How To Sleep Faster 11
In an alternative to the more traditional book launches of previous editions of How To Sleep Faster, this OVR acts as an introduction to HTSF 11 featuring pre-recorded readings and videos by selected contributors. Content warning: this journal and launch includes nudity and discussions of violence, racism, police brutality and Black death.
In their 2018 paper ‘Preference for realistic art predicts support for Brexit’* sociologists Noah Carl, Lindsay Richard and Anthony Heath presented evidence that research participants who voted Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum were 15 – 20% more likely to exhibit a preference for ‘realistic’ painting. On the face of things this makes perfect sense; many Brexit voters are ‘small-c’ conservatives, committed to ‘traditional’ conservative values and therefore, one would assume, ‘traditional’ painting. Historically or traditionally, what has been celebrated as ‘Art’ until the 20th century was broadly realistic, figurative or representational art. The development of Western culture has historically been tied into the development of a ‘realist’ art. From the three-point perspective of the enlightenment to the invention of the camera in the industrial revolution, ‘Art History’ (euro- phallo-centric art history) has been, like the society from which it emerges, a slow progression towards more realistic, productive and exploitative modes of capture. As Carol Yinghua Lu and Liu Ding’s text on Socialist Realism and the text ‘Notes on Abstraction and Figuration’ outline in this edition of How To Sleep Faster, there is no ignoring the link between art and politics.
Because of this inexorable tie between exploitation and representation, the exploiters (those with the means of, or platform for, representation) have always been in charge of what and who is represented. The result of this relationship is made grossly clear in artworks such as Rex Whistler’s ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meat’*, painted in 1927, which surrounds diners in the Tate Britain’s private restaurant and depicts images of enslaved black children. Unless you are Queen Victoria or a Dutch merchant, the idea of acquiring agency through figurative or representational artwork has historically, it seems, been out of the question.
And still, as is made evident in the works included in this edition of HTSF, it is clear that this question has not been consigned to history. As curator and filmmaker Rabz Lansiquot observes in one of the Spiderman memes included here and in the journal, the current ‘obsession of collectors and galleries’ with figurative Black art might well cache a “nostalgia for the literal owning of Black people”. In recent years we have seen artists from marginalised communities return to figurative art in general, and painting in particular, many wary of Lansiquot’s observation.
One such artist included in this edition of HTSF, Hamishi Farah uses portraiture to actively engage with this contention around representation in a body of work antithetical to the exoticisation of Black people in paintings by the likes of Whistler or the artists discussed in Rianna Jade Parker’s text ‘Black in Bloomsbury’. Paintings, such as Farah’s ‘Black Lena Dunham’ play with the responses and expectations of contemporary art audiences and utilise the irresolvable contradictions of representation as a political and poetic sphere.
With paintings like ‘Black Lena Dunham’ and their 2018 work ‘Representation of Arlo’*, Farah pushes the boundaries of what might be considered ‘ethical’ portraiture, in an attempt to demonstrate what is at stake when we speak about representation. This topic of ‘ethical representation’ is the theme of Hatty Nestor’s upcoming book, extracted in this edition. Writing about the artist Alyse Emdur’s project, ‘Prison Landscapes’*, Nestor considers the capacity of art to redress this objectivisation, to return agency to some of those who’ve been most denied it, the US prison population.
In contributions throughout HTSF11 artists such as Rene Matić, Tabita Rezaire and Harold Offeh redress and reclaim their bodies as objects usurping the white gaze through their work. In Rezaire’s ‘Inner Fire’ series, the artist reclaims archetypes of Black womxnhood as regards to race, sex, spirituality, technology and capital, mapping how those narratives affect her own as well as collective imaginaries and identities. Offeh’s ‘Covers’ similarly uses the artist’s body, durational actions and physical re-enactment to make visible the mediation and power of the photographic image to fix and shape identity.
But representation doesn’t just exist in the world of figurative art. This past year, questions of this imbalance of bodily autonomy have become even more urgent, with higher COVID-19 mortality rates for people of colour* and ongoing police brutality towards Black people (further exacerbated by the pandemic response*) demonstrating that white supremacy is still the political default. With the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, we have seen the political idea of representation take on an accelerated form as an act of resistance and of survival. However, this acceleration is not without issues, as Tabita Rezaire makes clear in her work ‘Inner Fire: Make It Rain’, representation has also become a balancing act between “[liberation] or performing internalised stereotypes”.
Many of the texts in this edition of HTSF are sceptical of the concept of representation. In the included interview with writer and curator Imani Robinson, artist R.I.P. Germain questions this: ‘We’re talking about representation within the machine of the art world, when I feel we should zoom out a bit and refocus our lens onto asking things like why the art world is structured like this in the first place?’. Rabz Lansiquot goes further, writing ‘representation, in art, film, media, in advertising, in workforces, governments and board rooms, means nothing without the dismantling of oppressive and racist systems. Without this, it is simply a legitimising force.’
How can representation be authentic and honest, and how can we protect against it becoming a performance of self that panders to an audience? How can it not be a tokenistic gesture of the platform, with its virtue signalling and capitalist intent? What methods can we employ to lay the power of holding the narrative at the right people’s feet?
As the brief we sent out to contributors asked: How are shifts in art – for example, the transition from anti-representation/dematerialisation within art practices to the more recent resurgence of representation and figuration in painting – tied into societal and political changes? What at present are people thinking and feeling? What is it that they choose to make present in the world, and why? What does it mean to make a representation? What does it mean to be represented?
The Editors x
Thank you to all our writers and contributors for your careful and engaging responses to this difficult issue – we’re forever grateful to be able to work with you all!
How To Sleep Faster 11 is available, alongside our catalogue of prints and publications, on our online shop or via the links below
How To Sleep Faster 11