recreates scene of dead Syrian toddler

Ai Weiwei poses as drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi

Ai Weiwei poses as drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi

“Art as we know it is corrupt, exhausted and weak. We see works of postmodern masters sold to bankers for millions of dollars as signs of cultural capital and objects of financial investment. We see shimmering edifices of cultural wealth erected on the backs of hyperexploited labor—the pyramids and coliseums of the twenty-first century. …. We see so-called “social practice,” the well-funded bureaucratization of alienated people’s desire for community. And we see theoretically savvy “discursive platforms” that speak of radical democracy, militant ecology, and even communization, while recoiling at the prospect of deploying their considerable resources, skills, and potentials for the purposes of building a movement. This is no longer acceptable.

We strike art to liberate art from itself. Not to end art, but to unleash its powers of direct action and radical imagination. Art does not dissolve into so-called real life. It revitalizes real life by making it surreal. …. We strike art as training in the practice of freedom. And imagine a never-ending process of experimentation, learning and undoing, resisting and building in the unexplored terrain of an historic rupture.”

Banksy and the problem with sarcastic art


“If you love art, you must be glad that thousands of people are supporting it by going to “Dismaland.” If you love cultural expression generally, you must be glad millions of people are participating in it on the Internet. But when you see bad expression praised as good — when your Facebook friends share a sarcastic news report, or a millionaire street artist puts mouse ears on an actress and tells her to frown — you must also feel some injustice has been done. Kitsch should not get away with exploiting people’s desire to feel the art. How wonderful it must feel to go to “Dismaland” and see through society! But how awful to see society embrace art that makes you feel nothing, that makes you think only about the vast chasm between you and everyone else.”


Carlos Saladén-Vargas ‘Smokes Free’ (2009)

Workers of the world unite. Essay by Alex Drago, spring 2010, London.

As Britain recovers from its worst financial crisis since the depression of the 1930s and the economy flirts far too long with recession, it seems that no lessons have been learned (or perhaps they’ve been avoided) and nothing has changed. The closest thing to a revolution we’ve experienced is an upsurge in popularity for the Liberal Democrat party – and that’s probably only because both Labour and Conservative parties haven’t actually presented the electorate with any policies in the run up to the election.
Carlos Saladén Vargas 'Smokes Free #01'

Carlos Saladén Vargas ‘Smokes Free #01’

The banks, whose relentless greed and pursuit of profit caused this crisis, having been bailed out by the taxpayer are back on track again; bonuses two or three times your salary are returning and the swagger of the City is evident once more. Perhaps worst of all, as Will Hutton has argued, the opportunity to remind our banks that they serve the economy, rather than the other way around, has been lost. In short, Capital has won.

Carlos Saladén Vargas 'Smokes Free #02'

Carlos Saladén Vargas ‘Smokes Free #02’

Carlos Saladén Vargas 'Smokes Free #04'

Carlos Saladén Vargas ‘Smokes Free #04’

Carlos Saladén Vargas 'Smokes Free #09'

Carlos Saladén Vargas ‘Smokes Free #09’

In George Orwell’s 1984 the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, struggles to endure a regime that controls almost every aspect of his life as Big Brother’s reach consumes politics, economics and society. Winston, where possible, retaliates quietly, enjoying the small pleasures of his troubled existence; a walk in the park, hearing bird song, or feeling the sun’s rays on his face. So oppressive is Big Brother’s regime that the last refuge of Winston’s freedom becomes his memory of these simple pleasures. And of course, while Britain in 2010 is very different to Orwell’s dystopian vision 1984, there are similarities; the might of power, whether economic or political, is felt by workers across the nation.

Carlos Saladén Vargas 'Smokes Free #06'

Carlos Saladén Vargas ‘Smokes Free #06’

Carlos Saladén Vargas 'Smokes Free #08'

Carlos Saladén Vargas ‘Smokes Free #08’

Carlos Saladén-Vargas’ portraits of workers enjoying the simple pleasure of a cigarette break obscure and mask the misery of power that bears down on them. They may look ‘cool’ and might appear to be performing for the camera but this is not the case as these portraits are collaborative; the photographer gives no direction but also refuses to take photographs when the subject performs the way they feel a smoker should. The smoker self- represents, the photographer merely edits and interprets. If photography is a sin then is it sins of omission or commission that Carlos commits here?

Like Winston Smith, these smokers take pleasure in the small and simple; smoking is a reason to live again, a few minutes of escape from the mundane. The psychological pressure of work is lifted, frustrations are released, the alienation dissipates, the body relaxes and, if only for a short while, the smoker is reminded they are human after all… until they have to wind themselves up again and take up their role in society once again.

Carlos Saladén Vargas 'Smokes Free #07'

Carlos Saladén Vargas ‘Smokes Free #07’

Like Diane Arbus, who pre-empted the 1970s, a decade that was consistently out of sorts with itself politically, socially and economically, or Cindy Sherman, whose work came to personify the fluidity of identity that was characteristic of the postmodern a few years later, Carlos Saladén-Vargas’ work is also of its time. It references Arbus and Sherman politically, the action of smoking photographed here symbolises the pressure of capital on the workforce, but also aesthetically, the film stock is old and is in black and white, so there’s no doubt that you’re looking at anything but a photograph.

Carlos Saladén Vargas 'Smokes Free #03'

Carlos Saladén Vargas ‘Smokes Free #03’

And it’s because of this that we shouldn’t see individual portraits, we should see these images collectively, Saladen-Vargas’ vision of the debilitating nature of work under the renewed dominance of Capital. As Orwell himself wrote “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

School, debt, bohemia -on the disciplining of artists

“The market

Part of the picture of New York in the post-AbEx era includes artists’ mid 1960s revolt against galleries and gatekeepers. Artists who were producing unsalable works or cheap multiples, doing performances not to be documented, organizing artists’ unions, making demands on museums, demanding recognition as workers, and so on. Throughout those years and the possibly exhilarating 1970s, artists were quite often doing as they pleased, as the art-making paradigm shifted away from the masterworks of genius, executed in painting and sculpture, toward art rooted in what we might call cognitive processes, as in Conceptual Art. Dealers were frustrated, trying to figure out how to sell seemingly noncommodity art, such as video or performance. Howard Wise transformed his gallery into the nonprofit Electronic Arts Intermix, helping video artists disseminate and even produce their work, but when, after the invention of home video technology in the 1980s, Leo Castelli’s still-commercial gallery tried to sell VHS tapes by or of some of his best-known US boy artists, hardly anyone was buying.

Alternative spaces, or artist-run spaces, proliferated widely in the US, Canada, and Western Europe. In the US they were often made possible by grants from the relatively new National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA. After the oil shock of 1973, US President Carter ramped up grants through CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) to include workers in these spaces, who received training while being paid by the government. When Reagan came into office, he canceled the CETA grants and turned them into state block grants, as part of the attacks on workers’ autonomy, and coincidentally, perhaps on artists’ autonomy. And then began the Culture Wars.

At around the same time, at the end of the 1970s, a small clutch of enterprising New York dealers, with European ties, determined to take back the art world. They put a shot across artists’ bows by exhibiting imported Italian and German neo-neo-Expressionist paintings, work that not only seemed to shriek FASCIST at a largely dumbstruck community of artists, but also it was huge and expensive… and composed of unique, hand-made objects, the very characteristics artists had determined to leave behind.

Thus began the new disciplining of artists … galleries had the sense to look to recruit young artists straight out of school, promising them a good return for their effort, if they would only make salable paintings. To nascent collectors they promised the chance to get in on the ground floor of a genius’s career, the IPO.

A word about the term young artist: The definition of a young artist until just about that moment was someone under forty. Work before that was considered juvenilia. Think what having one’s work not only emerging into the public, out of the studio and beyond one’s circle of friends, but also being treated worthy of elevated prices does to the whole conception of the role of art in society and the reasonable expectations of young artists— especially those just emerging from school. The content of what it meant to be an artist was completely upended.

Artists’ long-faltering, sporadic, but not inconsiderable identification with the working class was largely forgotten, and mainstream criteria of success—identifying with your collectors, or at least their bankrolls — were adopted just in time for the emergence of punk and club culture to provide an outlet for unruly excess, with large doses of cynicism and irony. But other changes were afoot.

Here come the culture wars: The 80s also brought about an assault on art funding, driven by congressmen such as the reactionary senator from North Carolina Jesse Helms, as part of the Republican assault on “liberal” (or sometimes “secular humanist”) values. In that era of identity politics, attacks centered especially on gay and lesbian performance artists but also on photography seen as blasphemous or sexually perverse. After repeated campaigns, the NEA ceased offering grants to individual artists or even to critics (the latter apparently because the arch-reactionary Hilton Kramer thought that Marxists were getting grants). The official ideology of the NEA was that artists should support their work by selling it.”

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