This review of Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s exhibition The Unreliable Narrator, at Waterside Contemporary Gallery, London, was published on ArtAgenda, June 2014.
Hung against a backdrop of deep-red curtains the statement, “YOU ARE THE PRIME MINISTER,” glows in electric blue neon. Even in daylight its artificial, storefront brightness beams through waterside contemporary’s windows and is legible far beyond them into the large social housing complex surrounding the gallery.
Although it is clearly visible, London-based artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s arch signage is largely ignored. The image of everyday disinterest this presents—people passing by unawares and inattentive—serves as an apt visual simile for what the British public’s relationship to party politics is currently like. Detached and disengaged, voters across the United Kingdom feel anything but empowered by a prime minister elected to embody and enact their individual wills. Aside from the fact that nobody voted for the current coalition government, politicians have demonstrated they are only in it for themselves through lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, blatant policy U-turns, cross-party corruption scandals, tax breaks for the rich, and the bludgeon of perpetual austerity measures for the working and middle classes. Put simply, in a society that still turns on hereditary privilege, politics is seen as a tool created for, and operated in the service of, moneyed elites. The psychological and socio-cultural effects of this chasm between haves and have-nots in the UK and India forms the core subject matter of Mirza and Butler’s exhibition, “The Unreliable Narrator,” a somber, disquieting, and contentious examination of power and privilege across three new works.
The neon sign is part of You Are the Prime Minister (2014), an installation that resembles a high school examination room containing three identical desks. On top of each of them is the first page of an entrance exam to Eton College, the English independent boarding school that educated 19 British leaders. It carries a single question asking sitters to picture themselves as the heads of state, in order to write a speech justifying riot crowd control through army intervention. What Mirza and Butler are offering here is a glimpse of anti-meritocracy in action. Their semiotically charged mise en scène also functions as an accusation. It speaks of sinister grooming practices designed to inculcate feelings of superiority, Olympian detachment, and a crucial sense of entitlement in the offspring of aristocracy, oligarchs, and financial elites—a point wryly underscored by a single writing pencil debossed with the name “Foucault” on one of the desks.
Through the crimson drapes are two further works. The Unreliable Narrator (2014) is a two-screen video essay that recounts and analyzes the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks—an operation in which terrorist grunts laid siege to luxury hotels in the city to execute guests. When this Thread Snaps (2013-14) is a large, monolithic structure with a short, manifesto-like text —originally written by London-based creative producer Rachel Anderson—about the 2011 UK riots blazoned across its surface. In all, Mirza and Butler’s works are a materially formalized triumvirate of leftist political assertions. But can an artwork ever capture and unpick the socio-economic and cultural complexities at the heart of biopower, terrorism, and mass civil unrest? Or, does the artwork simply reduce these states of affairs to the status of snappy slogans, protest banner sentences transformed into purchasable and collectible materials? Works in “The Unreliable Narrator” show challenge these questions with varying degrees of success.
Formally speaking, When this Thread Snaps—with its odd, biblical air (standing like a commandment-like monolith)—is a curious choice for expressing anti-establishment sentiments. Anderson’s passage is also a strange mix of florid, revolutionary romanticism—i.e. “The revolution […] will come like a flood in the night”—and straight journalistic observation. The gist of the text—that the revolution is coming, but it won’t be spotted by an ineffectual left—can only hover around the surface of a problem, serving as a reminder that a more thorough reflection on the events of 2011 needs to be undertaken. You Are the Prime Minister reinforces the truism that power is only accessible through hereditary privilege and money. Fortunately, the work’s weird realism—its aesthetic blend of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks waiting room and the cold, interior symmetry of Stanley Kubrick’s 1970s period—is eerie enough to imbue reflection on its subject matter with a compelling sense of the uncanny.
The Unreliable Narrator is the exhibition’s most thorough and sophisticated mixture of politics and form, but it is also the most ethically dubious of the three works. To assemble the video essay, Mirza and Butler pulled together CCTV footage of the terrorist attacks, real cell phone recordings between gunmen, clips from a Bollywood movie of the events, and interrogation footage. A through-line is provided by a coolly dispassionate (i.e. academic) female narrator, who essentially critiques the attack as a kind of unreal event staged for and enabled by the media. Voicing skepticism against the media is all very well, but what the pair haven’t addressed is their own complicity in marketing the spectacle. At one point in the film you hear the real sound of a hostage being executed and have to ask: what are the moral implications of listening to someone die? Why is the audience made complicit? The problem of The Unreliable Narrator, then, is essentially the same problem of the entire, homonymous show: both attempt to address today’s key political issues, but end up staging a critique that raises more troubling questions than galvanic answers.