Che

Waxwork in vitrine
115 x 279 x 115 cms
1999

A life size waxwork of Che Guevara in the pose of Warhol’s Elvis and dressed in army fatigues and a beret pointing a revolver.

Essays

  • Guevara In Art - Ben Cranfield SHOW

    Guevara In Art - Ben Cranfield

    In a TIME cover article of August 1960 Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara, was described as the “Brain” behind Castro’s Cuba. Whilst Castro was the “heart, soul, voice and bearded visage”, and his Brother Raul was the “fist that holds the revolution’s dagger”, Ernesto took control of the countries ideological and fiscal policies, although in a particularly maverick way.

    Whilst recent artistic projects, not to mention notable biographies, have sought to put the brain back behind the floating iconic face, it may still seem peculiar to hear Che described first and foremost as a brain, with Castro taking the place of the visage. Furthermore, the TIME front cover of the 8th August 1960 jars with our contemporary imagination. The Che pictured in realistic shades and hues is not the Che of Alberto ‘Korda’ Diaz’s ubiquitous photograph; not the statuesque Che, staring enigmatically off into the distance, not forever young, melting into the mane of his hair and beard as a crown of thorns or a halo, but smiling, engaged and ruggedly lined. TIME, however, did prefigure the objectifying of Che, with the all attendant problems for historical truth, by remarking that he is “the most fascinating, and the most dangerous

    of the triumvirate” and that his smile has a power that “women find devastating.”

    In the same issue of TIME, there is piece on Marilyn Monroe as she prepared for “The Misfits”, directed by her husband Arthur Miller. The piece poignantly points to cracks appearing in Monroe’s façade. She is painted as a neurotic figure who reflects the character she is playing, Roslyn, as a “fractured, manhandled woman.” Monroe was found dead almost exactly two years later, “The Misfits” being her last film.

    “Che Guevara was the Marilyn Monroe of Marxism, an empty receptacle for fantasy” writes Jonathan Jones in his review of Gavin Turk’s 2001 post-Beuysian teach-in, “The Che Gavara Story” [sic]. This seems an easy association, one which we can accept without flinching. Yes, Hollywood’s tragic heroine of Che’s hated America and Cuba’s martyred hero seem to be part of the same breath. And yet it is only their emptiness which is the same. It is only the remarkable similarity of their magnitude as ciphers that makes this connection so easy. Beyond this they are, of course, complete opposites. It is one thing above all that makes the Marilyn/Che comparison so natural, and that

    is their reduction to a single image; Warhol’s image.

    Within the course of ‘The Gavara Story’, Jones reports, the question was raised as to why Warhol never “did depict Che”. Jones recalls that in fact Warhol had depicted Che, in his 1965 film The Life of Juanita Castro, but not as the Che of Warholian silhouette that we all know. We may in fact be forgiven for thinking that Warhol had in fact depicted Che in typical multicoloured silhouetted fashion. Trisha Ziff has tried to establish the origin of the famous ‘faked’ ‘Warhol Che’ and traces the authorship of the image to former Warhol assistant and star of many a Warhol iconic portrait himself, Gerard Malanga.

    Of course the notion of authorship in Warhol’s silkscreens is ambiguous and debatable and Warhol allegedly claimed the series as his own after Malagna’s appeal for help following the discovery of the forgery. We may wonder as to why Warhol had not produced an iconic image of Che himself. As Jones’ opening assertion suggests it would appear to have been an obvious choice. Perhaps Che had not captured Warhol’s imagination, perhaps, as the campery of Juanita Castro would suggest, Che

    did not possess the compellingly deep one-dimensionality that Warhol usually sought, or perhaps he simply had not got around to it before the forgery and other similar versions had appeared. Forgery or no forgery, Warhol had already made an image of Che; for all images that appear on t-shirts, the icon of the Korda photograph, the Jim Fitzpatrick posters, the “devastating” Hollywood smile, could all be said to be Warhol’s in a crucial way.

    When Jim Fitzpartick made possibly the most famous silhouette of Che using Korda’s “Guerrillero Heroico” in 1967 there was no mistaking the presence of Warhol. Warhol, as a signifier for repetitious celebrity, as an embodiment of one-dimensional contemporary iconography came before and after the flowing of Fitzpatrick’s icon into contemporary consciousness. Although those dependent on the art market might like to dispute it, Warhol’s signature was not so much a moment of artistic authoring, but a statement about celebrity and value itself. The content of the signature as repeated, as the image of Che or Monroe repeated, existed in the act of repetition itself rather than its particular signification. The proliferation of a Warhol image enacted its death with the morbidity which occurs with the

    uncanny fascination of recall and distancing. The attention to the particular and the generic which exists within a Warhol series is like that which makes the familiar strange, like a word or name repeated without context until the tongue becomes awkward around it. The morose nature of repetition leads, arguably to the limit event of Warhol’s “Death in America”, series. Hal Foster asserts, in his essay titled after the series, that;

    “Somehow in these repetitions, then, several contradictory things occur at the same time: a waning away of traumatic significance and an opening out to it, a defending against traumatic affect and a producing of it.”

    In the waning of the traumatic, Foster is referring to Warhol’s own remarks about the diminishing effect of the “gruesome” when viewed “over and over again.” However, Foster also perceives these sites of repetitious unpleasantness to be instances of ‘traumatic realism’ – a reenactment of the death depicted in the horror of the semelfactive seeing again and again. Such a trauma is reminiscent of the film ending of Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock” in which Rose goes to play a recording of Pinky’s voice to console her after his death, only to hear

    a partial truth as the record hits a scratch and repeatedly jumps with static rupture saying ‘I love you’.

    Similarly, the protagonists of Warhol’s portraits become forever frozen in a permanently repeated death with the question of salvation or damnation deferred. A viewer of “Brighton Rock” is forced to relive a trauma both numbed and accentuated by the dramatic irony of the situation; we know that if the record were to play Rose would not hear Pinky say how much he loves her but would instead hear him tell her “I hate you, you little slut”.

    The initial horror of the dramatic realisation, as the record is played and the abrupt relief of the jumping needle, both softens the feared finality of the death of the illusion and at the same time deepens the trauma by continually reminding us of the emptiness of the words embedded in Rose’s mind. Similarly, the banality of Warhol’s repetitive and softened, ‘Hollywood’ endings are in themselves traumatic instances. A singular image of Monroe as colourful clown could have been seen as a celebration, or at least a monument to mourn, multiple Monroes (proliferating forever more at grotesque rate of speed)

    become a yawning sorrowful emptiness, a morose stuck record.

    As Hannah Charlston says in her introduction to the catalogue which accompanied the V&A’s exhibition “Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon”, “The story of the Che image is in part the story of the growth of visual literacy.” Whether or not Che was a good man or a bad man, a hero or a psychopath, the trauma which is repeated in the proliferation of the image through a continual reordering of the linguistic, denoted and connoted, as Barthes might suggest, results in a deadening loss of aura and history. The multiple instances of Che’s reworking in poster form, by activists (on all sides), admen, artists, designers, becomes an essay in contemporary textual fracturing. Following on from Barthes, the retelling of Che as image may indeed be best understood as a symptom of our visual literacy, our ability to digest and read all as textual mirror.

    Discussing Che as icon is becoming as clichéd as the image itself. If one wants to discuss the rabid force of commercialisation, the ubiquity of celebrity, the reduction of the revolutionary spirit to image, then ‘Che’, via Korda, via Fitzpatrik, via Warhol, is too

    exemplary to ignore. As we attempt to move forward heroically, tragically, romantically, pathetically, tragically, comically, then we may easily find ourselves picturing ourselves as Guevara, in Elvis stance, through Warhol, as an act of trauma magnified; three one-dimensionalities compounding our own.

  • Museum Vitrines - Martine Rouleau SHOW

    Museum Vitrines - Martine Rouleau

    “Do not touch” must be one the first thing anyone learns inside a museum. So much so that the museum is where one is likely to first get acquainted with the fact that there are some things in this world that are meant to be looked at but that can not be engaged with in any other way. It's a favorite pastime of mine to see how long it takes for someone to run up to me or yelp as soon as I extend a hand towards anything that hangs on a wall or sits on a plinth. I never aim to damage anything of course and I rarely actually do touch a piece, but I just want to determine how aggressively touch is evacuated out of the experience of the museum as I believe it is indicative of the degree of seriousness with which a culture defends its boundaries. In certain Italian and Greek museums, I've been known to lay a furtive yet respectful hand on a marble foot or a copper head for long uninterrupted minutes. In Britain and America, I have yet to touch as much as a velvet rope without dire consequences. Regardless of my location

    in the world, the objects in glass vitrines are always the ones I wish I could handle the most. There is something about the vitrine that almost taunts me. For some reason, the encased objects appear more precious and more interesting specifically because they can be seen but they can only be handled by the precious few who hold the appropriate authority and set of keys.

    Although it is now taken for granted that museum collections are not meant to be touched, this has not always been the case. There was a time when a visit to the museum was not ruled by vision but involved a lot of touching and handling. Indeed, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nascent European institutions didn’t have the set of rules that we are now so familiar with. At the time, touching was considered to be an integral part of the museum visit and the whole experience had more in common with visiting an acquaintance kind enough to give a detailed tour of their home. Writes Constance Classen in her essay “Touch In The Museum” in “The Book Of Touch”;

    “The curator, as gracious host, was expected to provide information

    about the collection and to offer it up to be touched. The museum visitors, as polite guests, were expected to show their interest and goodwill by asking questions and by touching the proffered objects.”

    By allowing visitors to touch the collection, the curators were merely following rules of hospitality. It is perhaps pertinent to observe that the museum audience of that time was by no means comparable to, say, the visitors that one would now find on a rainy Sunday afternoon at the National Gallery or at Tate Modern. This experience was made possible mostly because fewer people frequented such institutions and because conservation had not yet evolved into the paranoid science of degradation that we know today.

    During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain, museums became involved in a national effort to educate and civilize the masses migrating to urban centres in order to take advantage of the plentiful work opportunities brought about by industrialisation. It was believed that museums would be a great alternative to less reputable establishments for workers to while away their newly found leisure time. This consecutively led to a greater number of visitors but also an audience that

    was not educated in ways of the museum. Museums responded with the imposition of order and rules. No longer were the objects displayed there available for touch but quite the opposite. They were now regarded as sacred and removed from ordinary human interaction. In turn, this increased reverence brought about heightened concern about potential damage to the collection accompanied by intensified programmes of conservation.
    By increasing visibility with better lighting and modes of display, modern museums aimed to promote visual access while discouraging any perceived need for touch. Gradually, the picking up and handling of objects gave way to a public space meant to structure an historical and distancing space between the audience and the objects. Barriers or cords were introduced in the first decade of the nineteenth century as a response to the increased interest in exhibitions and they became a familiar feature of picture galleries in the course of the nineteenth century. Writes Robert D.Altick in “The Shows of London”;

    “In the 1820s in Britain barriers were introduced to keep the expanding middle class audiences at a safe distance. In particular large paintings depicting contemporary events had to be railed off, such as David Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners

    Receiving the Gazette Announcing the Battle of Waterloo (1822), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822.”

    These obstructions were meant to increase the distance between the spectator and the work of art as a way to make the works of art more accessible to a greater number of people. They also meant that the engagement with artefacts and works of art was becoming more visual and less kinaesthetic. Glass vitrines acted in a similar way to railings but pushed the distancing process a little further by blocking access in every way but visually. They also allowed for groupings of small objects from a similar historical period or of a similar school or form, especially the ones made of the most fragile organic materials such as ivory, bone, fabric and wood. Handling of such objects has been known to cause infinitesimal damage such as traces of moisture or grease which can culminate over time in the object’s destruction. Certain restored works composed of separate parts, veneering or inlaid elements will most often also go behind glass.
    Today, museums find themselves in the specific predicament of having to protect things that may be damaged by touch while granting

    the widest possible access. Although for many people, significant engagement with an object is most likely to happen via touch or some form of manipulation, the museum with its tantalising arrays of glass vitrines and velvet cords will always provide temptation.

    become a yawning sorrowful emptiness, a morose stuck record.

    As Hannah Charlston says in her introduction to the catalogue which accompanied the V&A’s exhibition “Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon”, “The story of the Che image is in part the story of the growth of visual literacy.” Whether or not Che was a good man or a bad man, a hero or a psychopath, the trauma which is repeated in the proliferation of the image through a continual reordering of the linguistic, denoted and connoted, as Barthes might suggest, results in a deadening loss of aura and history. The multiple instances of Che’s reworking in poster form, by activists (on all sides), admen, artists, designers, becomes an essay in contemporary textual fracturing. Following on from Barthes, the retelling of Che as image may indeed be best understood as a symptom of our visual literacy, our ability to digest and read all as textual mirror.

    Discussing Che as icon is becoming as clichéd as the image itself. If one wants to discuss the rabid force of commercialisation, the ubiquity of celebrity, the reduction of the revolutionary spirit to image, then ‘Che’, via Korda, via Fitzpatrik, via Warhol, is too

    exemplary to ignore. As we attempt to move forward heroically, tragically, romantically, pathetically, tragically, comically, then we may easily find ourselves picturing ourselves as Guevara, in Elvis stance, through Warhol, as an act of trauma magnified; three one-dimensionalities compounding our own.

  • The Fool - Hari Kunzru SHOW

    The Fool - Hari Kunzru

    “This work I call a looking glass
    In which each fool shall see an ass…
    Whoever sees with open eyes
    Cannot regard himself as wise
    For he shall see upon reflection
    That humans teem with imperfection”

    Sebastian Brant “The Ship of Fools” 1494

    Who is the fool? In the tarot pack, he is shown as a figure setting out on a journey, with a bundle on his back and a little dog tugging at his ragged clothes. Sometimes he is about to step off a cliff. The dog, symbol of social domesticity, is trying to drag him back home. But is the fool making a mistake, or taking a leap of faith? Is he actually wise? Verbal and visual genealogies of the fool link him with other figures – the beggar, the madman, the mascot, the scapegoat, the seer, the poet. Many of these figures intersect with Romantic images of the creative artist: the inspired outsider, at once absurd and magnificent. So, among other things, the fool is an artist, and the artist is a fool.

    As a historical figure, the court fool is a parasite, a professional dinner guest. In Ancient Greece, parasitos was originally a

    dignifed term, applied to someone invited to official banquets because of his personal merits. It soon became debased, a word for a flatterer, a wit, someone who would use his talent for clowning, mimcry or telling jokes in return for a free meal. The fool is an entertainer, sitting at table with the nobility, his position privileged but precarious. He must never be ordinary, never dull. The artist sits at table next to the collector, then goes back to his underheated studio.

    The fool has a very special position at court, or the gallery dinner. He is ‘all-licensed’, empowered to say and do things others wouldn’t dare. Sometimes he is a wise fool, cleverly telling truths under the guise of wit. He may also be a ‘natural’, a dwarf or a cripple or a moron. His physical or mental deficiencies place him outside the normal social system, depriving him of both rights and responsibilities. The fool speaks truth to power, but since he is dressed in motley, a caperer in cap and bells, no one is obliged to listen. “This is nothing, fool” says Kent in King Lear, and the fool knows as much. His words can

    be ignored if they are too near the mark. “Then tis like the breath of an unfeed lawyer,” he quips. “You give me nothing for it.” No one need draw his sword: there’s no honour in avenging the fool’s insults.

    Above all, the fool is the only one who can insult the king. His jokes lay bare how the regime functions – the political regime of power, the aesthetic and economic regimes of value, the epistemological regime of meaning. Only through the fool’s clowning is the regime made visible to itself. The king needs the fool, for he is surrounded by sycophants. Yet however wise he is, the fool must never mistake himself for someone influential, who can wield power like ordinary men. This was the error of Archibald Armstrong, court fool to James I. Armstrong went as far as travelling as part of a royal embassy to Spain, where an off-colour quip to the Infanta about the sinking of the Spanish Armada undermined months of careful negotiation. Nevertheless, he thought of himself as a masterful diplomat, signing himself paradoxically ‘youre best foole of State’ in a letter to his royal master. His talent for making enemies finally

    tripped him up when he insulted the Archbishop of Canterbury and was permanently banished from court.

    Armstrong tried (and occasionally succeeded) in bridging the gap between foolery and political power, never accepting their essential opposition: if the fool is taken seriously, he will be hanged for his insolence. To be a fool is to be homo sacer, an exile from the Law. In the formulation of Giorgio Agamben, the ordinary person has two types or levels of life, basic biological existence (zoë) and political or social life (bios). The fool is denied bios, the life of the subject or the citizen. He has no status, no rights or responsibilities, only bare life. What he does has no significance. Nor what is done to him. This is why, as Erasmus says in In Praise of Folly, “the most violent tyrants put up with their clowns and fools, though these often make them the butt of open insults”. Since the fool is homo sacer, under a state of exception from the Law (the Law of courtly honour, of social propriety), he is a living demonstration of the sovereign’s power to give the Law, to enforce it or suspend it

    at his pleasure. So the fool is related to several figures from our contemporary period of permanent emergency - the stateless person, the untouchable, the unlawful combatant, the concentration camp inmate, the mental patient, the refugee. All live under the same suspension of the Law, isolated from social and political existence.

    Though, he is only a “poor, bare forked animal”, sometimes the fool can be a king. In his role as the Lord of Misrule he is, as Mikhail Bakhtin puts it, “the constant accredited representation of the carnival spirit in everyday life” For Bakhtin, “Carnival celebrates temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marks the suspension of all heirarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions. Carnival [is] the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal. It [is] hostile to all that [is] immortalised and completed.” The fool is productively disruptive. He just won’t let things be. At the feast of fools, the slave is master, women are men, excrement replaces incense at the ritual and the dignified clergy are paraded about the streets in carts. The fool inverts the king, and during the period of his carnival rule, the

    iron network of moral, physical and social law feels temporarily as light as air. The powerful art collector becomes a puppet. The heroic artist is a tramp. The great names of the past are no more than waxworks.

    If the fool is an artist and the artist is a fool, that was never more true than now, after conceptualism. The Romantic artist struggles with the raw material of the world, transmuting it into art through the heroic operation of his genius. The conceptual fool reduces this to absurdity, by eschewing the noble work of transmutation. He may claim an everyday object as art. He may utilise comically humble materials or use noble ones to fashion humble things. He may reproduce an artwork that already exists. He may reduce his art to the simplest artistic gesture of all, that of signing his own name. So Duchamp is a fool. Warhol is a fool. Foolish Piero Manzoni says shit is gold. Beuys is a fool, though often he forgets. People get angry at this motley crew of artists, who say art can be made of repetition, boredom, or banality. Artists should be hacking away at a block of marble, not

    sleeping late and getting drunk on promotional beer. Art should involve craft. Craft should involve skill, difficulty. Conceptualism makes craft look foolish – mere dexterity, juggling.

    “When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.” This is Lear’s realisation, the truth that bawling babies know and adults forget as we get caught up in the serious mummery of our social and cultural lives. Only the fool-artist still knows the truth, and we carry him about in an international charivari, the pope of piffle, the sultan of senselessness. The artworld (the very term is a carnivalesque inversion of the real world) is a veritable ship of fools – gallerists and curators and collectors and writers and artists all stroking their long velvety asses ears, taking the fool seriously, buying his golden shit. No accident that Brant’s medieval poem was first published in Basel. What could be more ridiculous than the consensual hallucination of artistic value? Hey nonny!

    exemplary to ignore. As we attempt to move forward heroically, tragically, romantically, pathetically, tragically, comically, then we may easily find ourselves picturing ourselves as Guevara, in Elvis stance, through Warhol, as an act of trauma magnified; three one-dimensionalities compounding our own.