As someone who works in the performing arts industry, analysing action in search of the meaning, both intended and the hidden one, is part of my day to day practice. This is the angle from which I would like to share some reflections on the problematic nature of the sudden appearance of the statue of Jen Reid under the title A Surge of Power by Marc Quinn.
I am writing this post primarily as a way to review my intentions behind signing and sharing the petition requesting to keep the statue of Jen Reid in Bristol centre until a permanent replacement is decided upon.
I feel this is an opportunity to consider how Social Media can often invite us to respond to complex issues in the most simplistic and reactionary way. It’s easy to appreciate the sheer boldness of the action but the implications of that action are far wider and far more complex. I found the voices of artists Thomas J. Price and Graeme Mortimer Evelyn, especially insightful in helping me to understand those intricacies.
*** In the early hours of the morning on the 15th of July the statue of Jen Reid appeared on the plinth that stood empty since the statue of Edward Coston has been toppled by protesters during the BLM march on the 7th of June. Almost everyone from my Bristol Facebook friends (admittedly they are mostly white) shared the Guardian article that I was reluctant to read. The taglines across the board praised Bristol for “once again, rocking it”. I was reluctant to read the article because something in the gut was telling me that the sculpture was made by a white man coming from a place of privilege. Now I know this to be true.
I recognise the Surge of Power as a cross disciplinary artwork that stretches between sculpture and performance art. I think the sculpture in itself is beautiful and the image it depicts incredibly powerful. It is the performative element of the work that I find deeply troublesome.
The toppling of the Colston statue was incredibly rich in symbolism. So was claiming the empty space that it left behind, by a renown white artist with the resources that allowed him to self-produce the artwork of that scale in almost no time at all. BLM protest was the time for us to talk the talk. Now is the time to walk the walk. How Marc Quinn’s initiative could be read, is that we are ready to invite people of colour to the meeting but we’re not yet ready to stop shouting over them, even when it’s clearly their time to speak.
It is not enough to invite people of colour to the meeting. In our commitment to the fight for change, we must do all we can to help to amplify their voices. Furthermore, we must create space for people of colour to be part of shaping the agenda.
I understand that Marc Quinn, aware of his privilege, felt he needed to use it in order to make a stance. I wonder whether at any point he has considered collaboration or simply championing an artist of colour as a way to do so? I wonder whether he considered how much more powerful that would have been? Whether he did, or did not… it is telling us an awful lot.
I am not in any way suggesting that Quinn’s intentions were purposefully malevolent. What I am suggesting is that the thorough consideration of our actions is absolutely critical in our commitment to fight for change. It is not for us to decide whether we’re an ally. It is the sum of our actions that will decide that for us. We must commit to examining those actions with diligence and dedication.
Still, none of that diminishes the sheer power of the image of a young black woman with her fist raised in a black power salute. This dissonans between the expressions within the performative action and the artwork itself is the reason why I have decided to sign and share the petition requesting to keep the statue of Jen Reid in Bristol centre until a permanent replacement is decided upon. I have signed and shared the petition because I felt that prompt removal of the statue that depicts the change that so many of us want to see in the world is also heavily charged with meaning.
However, since signing the petition I have been reflecting further on the symbolism of the empty plinth itself. The protest is an easy part. What comes after is the hard bit. We need to engage with the conversations that are complexed and challenging on a personal and societal level. Those conversations need to be followed by actions and sacrifices. I cannot help but see Quinn’s initiative as kicking in the doors and shouting over everyone-”THAT’S THAT THEN. THAT WAS EASY!” I am aware that he has offered his statue as a temporary solution, but even as such, it seems to be simplifying the matters significantly.
Perhaps I have signed and shared the petition because I am attached to the notion of compromise a little bit too much..?!... My mind remains split open on that matter...I continue to examine my thoughts, my feelings and my intuitions…
Written on the 18th of July 2020