For the May bank holiday weekend we went up to the Scottish Borders, on the way passing through Ponteland, a well set little town, sitting on the edge of Northumberland and Newcastle. All along the road leading to the centre of Ponteland, almost all the houses displayed estate agent style boards with the legend; Ponteland residents say no to building on the green belt.
Once quickly through Ponteland and into Northumberland’s sublime, empty spaces the notion of expending so much energy on protecting a ‘green belt’ seemed absurd. From the car I took a few photographs of the boards. This is one of them.
It may look like some photoshop motion blur filter has been applied but in fact I simply didn’t have the right settings on the camera. I like to the think however that, accidentally the picture offers an ironic comment on the Ponteland residents desire for stability and control over their environment, both physical and social.
These urges of the Ponteland residents aren’t unique. Much UK public policy from both the left and the right often appears to pander to it. So how might the artist critically engage with these circumstances; beyond taking bad photographs?
One way not to do it, I think, is Jeremy Deller’s example at the Venice Biennale. The BBC describe Deller as ‘controversial’. Deller’s wall sized depictions of a bird of prey carrying off a Range Rover or William Morris destroying Roman Ambramovich’s luxury yacht might be intended to be subversive within the context of Britain’s official contribution to the Biennale. After all, the UK is a country that has proved itself sentimental over the rights of the wealthy and privileged to kill wild animals for enjoyment as well as fetishising private property rights.
However, whilst I have every sympathy with the motivations driving Deller’s work, if he really wanted to be subversive why not steal a Range Rover to crush down (preferably one from Sandringham) or take pot shots at those out hunting and shooting or find and actually sink Abromivich’s yacht. After all, surely one of the reasons William Morris remains important was because he tried to realise his ideas about socialism and his response to Victorian capitalism practically, through his textile design and manufacture and his other activities as part of the Arts and Crafts movement.
By contrast, Deller’s interventions are on the level of interrupting an exclusive dinner party by coming in and mixing up the cutlery or substituting one crisp, white napkin for a blood red one. If we really want to challenge or comment on how awful our society is becoming, it needs something more than Jeremy Deller is offering. Clearly sinking a yacht, stealing a car or shooting at people might be seen a going a little too far but what is on offer risks simply amusing those it is intended to criticise.