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Don’t forget Dada’s rebellion against a ridiculous society

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It’s 100 years since the birth of the Dada artistic movement. Rachel Levine argues BBC’s new TV documentary Gaga for Dada misses the point entirely.
Issue 2521
Jim Moir considers the influence of the original art rebels, the Dada movement
Jim Moir considers the influence of the original art rebels (Pic: BBC Pictures)

In this hour-long BBC documentary Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) sets out to explore the Dada artistic movement on its 100th anniversary.

Moir wants to convince us of Dada’s influence on the arts up until the present day.

He links his own comedy style to the irreverent humour integral to the Dada movement.

But he swoops over the difficult history of the creation of Dada, its spread and eventual demise.

Moir interviews artists, designers, writers and filmmakers such as Armando Iannucci, Terry Gilliam and Cornelia Parker, asking them about the influence of Dada on their work.

The show provides a scaled down background to the birth of the movement that started in Zurich in 1916. It was largely born out of the turbulence, destruction and absurdity of the First World War.

From its birthplace at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Moir re-enacts Hugo Ball’s Dada performance in a priest-like paper costume reciting made up words.


Moir’s recreation is certainly absurd. But it misses the point of the original piece which was an attack on the power of the state and religion as well as the ridiculous rituals of human behaviour.

Dada sought to expose the absurdity of reality through manipulation of language first, and then image, to comment on how power and control works.

Although Dada spread throughout Europe and the US it was interpreted in different ways, ranging from the political to the spectacle.

The premise of the BBC’s show is to state the importance of the influence of Dada in the last 100 years.

But it fails to bring it fully into the contemporary. It doesn’t acknowledge the movement’s influence on the visual artists of the YBA (Young British Artists) generation.

It is a shame to see the same artists trotted out for such documentaries.There is a truly cringe-worthy exchange with Turner Prize winner Martin Creed.

And, as with most documentaries about art and art history, there is a distinct lack of female artists. One passing reference to Hannah Hoch and one female interviewee really does feel like an oversight.

Although the show fails on some levels there are some great interviews.

Perhaps the most thought provoking element to the documentary is a discussion with Terry Gilliam.

He thinks it would be difficult to be a Dada Artist now due to overwhelming and atomized power and the difficulty of locating “the enemy” when it is everywhere.

It is interesting to think about this when we live in such absurd and violent times in which the spread of media and image production seems to be an ever-growing power.

Gaga for Dada: The Original Art Rebels, BBC Four, 21 September

May Ayres’ powerful sculptures take on the Iraq war

May Ayres’ latest sculpture exhibition is a powerful collection of work dealing with the US-led war on Iraq and its consequences.

Ayres began making sculptures “based on stories and images from the conflict as a way to process my anger”.

So we’re confronted by the Western politicians responsible for unleashing the horrors.

Condoleezza Rice, George Bush’s Secretary of State, menacingly stares down with her sharply sculpted features. Her perch on an imposing clay tower represents how the US rained down its deadly imperial might onto the people of Iraq.

The work chimes perfectly with the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry, detailing Britain’s role in the war. A Janus-faced sculpture of Tony Blair, pious in his own hypocrisy, prays before us.

But Ayres’ work doesn’t just vent her own anger, she also wants to give the Iraqi victims of the West a voice.

The exhibition’s name takes its inspiration from a comment by Donald Rumsfeld, who was US Secretary of Defence during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

While US marines were busy guarding the oil ministry in Baghdad, the capital’s museums and art galleries were being looted.

Rumsfeld brushed off any criticism with the remark, “Stuff happens!”

The politicians are surrounded by sculptures of Iraqis, many clearly in agony from bombs and bullets. Another sculpture (pictured) deals with the US’s extradition of British citizen Talha Ahsan under terror charges.

But Ayres is careful not to paint ordinary Iraqis simply as passive victims, but people who also defy the West’s rule. One sculpture is of an Iraqi fighter wielding an AK-47 assault rifle.

While the work is truly outstanding, Ayres is not part of the art establishment in any way.

It would be a shame for such powerful work to go without attention. So, if you’re in London make sure you go and see it.

Thanks to John Molyneux

May Ayres—Stuff Happens The Belfry, St John on Bethnal Green, London E2 9PA. 12noon-7pm, Thur to Sun. Until 6 October.

Blacklisting, Bullying and Blowing the Whistle—the hidden underbelly of the modern workplace

This two-day conference will shine a light on how bosses try to keep workers down and clamp down on those who speak out.

It’s jointly organised by the Blacklist Support Group—which has waged a ten-year struggle against Britain’s largest construction firms—and the Work and Employment Research Unit.

Due to its campaigning a group of construction workers won millions in compensation from building bosses. These bosses had operated a secret blacklist of union activists.

There will be a special screening of the Reel News film Blacklisted, which looks at the history of blacklisting. The conference is also a chance to get an updated second edition of Phil Chamberlain and Dave Smith’s book, Blacklisted—The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists.

11am-5pmm 16 September- 17 September, University of Greenwich, Stephen Lawrence Building, London, SE10 9LS.


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