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The title of Chris Howlett’s exhibition comes from the characterisation of ‘Propaganda’ posters as Weapons on the Wall. The exhibition charts a complex trajectory from the relative simplicity of this idea to a situation in which the tactics of propaganda have become so deeply imbedded within the fabric of our culture, that it becomes virtually indistinguishable from media reporting, advertising, cinema or reality television. Howlett draws a relationship between art in the service of propaganda and art as a form of resistance to such political control, asking, ‘Is Art still a viable form of protest, or has it become just another cog that greases the wheels of the propaganda industry?’1
Entering The Farm art space, the viewer is immediately immersed in diatribe—hand-drawn imagery and text on cardboard, videos, digital prints and painted appropriations of magazine covers fill the walls, floor and ceiling. Beer bottles (the debris of the opening night), toy soldiers, books, magazines and various cardboard structures (including a tank) litter the scene. Television monitors feature news reports from the ‘ground zero’ of September 11, the cartoon violence of the Simpsons, episodes of M*A*S*H, and computer games that attempt to mimic military conflict ‘realistically’.
The hand-drawn placards are made in imitation of ones observed at protests or in the media, and range from the humorous (the only Bush that I trust is my own) to the encyclopaedic (as in the A-Z of American Oppression). Interspersed throughout these is hate propaganda, anti-Semitic and pro-segregationist material, rendered in similar style and also sourced from documentary images. The installation also features large watercolour paintings based on TIME, Art in America and Vogue magazine covers (with modified/superimposed headlines) and digitally manipulated propaganda posters. These seemingly radical juxtapositions point to a certain equivalence amongst these varying statements. Whether protesting against war or waging it, spearheading an advertising campaign or a terrorist strike, reporting on world politics or on contemporary art, all comes down to sloganeering and spectacle.
Similarly, the oppositional occurrences of S11, September 11, and the political theatrics that have ensued, all demonstrate an incredible awareness of the media and a certain degree of staging—each has, in some way, used (and been used by) the media to further their respective causes. In this way, their various relationships to ‘the media’ tie together these disparate movements and events. Similarly, these mediations are what ties together the chaotic scenario presented in Weapons on the Wall.
As the Cold War began to thaw and the information revolution prepared to boom, hysteria surrounded the spectre of the ‘hacker’ and the possibility that these dangerous individuals could start a nuclear war from a personal computer. Today, anyone can create their own ‘weapons on the wall’ (however crude) from the comfort of their own home, as evidenced here by the video montage of home-made, Photoshopped, anti-Osama Bin Laden imagery, sourced from a range of internet ‘hate sites’. This forms part of the same mediascape as the missile-mounted cameras that bring us images from the arena of war, from a variety of viewpoints, in pixelated detail. The stern faced reporters that book-end these images belong to that same mediascape, as do the Simpsons, and Superman, and TIME magazine. And so does the work of Chris Howlett.
Howlett seems only too aware of this stalemate. In addition to questioning the validity of art as a form of protest, Weapons on the Wall raises the question: when there seems ample reason to be cynical about all sides of the debate (even those with which one empathises), what position can an artist take? If, as stated in the catalogue, ‘Language is a weapon of mass distortion: of truth, perception and reality’2, how to respond in a language other than that of the ‘enemy’? How to do so without suffering the same pitfalls? How to respond to the gross stereotypes that are perpetrated in the name of politics, the oversimplification of the issues by the media, the respondent naivety of protest movements, the glib displays of violence in entertainment and computer games, without reducing the situation to simple oppositions? Perhaps the only valid response is one that does not, in turn, simplify the issues; one that attempts to show them as being as simultaneously primitive and complex as they are.
Howlett suggests that this was one of his key aims; to work against the tendencies of the media to oversimplify issues, and to instead demonstrate their complexity—it is in this that Weapons on the Wall is most successful. In creating this complex cavern within the gallery space, made of cardboard and fragments of popular culture, the exhibition does indeed raise more questions than it answers.
1. Chris Howlett, artist statement, 2003.
2. Gen Starkey in Weapons on the Wall (ex.cat.) 2003, The Farm, Brisbane.