grounds of stately homes, much to the guffawing delight of the onlooker. The varying fragments that spilled over heightened this sense of the fragmented narrative of the scrapbook collage.

Historically, scrapbooking was a tradition similar to storytelling, but with a visual rather than oral, focus. However, I felt there could have been a little more explanation in some areas and I was irritated by having to keep going back to the map of the gallery on the wall to cross-reference works with their titles. Even so, the artists here do well in answering the call of Aramesh in the show's curatorial remit and it is refreshing to see a group show of emerging artists that has such coherence. However, don't expect to find any easy interpretations.


96 Teesdale Street
London E2 6PU

Friday-Sunday, 12am-6pm

We've lost the hearts and minds... —  Gordon Cheung  'Hardcore'

Gordon Cheung