Questioning current global atmospheres: artist Ken Clarry develops societal and non-violent political art interventions
by Joana Alarcão
Questioning current global atmospheres: artist Ken Clarry develops societal and non-violent political art interventions
Since the beginning of this year, armed conflicts repetitively yield destruction and havoc; climate instability inflicts food insecurity and poverty on civilian populations across the globe, and inequality permeates dialogue roots exposing the government's incapacity to promote and allocate overall welfare.
A global social, economic and political crisis leaves their indelible mark and the grim feeling of uncertainty for the future of international societies ripples across many individuals' minds. As the war in Ukraine uncovers our intercommunity, millions risk plunging into food insecurity and poverty due to all three dimensions of finance, food, and energy emergencies.
According to the UN Global Crisis and Response Group, inequalities between and within countries are skyrocketing as higher energy and food prices, growing inflation, export restrictions, and tightening financial conditions afflict most countries. These issues risk undermining all progress in climate action, implementation of SDGs and COVID-19 recoveries. In the face of these abundant and intersecting challenges, global social-political atmospheres are at their worst, leading me to a fundamental question. Can an individual claim untainted voluntary choice and freedom when inequality and discrimination have a seat at the table?
How will people withstand another crisis when we live in a world of staggering inequality, one about as great as it was in the early 20th century?
Artist Ken Clarry asks similar questions, examining the political and global cooperative atmospheres with a cross-disciplinary practice that makes us wary of concrete moral ideologies. Believing in the strength of artistic intervention to change the current narratives due to its image-based principles, Clarry investigates the premises of ethical conundrums and authenticity - challenging the role of the artist and individual to change the global atmosphere.
For the ones who are not familiar with your artistic practice, can you describe it?
It is societal and non-violent political art intervention. I trained at university in the traditional fine art practices of painting, printmaking and sculpture and completed a two-year course on professional photography at UCL, now the University of Westminster. Around this time, I was also working as a food and still-life photographer and doing landscape photography on weekends using large format cameras.
My current work makes use of all of these disciplines and has expanded into new technologies. I think of this work as neo-generative or post-digital art. Like anything neo- or post-, it just means a thing that comes after something else, to which the practitioner refers back as a reference point. So, although I usually say my work is lens-based, it's also mixed media – not any one particular medium or any one particular method. This could be a pinhole cardboard box camera, a digital camera, a mobile phone camera, a computer camera or scanner. I don't mind what I use as long as I can make an image that I can use as a foundation for my final images. I draw and paint with a brush in the traditional way or paint digitally using computer software. Sometimes, I manipulate or montage digitally and over-paint or over-draw with pencils, pens or pastels once the computer image is printed.
For me, the important thing is the image, not the medium or the image-maker; they are really the facilitators, purely helping the image to emerge as an autonomous thing. There is some thoughtful writing around this subject, if your readers are interested – I suggest they begin by looking for W.J.T. Mitchell's book Image Theory and David Hockney's Secret Knowledge.
Most of your work focuses on contemporary life's societal, political and environmental issues. Can you tell us what motivated you to focus on these issues?
I think it was Peter Kennard who, when asked why he produced art that focused on politics and societal dysfunction, replied, "why wouldn't l? That's the society in which we live". Like Kennard, I also believe that, as part of a community/society, artists have a responsibility to respond to and question with art intervention what we see and feel as injustice, oppression and corruption, or even just plain mad and absurd.
As a global society we have to act with unity and not as isolationists or with tribal xenophobia. We have to ask questions of our politicians and leaders relevant to the time in which we live, and they govern, and require them to answer honestly without waffle or hidden agenda. Sadly, this is not easy to achieve. If politicians get it wrong either through incompetence or self-centred political interest, those who make the decisions must be challenged and properly held to account.
The question that often comes up is: Can art really do anything to help change societal malfunction and political corruption? I think it can. Politicians and world leaders are image-conscious, and art, perhaps, might be able to challenge popular perceptions and encourage people to question what the politicians want us to see and believe. Ours is an image society, we are bombarded by millions of images every day. Most people are moved by imagery, and sometimes they are spurred into action after seeing it. An example of this is the 1970s image taken by the war photographer Nik Ut of the young Vietnamese girl running down a road naked and screaming with pain after her village was bombed by the US-backed South Vietnamese Air Force and her clothes and body were burned by Napalm. This image, along with a photograph of the bodies of Vietnamese villagers massacred by US soldiers at Mỹ Lai, are believed to have been a catalyst for turning popular US support against military involvement in Indochina.
Another example is the 2020 image of the five-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach. After fleeing the violence in Syria and trying to reach the 'safety' of Europe, the boy, his brother and mother were all drowned after the rubber dinghy the family were in capsized shortly after leaving the coast of Turkey. The image was quickly picked-up by the media outlets. It caused a massive worldwide outpouring of remorse and arguments about the limits of representation and Europe's asylum seekers policy.
After the public outrage began to peter out, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei set the cat amongst the pigeons by being photographed lying prostrate on a beach in a similar position to Alan. This time criticism arose about art exploiting suffering, and Ai Weiwei was criticised for aestheticising the boy's image. Ai Weiwei claimed his image was a political comment about the migrant crisis that caused the death of the boy, and his intervention was in sympathy and support for the family and all migrants. The jury is out on this subject; but artists have a difficult job deciding where the moral and ethical limits lie. We have to challenge our own moral standards and the reasons for making art. But, I think cultural theorists like Adorno can help us build up a reasoning we can be comfortable with, even if it's not complete.
This might be a bit over the top or wishful thinking, but some philosophers credit art and aesthetics with powers beyond what most people would think as 'normal' or credible. Kant, Hegel and other early thinkers, and later, Adorno, Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, etc., all proposed notions that art moves people and society in strange ways. And that some artists can sense the mood and express the pain, uncertainty and underlying disquiet of the society within which they live. They also maintain that certain artists, such as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Francis Bacon, for example, were kind of shamans, societal prophets reflecting and prophesising the future. This is a tall order and heavy burden for the chosen few, and is difficult to comprehend. I'm still working through this idea, but I think the notions are interesting and worth exploring.
How important is the conceptual and research part of the artistic process to your work?
Yes, as we discuss these topics, I think it's becoming obvious that I think the conceptual, the intangible and the opaque are intrinsically linked to the research needed to support or understand the problems being studied. And for me, the research, the working through and thinking about the subject that underpins the art/image practice is very important. Not only do I get pleasure from reading and the discovery of facts and philosophical ideas supporting them, they seem to give meaning to the images I make. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, there is an interesting discussion between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze about the importance of theory and practice and their intrinsic linkage. Foucault and Deleuze agreed that theory and practice need each other. They bounce off each other's dynamic. Like a thrown stone skipping across water, theory instigates practice and vice-versa.
In your most recent work entitled Pūpūkāhi I Holomua - Unite and move forward as one, you highlight the Pacific Islanders' long tradition of living in harmony with the natural world. How did you come across this subject, and how does it relate to you?
This project came about from a response to an art exhibition call by the World Health Organisation to highlight the environmental impact of global warming and sea level rise in the Western Pacific. I was fortunate to have images included. The call caught my attention because of my interest in environmental and ecological issues, especially those brought about by conflict and war. It seems hard to imagine now, but in the Cold War period and up to the 1990s, the Pacific region was used as a massive and insecure testing ground for nuclear weapons by the US, Britain and France. This subject is too vast to go into here, but the real and future impact on the lives of the Pacific peoples, and the rest of us, is frightening.
As we know now, if you release thousands of tons of uncontrolled nuclear energy into the atmosphere, there are going to be some serious problems and repercussions. Added to that is the fact that, in an attempt to clean up, the US buried tons of nuclear waste on Runit Island and covered the waste with a concrete dome that is still there today. There are reports that this dome, called locally, the Coffin, is now becoming unstable with cracks developing, raising fears of further pollution. It's depressing. The mess that we find ourselves in is almost beyond comprehension. How did this happen? How can world leaders dismiss so readily the disaster heading towards us at an alarming rate? The environmentalist David Attenborough, whom we all admire and trust, said it's not too late but warned that world leaders must act now. The trouble is, will they take any notice?
The one positive in this story are the Pacific Island groups of environmental activists who are trying to bring about a change in the world's dependence of fossil fuel that harms the planet and its ecosystems. By staging a series of non-violent protests, the Islanders hope to bring world attention to what is happening to their Island homes as they strain to exist under the challenges of global warming and climate change. Their effort is truly admirable, and their message to live in harmony with nature and not abuse or pollute the planet just makes sense. We all know this is true, when we look at the waste plastic that ends up in the sea and consumed as micro-plastics by sea creatures, and when burnt adds to Greenhouse Gases, and even buried its composite can ultimately pollute the land we grow our food in and the water we drink.
We all need to remember that the Pacific Islands are at the forefront of sea level rise and the effects of climate change. What is happening there is a barometer for the world, and it should be sounding alarm bells. The Islanders' voices need to be heard; if we ignore what they are saying … well, you work it out.
Read more in the print edition of July/August, 2022.
Cover Image: Rukban Series #3 - Sandstorm, 2022.
Mixed Media: Digital painting, pastel and pencil. Image courtesy of Ken Clarry.
Image 1: Pūpūkāhi I Holomua, Unite and move forward as one’, 2022.
Mixed media: Digital painting, acrylic, pencil and pastels.Image courtesy of Ken Clarry.
Image 2: Rukban Series #2 - Sandstorm, 2021.
Mixed Media: Digital painting, pastel and pencil.Image courtesy of Ken Clarry.
Image 3: Boys Wait in a Bread Line, 2021.
Mixed Media :Digital print, acrylic and oil paints, pastelsImage courtesy of Ken Clarry.
Image 4: Rukban,Camp – the desert city made of clay.Image courtesy of Ken Clarry.
I am a practising artist/researcher and I live and work in the United Kingdom. My art practice focuses on the societal, political and environmental issues that constitute contemporary life.
Trained in the traditional art practices of painting, sculpture and photography, my current practice methods gravitate toward digital processes that are a foundation for the over-layering of traditional art materials and inspiration for large-scale paintings using a combination of found objects, organic materials, oil and acrylic paints. These images recall something that is beyond the surface of the image, and act as a form of palimpsest, an object that is erased, scratched over and emerges as something new. As scenes, they are like Michel Foucault’s notion of Heterotopia, existing behind the normal façade of place. Knowledge of this kind asks the viewer of the images, not only to reflect on moral and ethical oppositions and wrongdoing, but also perceive them through aesthetic sense, and, by so doing, question the effect of human activity at its most basic and dangerous state.
In times of crisis, and currently there are many, artists have an essential responsibility to speak out, with a response to our most urgent threats; this requires new forms of creativity and human
imagination (Okri, Guardian 2021).
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