By Kelly Carmichael
Robert Rauschenberg could not have put it more succinctly – “the artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history”. This idea of artist as witness is not a new one. Historically and across all art forms the role of artists to observe, announce, document and translate is central to our knowledge of the past. From Japanese floating world prints to hieroglyphics in Egyptian tombs, James Joyce’s Dubliners to Picasso’s Guernica, artists have contributed strongly to recording the existence of and providing evidence for our understanding of historical events and social circumstance. The artist, however, is more than a passive witness of events – whether monumental or everyday. They are an active participant in the unfolding of their own particular time in history.
To coincide with the 10th Sharjah Biennial, Visiting Arts, in partnership with the Sharjah Art Foundation, asked Roddy Buchanan to visit Sharjah as part of its new ‘Witness’ programme. Attending the Biennial’s opening week in March and making a return visit in April, Buchanan will observe and record his experiences both during the intensity of its opening week and later when the crowds have left to interact more intimately with the work and the city.
Roddy Buchanan’s practice is informed by observation and inquiry: employing photography, film, text and objects to examine identity and unpack the ideas contributing to social constructs. Critically site specific, many of his works are collaborative, either formally or impromptu, his art born from inquiry, dialogue and getting into the centre of whichever community or issue he has in his sights. Buchanan’s slow-burning, long-term projects access the heart of what makes people tick and what ignites social uprising.
His practice has addressed issues such as nationalism and sectarian division while exploring powerful symbols of cultural allegiance and identity in society. Recently commissioned by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London, Buchanan chose to work with the Parkhead Republican Flute Band and Black Skull Corps of Fife and Drum to produce Legacy, two films in response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Opening at the IWM in May 2011 the work builds upon an earlier project with the same groups and presents an intriguing position, cinematically bringing together two Scottish communities actively engaged in the future of Irish Nationalism and British Loyalism as they parade during the marching season of 2009 – 2010.
At the Sharjah Biennial, Roddy Buchanan shared some of his observations and experiences of the past few days. Arriving in the UAE at a time when the events of the region’s Arab spring are seeing political regimes challenged and overturned across the Arab Muslim world, the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain were never far from Buchanan’s and other Biennial visitors’ minds. The work this year seemed more politically engaged then ever, with many works echoing notions of Arab identity, status and conflict. Sharjah Biennial has succeeded in opening a small but vital window of political and social debate in the region. Reflecting upon this Buchanan noted that there was “not a lot of innocence, not much that’s content neutral”, reasoning that artists from the region “feel compelled to deal with the context”.
An acutely perceptive observer and interpreter of social relationships and their display, Buchanan surveyed the opening week crowd. Noting the throng of international art lovers, powerful curators and museum directors that any major art world opening event attracts, Buchanan playfully dissected the week’s “game of gaining and maintaining visibility on the art world’s catwalk”. Here the role of artist as witness overlaps with the role of artist as participant – participant in what Buchanan mischievously calls “the mating ritual of the art world”.
Roddy Buchanan will visit Sharjah Biennial again in April.
Images : ‘Mixed Marriage’ 2008, ‘Here I Am’ 2007, Roddy Buchanan