Art and Politics Now

by Anthony Downey, Thames & Hudson, £29.95 (hardcover)

By Helen Sumpter

The use of the ZXX typeface (designed to disrupt text-scanning software) for the chapter headings and the acid-yellow colour of the pages (favoured in eye-catching flyers) may be slightly gimmicky, but academic and writer Anthony Downey’s illustrated, themed analysis of political artworks from the past 15 years provides an accessible snapshot of the different ways in which artists are currently engaging with and responding to socioeconomic issues.

Grouped under 11 broad chapter headings, including ‘Globalisation’, ‘Labour’, ‘Terror’ and ‘Economies’, analysis is succinct (with over 200 artworks included, it’s difficult to be otherwise), but Downey’s ability to contextualise a range of artistic approaches within such a pacey format makes this both a useful reference and an enjoyable read. Examples of works featured include Ai Weiwei’s populist installation Sunflower Seeds (2010); Theaster Gates’s proactive architectural urban-regeneration project Dorchester Projects (2009) and Regina José Galindo’s bloody performance Who Can Erase the Footprints? (2003), in protest against the presidential candidacy of José Efraín Ríos Montt, the Guatemalan ruler under whose leadership during the early 1980s thousands of citizens were persecuted and killed.

It’s perhaps fitting that the book closes with Trevor Paglen’s project The Last Pictures (2012), for which the artist oversaw the selection of 100 images highlighting some of the global issues to which the artists in this book are drawing attention. The images were etched onto a disk designed to last billions of years, attached to a satellite and sent into orbit. When life on earth is no more, the disk could be one of the last human-made objects in existence. Whether that’s when our sun expands into a red giant, in about five billion years’ time, or much sooner, hastened by our own actions, will be for us to decide.  

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.