On my train journey this evening, I’ve just stumbled on some notes I made about S Mark Gubb‘s exhibition History Is Written By The Winners at Exeter Phoenix in March/April this year. What follows is my attempt to write around my personal responses to the work in that show, from memory, with the aid of these brief notes from two months ago. I’m not going to have space here to write about every piece and please excuse any factual inaccuracies that result from my misremembering of the work!
S Mark Gubb (2014) History Is Written By The Winners [installation view] – Image (c) Exeter Phoenix via Flickr
The thing that I am most struck by in the work collected together to form S Mark Gubb’s solo show ‘History Is Written By The Winners’ is that there is something very particularly British about it, and I think that’s what I’d like to explore here – exactly what this Britishness is, or might be. The exhibition’s title alludes to a postcolonial truth that often only comes clear when the sanctioned history you have learned comes into question through exposure to the (hi)stories of the ‘other’. For me, a striking example of this happened on a school trip to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster a year or two after moving to England as a teenager. I was gobsmacked that outside this hub of democratic power was a statue celebrating Oliver Cromwell. Now, as all good Irish school children know, Cromwell remorselessly murdered thousands of Irish people while shouting the phrase ‘To Hell Or To Connaught’. To me it was astounding that such a figure could be cast in bronze and called a hero, but of course this is because I had learned the (hi)story written by the winners – those who founded the Irish Free State which later became a republic, reclaiming its national identity on the world stage.
You can read a more moderate account of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland in the mid-1960s here : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Cromwell#Irish_campaign:_1649.E2.80.931650
Now, I realise that I’m writing here in a slightly zealous tone, but I do this to reinforce my point. It may surprise some readers that the Irish people, or nation, might consider themselves winners, and the writers of history but this is the preserve of all nations and nation builders. In this exhibition, S Mark Gubb’s work seems to be attempting a reconsideration of nationality and nationhood from within – and touching on the continuous renegotiation of what Britishness might be with reference to world superpowers and the contemporary preference for taking sides in other people’s battles.
S Mark Gubb (2014) History Is Written By The Winners – Image (c) Exeter Phoenix via Flickr
None of this work adopts the increasingly awkward, jubilee-induced-flag-waving notions of a lost greatness associated with ‘Great’ Britain – a bygone place that now fuels memes that have lost their historical root (the recent meme-ification and re-comodification of 1940s ‘Keep Calm & Carry On‘ public service / propaganda posters). In the first piece in the show, History Is Written By The Winners (2014), the (now iconic) video footage of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad being pulled down (2003/4) is looped and sound-tracked with the audio of a (similarly iconic) clip from 1980s/90s sitcom Only Fools And Horses, which circa 2003/4 was deemed by a TV clips show to be the UK’s funniest ever TV moment (where Del Boy falls through the bar of his local pub mid conversation). Both repeated, endless and overplayed clips are played for laughs – trying to arouse strong positive feelings in inappropriate circumstances, employing slapstick and deliberately causing embarrassment or ridicule. However, those familiar with the Only Fools & Horses clip will know that after Del Boy gets back up and dusts himself down that the joke is on Trigger who has continued on the conversation throughout regardless, unaware of the audience’s laughter and that he has now become the subject of ridicule.
S Mark Gubb (2014) I Know My Place – Image (c) Exeter Phoenix via Flickr
Close by, the references to British TV comedy continue in the piece I Know My Place (2014) which takes its title from a 1960s Frost Report sketch (featuring Ronnie Corbert, Ronnie Barker and John Cleese) critiquing the British class system. The piece is pared down and efficient, made up of 3 rough and unassuming OSB structures – a pulpit, a lectern and a soap box – that show their workings with bare screws and pencil marks still visible. If we take the Frost Report sketch as our guide, are we to assume that each of these structures relates to a class strata in Britain today – the pulpit as upper class, the lectern as middle class and the soap box as working class – with each class looking up to and down on the others?
In some ways this reading is also complicated by the cultural resonance of each structure. For instance, I read the smallest of the three structures as a soap box – an object crucial to the class struggle of the 20th century that became iconic as the temporary, makeshift platform used by speakers to draw attention to themselves amongst people on the street. Used to signal a certain solidarity with ‘the common man’ and with an iconic and nostalgic resonance, the ‘soapbox’ (again relating to a bygone age) has been employed by many, possibly most recently in England by John Major in the mid 1990s as a stage-managed part of his ‘Back to Basics’ campaign. However, I’m unsure how many people will make these connections. They rely on a very particular set of interests and are relatively archaic in contemporary culture.
The pulpit seems to have a similarly complicated set of individualised and experience-steeped associations – with religion and ministry more broadly (which in Britain is often a middle-class pursuit) and with the Church of England in particular (whose head is also the head of state, quintessentially upper class). Lastly, the lectern, the structure which may initially appear most neutral (if such a thing is possible!) has moved from its traditional association with formal education towards a contemporary space of political address as used outside of Downing Street or the White House (currently the domain of upper-middle class and upper class politicians). Slightly confused by the multiplicity of potential readings here, I return to the physicality implied by each of the structures and their assumptions of entitlement to personal space – the pulpit is ample and roomy, the lectern demarks a comfortable standing position and the soapbox is modest and makes do with the bare minimum of space, forcing the user to balance precariously. Maybe, as in the Two Ronnies sketch, it is the physical qualities of the setup that are the most demonstrative of the assumptions of entitlement to speak and be heard.
S Mark Gubb (2014) I Know My Place – Image (c) Exeter Phoenix via Flickr
As I’m making my way through the show, it seems as though this work might have been made just for me – for someone who grew up in Western Europe in the 1980s, someone who’s always had a soft-spot for British TV comedy and someone who intimately understands the mechanics of a Pot Noodle.
S Mark Gubb (2014) A New Physics Based on Nightmares – Image (c) Exeter Phoenix via Flickr
In the piece A New Physics Based on Nightmares, a Bombay Bad Boy (Pot Noodle) kitchen timer counts down to mutually assured destruction, referencing both the four minutes it takes to prepare said snack and the length of the public warning given in case of nuclear attack on Britain by the USSR during the Cold War. As the ultimate ‘nuclear food’, the Pot Noodle offers a self-contained instant meal that is both loved and loathed by the people of Britain and an unrehabilitated image as a food choice for the poor and/or the lazy. There is an open invitation to make and consume a Pot Noodle while I watch the video but it’s only just after 10am when I visit, and although I wouldn’t usually say no, I pass it up as it’s a bit too early even for an early lunch! There is something beautifully bleak about the pairing of these two different four minutes of waiting – something that captures a basic attitude to survival, a suspicion of the reliability of government information and a desire for fail-safes. The language and context of the piece also brings to mind echoes of the more recent “45 minute claim” that was one of the British government’s key reasons for going to war in Iraq in 2003, which loops me right back to thinking about the first piece in the show again.
S Mark Gubb (2014) Butterfly – Image (c) Exeter Phoenix via Flickr
Just behind me, there is a staged photograph of a young teenager in a village hall, alone, sitting behind a single desk in an exam-type situation, apparently dead by suicide (with two pencil stubs protruding from his nose). However melancholy this image appears, again it references classic TV comedy – this time Blackadder Goes Forth’s final episode where characters are attempting to avoid certain death on being ordered to go “over the top” in World War I. Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder character plans to plead insanity by sticking pencils up his nose, wearing his pants on his head and answering only “Wibble” to all questions. On finding out that the punishment for madness is death by firing squad, he realises the futility of his attempts, resigns himself to his fate and charges with his men over the barricades for the “final push”.
In the pieces I have chosen to focus on (and elsewhere in the exhibition), there is a feeling that many of the gathered objects hint at a similar type of anti-war and anti-establishment satire to Blackadder – irreverent and skirting round the edges of appropriateness and inappropriateness, mixing tragic situations with wit, portrayals of determination and gallows humour. Blackadder also provides an interesting parallel when thinking about the writing and re-writing of history. With relatively recent criticisms of the general public’s disregard for historical fact in favour of the version they’ve seen on TV – “the Blackadder take on history”, a phrase coined by historian Max Hastings in the introduction to his 2013 book Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 – and former education secretary Michael Gove’s moves to reinstate more patriotic readings of British history in secondary schools, a critique of the mobilisation of history in the service of the current winners (whoever is in power at the time perhaps?) is timely and apt.
However, as anyone who has spent any time in Britain will know, winning is not always / usually / ever what makes you great – it is more often how well you accept your shortcomings, respond to jokes at your expense, take failures on the chin and attempt to do your best in un-ideal circumstances. I would argue that here satire is often held up as constructive social criticism – that poking fun is thought-provoking, a tool to draw attention to absurdities, inequalities and a form of attack that desires improvement. These are the same qualities that I value in S Mark Gubb’s work and to is great to see the ways in which it can operate in a show and context like this one at Exeter Phoenix.