Art gets political: Radical Conservatism at Castlefield Gallery

Polly Checkland Harding

Castlefield Gallery’s winter exhibition explores a political paradox.

Can you be both radical and conservative? It’s a question that the career of Croatian artist Oscar Nemon offers one kind of answer to. Nemon reconciled two apparently contradictory political orientations within his work: proposing an avant-garde temple of universal ethics on the one hand and creating celebrated portrayals of figures such as Churchill and Margaret Thatcher on the other. Nemon’s bust of the “Iron Lady” currently sits in the Tory headquarters, and it is studies for the sculpture that are featured in Radical Conservatism, the latest exhibition at Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery. Radical Conservatism is clear about its political preoccupations: part of the gallery’s art and society themed strand, the exhibition looks at how art explore political agendas and values. Conceptually provocative, yes – but it’s not the sexiest of themes. So is the work chosen for Radical Conservatism engaging in itself?

Can you be both radical and conservative?

Nemon is one of six artists who have contributed: they each provide a visual context for the terms in the exhibition’s title and explore where their meanings might begin to overlap. “Performative research body” Public Movement sets up collective actions in communal places. Their public choreographies rely, by definition, on control and order whilst also presenting this as a channel for creativity. In Radical Conservatism, the group will show news reports from two of their latest projects; one of which involved sixteen policemen and forty fire fighters coordinating a behavioural drill at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Participants were subject to a screening process, physical checks, police questioning and arrests, cumulating with an emergency evacuation overseen by the fire service: the “performance” ended with a street party in University Square. Artist Chris Evans’ will be exhibiting similarly participatory work. Evans reframes controversial viewpoints by creating scripts from conversations with the boss of a champagne house or the CEO of a Texan pharmaceutical company, which are then re-recorded by the original speaker. In doing so, the speech comes to have a newly critical framework. Evans’ work demonstrates how a conservative stance can be provocative if reconstructed as a piece of art.

Though the artists contributing to Radical Conservatism diverge widely in approach and form, they all grapple with slippery political issues in a visual and creative way. Whether through proposals for a monument to the future crimes of capitalism (using images of yachts) or performances that centre on a hurdy-gurdy, the artists present suitably unconventional explorations of the exhibition’s theme. Radical Conservatism suggests that there is richness and wisdom to be found in paradox, which is an interesting idea, even if it turns out not to be true.

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