On Politics and Clay

Untitled (tile collage)

The annual Marxism festival descended upon UCL at the beginning of July and one lecture that I made the effort to see was the debate between Alex Callinicos and Slavoj Žižek. When I was younger it felt so much easier to be politically opinionated, to take a side, stand up and say ‘this is wrong.’ For a long time now, I have stood on the sidelines of political debate, unsure of the facts, but definitely sure that I do not know all of the facts, hesitant to make definitive statements and unwilling to take any action. When searching for a political action to take I’m sure it used to be easier, there were set paths – ‘join the resistance to the oppressive powers’ etc. Now there are no paths, only a yawning void; a dark infinity that is circular and would eventually bring you back to where you started. Žižek touched on this in his opening statement, mentioning an ‘overload of the critique of capitalism,’ in that films, books and artworks that critique the powers-that-be are championed, they are exhibited in public galleries, they become blockbusters. They are subsumed into our system and thus rendered politically ineffective. Very clever, so how does one make art that makes a concrete political challenge, when ‘politically challenging’ art is expected, even encouraged by the systems in place in our society? In fact, if the ideas at the Marxism 2010 festival were really challenging, posing a tangible threat to the current social order, would such a festival be allowed to take place? And would it be allowed to take place in one of the most established academic institutions in London?

The logo for the Socialist Workers Party (who set up the Marxism festival) is a fist, pointing directly upwards, stylised into simplified blocks. I remember doing a sculpture of a hand when I was seventeen purely because the teacher told me to do so. She thought that my paintings showed a longing to realise the lines in three-dimension. I spent a good few weeks working on this hand, the clay started to lose its malleability, and I only put it in the kiln to be fired when somebody physically wrested it from my busy fingers and insisted that I leave it alone. I remember being so afraid that it would explode in the kiln (there’s always the possibility with clay), that I took numerous photos of it before it went in. But it came out fine, a strong forearm tapering into a sturdy wrist leading to a hand balled up tight. The fist seemed to be punching the air triumphantly – ‘I made it! I didn’t break!’ It was a fist of determination, a fist of socialist ideology and teenage glory. A fist of unseeing, blindly ramming itself and its values onto others? My world has changed; I wouldn’t make a fist now. A fist is menacing, it suggests the potential energy of the fingers, coiled like springs, ready to snap up. A fist points up to the heavens but wants to punch it with all the force of the earth. It’s a big, weighty thing, resembling a boulder, but it wants to reach to the skies and defy gravity, lifted up by ideologies and passionate anger. In my first semester at university, I made another hand, again going from the middle forearm up. That hand did not end in a fist, but in outstretched fingers, tentatively reaching out into the void.  The hand was searching, questioning, and never touching on the answers. Unfortunately nobody made me stop working on the hand this time, and the clay got tired of my incessant pawing. The fingers, stretched out, dried so much more quickly than when they were wrapped up in a fist, and one by one they fell off, so that all that remained was a dusty stump.

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