By Nicholas Laughlin
The Kingdom of the Blind, by Hew Locke
Institute of International Visual Arts, Rivington Place, London;
3 September to 20 October, 2008
Details of The Kingdom of the Blind (2008), by Hew Locke; mixed media installations, dimensions variable. Photos courtesy the artist and the Institute of International Visual Arts
The humanoid figures in Hew Locke’s gallery-size installation The Kingdom of the Blind look something like space monsters, and something like primitive totems. Or like giant mutant Muppets, with shaggy limbs and unblinking eyes, at once comic and sinister. Or piles of garbage somehow come to life, and staging an insurrection. They summon to mind visions of jungle, of obeah, of loot and plunder. Fourteen feet tall, the largest of them — big enough to make the viewer uncomfortable, not quite big enough to be monumental — assembled from hundreds, thousands, of gaudy plastic objects: imitation flowers, dismembered baby dolls, plastic lizards, toy guns, fake coins: trinkets, tinsel, tat. Draped with chains and strings of beads, clutching weapons, the “chiefs” attended by smaller armed “guards,” with even smaller vanquished “enemies” strung up and hanging upside-down like trophies. The text inscribed on the wall near the gallery entrance encouraged visitors to imagine some exotic and no doubt tropical country, an oligarchy of violence run by cruel warrior kings. And these figures, these sculptural assemblages ranged around the stark white space: were they enacting or memorialising some ritual, some invented historical event?
Locke is British, born in Edinburgh, but when he was seven his family moved to Guyana — his father is the Guyanese artist Donald Locke. He witnessed first-hand Guyana’s descent into not-always-sane dictatorship during the Burnham years, then returned to Britain in 1980, in time for Margaret Thatcher’s prime. The tortured relations between state and individual, between privilege and poverty, and between unequal societies bound together by a sordid history — the colonial encounter, for instance — are all key themes of his disturbing (and disturbingly compelling) work.
Locke is obsessed with the institution of royalty, and specifically with the British royal family. His House of Windsor series includes (alongside a drawing of the late Queen Mother composed of skulls) a ten-foot portrait bust of Queen Elizabeth II. The monarch’s unmistakable official visage is rendered in fake gold trinkets and yellow plastic roses, and she sprouts plastic toy swords, like porcupine quills. You glimpse the whole grim history of British imperialism in its mocking title: El Dorado.
The Kingdom of the Blind uses the same unpromising materials: capitalism’s plastic detritus, pressed and molded and extruded by underpaid labourers in ruthless Far East factories for global bulk export. In an older conception of the nature of art, precious substances — gold, silver, gems, rare pigments — were thought to ennoble the artist’s work. Locke turns this idea on its head. His assemblages convert the objects of their composition from tokens of the shoddy and cheap into symbols of power and profit.
Inevitably, Locke’s figures in The Kingdom of the Blind recall the grotesque paintings of the sixteenth-century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, in which complicated arrangements of vegetables, flowers, even fish form allegorical likenesses. They also seem to gesture towards the massive Assyrian and Mayan reliefs you can see in the British Museum, with their stylised human and animal figures carved upon great slabs of stone. And to Caribbean eyes, there is something decidedly Carnivalesque about these figures. Their automatic rifles and air of mocking threat remind me of Trinidad Carnival’s traditional midnight robbers, or even devil mas. The glitter of their baroque detail suggests a rhinestone- and sequin-encrusted king of the bands. And I remember Peter Minshall’s claim that a fancy sailor costume is an artifact to rival the surreal of Dalí or Magritte.
But Locke’s figures are static, fixed to the gallery walls; impressive, but also oddly impassive. I imagine them lumbering out into the quiet Shoreditch back street, running riot through the London traffic, alarming and thrilling passers-by. There might be something Locke could learn from a masman.
Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.