I moved to Derry in September 1988, initially to carry out research towards making art which responded to the Troubles, specifically the contradictions within the relationship between socialist and republican politics.
After a while, I came across “comms”, letters written by republican prisoners in tiny writing onto cigarette papers, in order that they might easily be smuggled out of gaol (through kissing visitors).
The comm provided an excellent vehicle for looking at the socialist/republican relationship, allowing me to impose literary content of the former onto a form determined by the latter. I made, in the early nineties, a number of large comms, writing Marxist texts onto sheets made up of cigarette papers.
This led to my transcribing texts directly onto gallery walls, allowing me to question the politics of the art world itself, through consideration of Marx’s base and superstructure theory. In this way, I was considering the levels of autonomy of the artist in the face of the economic determinants of the art market and gallery system. The texts on the walls represented ideological “attacks” on this system, eventually “defeated” when the works were painted over at the end of exhibitions.
The first large-scale text piece I made consisted of writing, in pencil, Marx’s 1859 book “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” onto the walls of Derry’s Orchard Gallery (1995). I chose this text as it includes in its Preface Marx’s famous outline of his base and superstructure theory, a part of which reads:
"The totality of [the] relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness."
The work, then, contained its own “explanation”.
The three text works which followed A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy used, however, political writings, as my primary concern was the validity of so-called political art. Works in the group shows Empire and I (1999) and Ambiguous Authority (2000) were both transcriptions of Lenin’s “State and Revolution”, in different forms. The solo show Labour in Irish History (1999) consisted of James Connolly’s book of the same name.
The wall text pieces led to my making large-scale wall drawings directly onto gallery walls. Again considering Marx’s base and superstructure model, the images were distorted to raise questions surrounding the relationships between the artist, the art market and the gallery system.
The first (which I describe in detail, as it acts as a good example of the works in general), titled A Weight Off Their Minds, was made for the four-person show Tracings in Belfast’s Ormeau Baths Gallery (1998). This consisted of a copy, in charcoal on a 13ft square freestanding wall, of a photograph from the 1871 Paris Commune, showing a number of Communards, including Gustave Courbet, posing before the toppled Vendôme Column, with its statue of Napoleon Bonaparte. On the two adjacent walls, two quotations from Marx’s “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” were written: “The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living” and “…the bronze statue of Napoleon will come crashing down from the top of the Vendôme Column.”
The work, then, delivered a discursive relationship between Marx’s metaphor for the beginning of Napoleon III’s rule and the real events following its close.
The image was squeezed to approximately half its width, in order to fit the available wall. In this way, I was attempting to explore, in Marxist terms, the “relative autonomy” of artistic production, in the face of the “determination” of the art market economy. Decisions surrounding the physical form of the work was to a large extent surrendered to the demands of the gallery.
This distortion of image was carried out in further wall drawings, such as A Sharp Slap to the Back of the Head for EV+A (1998), a self-portrait in a posture which signified both surrender and defiance, and Stilts and Crutches in Manifesta 3 (2000), which, using Lassalle’s 1848 painting The Republic and Leon Trotsky’s “Art and Class”, referred the 1848 revolutions and the collapse of Stalinism to the cultural theories of Trotsky.
Since October 2000 I have been making a large-scale artwork, Capital, which consists of transcribing by hand the three volumes of Karl Marx’s economic work “Capital” onto two-dimensional objects.
When the work is completed (by September 2003) there will be 480 pieces, which can be hung in various ways, according to available space.
Capital is a return to economic considerations, questioning the position of art and artists within the realm of commodity production and exchange. So, just as the three volumes of Marx’s “Capital” analyse, in turn, the commodity and the labour theory of value, the circulation of capital and economic crisis arising from capital’s laws of motion, then the art work Capital questions the nature and value of art within its production and market structures and its place in bourgeois economy.
Relationship between Capital and “Capital”
The artwork Capital attempts to raise questions about art’s place within the realm of capitalist production, as outlined in Marx’s “Capital”. The piece therefore contains within itself the nature of its own enquiry.
Capital is handwritten onto two-dimensional commodities, ie objects which contain previous labour. (For example, a leaf found in a forest could not be used, but a bay leaf purchased in a supermarket could, as it has been planted, harvested, dried, packaged, transported, etc, etc.) The writing is in most cases very small, referring again to comms. The writing of the piece by hand, along with its large scale, highlights the intense labour involved in its production, contradicting the technological developments in processing text. The use of my hand refers to the continuing individualistic nature of art making, as opposed to the production-line basis of most commodity production.
The piece echoes the economic contradictions of the Duchampian readymade art object, which challenges the traditional nature of art production, CI - CII - the use of materials produced in what Marx refers to as department I of capitalist production (production of means of production) to make art in department II (production of means of consumption) - and introduces the new formula CII - CI - CII - the use of materials produced in department II, their momentary transformation to materials in department I and their retransformation to commodities in department II. Capital employs both, using art material commodities (drawing paper, fabrics, tools, etc) and commodities for consumption. The incorporation of this cocktail of objects thus produces contradictory relationships between use-value and exchange-value.
This dialectical process will be pursued further in at least one subsequent work, Capital acting as the basis for new contradictory actions.
Capital – Hanging variations
Each object is enclosed in a transparent laminating sheet, 216mm x 303mm (81/2" x 117/8"). This, as well as acting as protection for the often fragile objects, prevents the possibility of any further action, thus acting as a metaphor for the alienation of workers from the products of their labour.
There are a number of variations for the hanging of the work, according to the space available. These variations are as follows (W x H):
Single Line: 480 x 1: 103.68m (340' x 117/8")
By Volume, in lines:
I: 184 x 1: 39.744m (130' 4")
II: 104 x 1: 22.464m (73' 8") x x 909mm (2' 115/8")
III: 192 x 1: 41.472m (136')
By Volume, in blocks:
I: 23 x 8: 4.968m x 2.424m (16' 3½" x 7' 11")
II: 13 x 8: 2.808m x 2.424m (9' 2½" x 7' 11")
III: 24 x 8: 5.184m x 2.424m (17' x 7' 11")
Complete Work, in blocks:
16 x 30: 3.456m x 9.09m (11' 4" x 29' 8")
20 x 24: 4.32m x 7.272m (14' 2" x 23' 9")
24 x 20: 5.184m x 6.06m (17' x 19' 9½")
30 x 16: 6.48m x 4.848m (21' 3" x 15' 10")
40 x 12: 8.64m x 3.636m (28' 4" x 11' 10½")
48 x 10: 10.368m x 3.0m (34' x 9' 10¾")
60 x 8: 12.96m x 2.424m (42' 6" x 7' 11")