For the most part, politics remains inaccessible to the majority. Despite impacting a mass of people, the governance of a country is largely decided upon by one elite group. But since the 18th century, artists have found satirical solace in making fun and critically calling out the powers that be.
British artist William Hogarth first pioneered pictorial satire through his engravings that critiqued politics and exposed corruption, which paved the way for political cartoonists like James Gillray and Steve Bell as well as TV programmes such as Spitting Image (1984–1996).
Since 2001, the House of Commons Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art has commissioned an artist to cover each general election, with all created works joining the Parliamentary Art Collection. Over the past 17 years, five artists have partaken in the act of creating supposedly unbiased works of art, including Jonathan Yeo and Adam Dant.
Cornelia Parker was invited as the first female Election Artist to cover the 2017 general election, which she did with wit – just take a look at her @electionartist2017 Instagram account – and the prescribed ‘balanced view’.
One of the main draws to taking the commission, Parker says, was: ‘Access; to be able to literally work inside Parliament while trying to grasp the conundrum that is today’s democracy. I have tried to create a body of works that reflect this very particular moment in electoral history, to offer another perspective.’
During the election campaign, Parker travelled the country meeting with voters, attending the State Opening of Parliament, and witnessing key events at first hand, including hustings, manifesto launches, protests, marches and televised debates. All these experiences have formed the basis for her two films, Left Right & Centre (2017) and Election Abstract (2017) as well as a series of photographic prints.
Left Right & Centre (2017) creates an eerie and ominous perspective of politics today. Darkened views of the House of Commons Chamber set a disquieting tone as a surveillance drone disrupts the hundreds of newspapers the House subscribed to during and post the election. The drone’s torturous buzzing provides an intense soundtrack as the opinions contained within the newspapers, which reflect those of an entire nation, are strewn and scattered around the chamber like unheard discarded voices.
‘We are living through politically turbulent times and this election was no exception; it was full of twists and turns,’ says Parker. ‘Brexit loomed large, and it was impossible to ignore the tragedies that occurred during and just after the election period, but I wanted to reflect the ongoing social issues and human stories that I witnessed.’
For Election Abstract (2017), Parker has compiled thousands of images and moving footage she took on her Instagram account while accompanying the various party campaign tours around the country to create a hypnotic work of art. The torrent of information overload brilliantly captures the activities of an unsettled period.
‘I’ve enjoyed the challenge of aiming to be a non-partisan witness; if I recorded something right wing it had to be countered with something left, something red by something blue,’ says Parker. ‘The campaign colour coding of the various parties bled into my unconscious and I began seeing the political spectrum played out everywhere I looked. The street signs, rubbish in the streets, paint spills, coffee stains took on extra significance, and duly recorded on my Instagram feed.’
Whether you’ve been engaged in the political events of the last year or have complete disdain for political parties, these works are powerful records of a critical time in the UK’s history and one that should not be shied away from regardless of political opinions.
Cornelia Parker’s election artworks are on public display in Westminster Hall, 3 St Margaret Street, Westminster, London, SW1P 3JX until April 11, 2018. Tickets are free but need to be booked via the UK Parliament website by calling 020 7219 4114 or in person at the ticket office at the front of Portcullis House on Victoria Embankment.
After the exhibition period, the works will go on show as part of the permanent public display in Portcullis House, 1 Parliament Street, Westminster, London, SW1A 2JR.
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