It’s easy to be enchanted by visibility, but quick-fix reactionary gestures are flimsy grounds to fight antiblackness upon
There are few things more powerful than the narrative. Last week in Bristol, UK, the YBA Marc Quinn erected a statue of Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid, without consultation with the local communities or authorities, or authorisation, on the empty plinth upon which the toppled monument to seventeenth-century slave trader Edward Colston once stood. Its presence was initially met with praise from the commentariat (among others, Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo praised it as an ‘act of allyship’) for urgently and defiantly responding to a politically significant moment, but serious questions are now beginning to drown out the sound of applause. Among them: is Quinn, a wealthy white artist from London who once planned to display 2,000 litres of frozen human blood drawn from 10,000 refugees and celebrities, really an apt advocate in the fight for racial justice for Black people?
British artist Hew Locke compared the installation of the sculpture to squatting, writing in a Facebook post: ‘The people of Bristol were not consulted, it feels arrogant… It is as much to do with the sculptor’s ego than it is about BLM.’ And ego and celebrity have always been central figures in Quinn’s oeuvre – consider Sphinx (2006), the artist’s gold sculpture of Kate Moss knotted in a yoga pose, and the lust it represents: a desperate desire for attention through the incorporation of hypervisible events and bodies. His ongoing series History Painting sees him enlarge photographs from protests and riots into paintings and Jacquard tapestries. The first is taken from the London riots in 2011, triggered by the killing of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham; another from the same series is a photo-real oil-on-canvas of the Pulitzer-nominated photograph of Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge, who stood before riot police while protesting the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016.
A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) (2020) may have been installed and deinstalled within 24 hours (Bristol mayor Marvin Rees emphasised that the fate of the plinth ‘must be decided through a democratic process’), but its fabrication represents a decade-long endeavour to posit Quinn at the helm of a historical turning point. Any historical turning point. There’s a sensitivity to the news cycle, and the power of virality – whether the sculpture remained or was pulled down, Quinn had already won the war of clicks.
To some, focusing on how inappropriate Quinn’s gesture was (intentions aside) erases Reid’s own agency as an active participant in an artwork (she described the sculpture as ‘so important as it helps keep the journey towards racial justice and equity moving’). But ‘collaboration’ cannot serve as a loophole for artists wishing to avoid the charge of exploitation. ‘White-passing’ artist Luke Willis Thompson (who does not identify as white, and is of Fijian heritage) collaborated with Diamond Reynolds, the partner of Philando Castile who was shot by a police officer in Minnesota in 2016 – the result, a silent black-and-white film installation in his Turner Prize-nominated autoportrait (2017), has rightly come under fire for profiting from images of Black death and grief. To believe power can be equally weighted between both Quinn and his subject ignores one party’s access to wealth, resources and institutional support, and the cultural capital accrued (Quinn and Reid’s statement notes that any profits will be donated to charities chosen by Reid).
The questionable ethics around Quinn’s use of Black women’s bodies has a more recent history too. The artist’s former partner Jenny Bastet recently posted a statement on Instagram claiming that he objectified her body for his 2017 series All About Love and refused to show her sculptures of her naked body, causing her to have a nervous breakdown. Bastet calls these works: ‘a symbol of objectification, greed and power’. In a statement provided to ArtReview, Quinn said: ‘There are 12 poses in the ‘All About Love’ series. They were all created with Jenny during our relationship and, with her full participation, conceived from the outset for a dedicated public exhibition. Jenny reviewed all the moulds for the sculptures of her body and requested some changes be made before the final versions were fabricated and shown in public. These modifications were made and Jenny then approved the final moulds.’
Artist Larry Achiampong has also spoken out about his frustration at Quinn and other white artists treating the Black Lives Matter movement ‘as a fucking festival’. Achiampong called the statue a ‘sad joke […] Who is being given the opportunity? […] Why not support young Black artists to make something?’ Gifting is not always a benign act. When Jeff Koons offered the city of Paris his Bouquet of Tulips, a dismembered hand holding coloured balloons, donated in remembrance of the victims of the terrorist attacks that took place in 2015, the gesture was blasted as obscene product placement by French artists, cultural workers and politicians who penned an open letter in Libération asking: ‘shouldn’t there be an open call, as is common practice, opening this opportunity to members of the French art scene?’
It’s easy to be enchanted by visibility, but quick-fix reactionary gestures are flimsy grounds to fight antiblackness upon. Sculptures created by white men that bypass democratic processes (for which activists in Bristol have campaigned, for too long) are not the kinds of radical justice we need to see in the arts and culture sector. Britain, with its museums stacked with looted artefacts, does not even have an empty hand to clench a fist in solidarity – and the ongoing fight to return stolen goods to African countries would be a far better place for white artists to spend their guilt, rather than occupying what limited public space this country offers. To call A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) (2020) performative activism is to undermine the history of rich white artists capitalising on experiences far beyond their reality; it’s white saviourism and brand awareness rolled into one sculpted lump of black resin. Whatever fate is bestowed upon the empty plinth, don’t be seduced by empty spectacle. That anything might be better than a monument to a man who made his fortune transporting thousands of men, women and children from Africa to the Americas doesn’t justify settling for cheap shots like this.
Kadish Morris is a writer, critic and commissioning editor at the Observer New Review. She is the recipient of the 2020 Eric Gregory Prize for poetry. Follow her on Twitter: @kadishmorris.