IN AN era of benefit cuts, tuition fees, retail collapse, job losses and job insecurity, few of us would need to be reminded that, in the words of the Bill Clinton electoral campaign manager James Carville, it’s “the economy, stupid”.
But for art historian Angela Dimitrakaki and curator Kirsten Lloyd, it really is. This month the pair open their mammoth show ECONOMY at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh and the CCA in Glasgow, which suggests that in art, as in life, economic relations define us.
The conjunction of art and money is often only talked about in the media when analysing Damien Hirst’s recent prices, but money – who has it and why, how to get it and what happens when it is out of reach – is a central concern of much recent art.
Mike Figgis and Jeremy Deller’s amazing filmed reconstruction of the miners’ strike, The Battle Of Orgreave, and Tracey Emin’s forlorn self-portrait clutching coins, with the title I’ve Got It All, are fairly prominent British examples that audiences here will recognise. But across the continents, artists have been asking searching questions about what money means and what life looks like in an era of global capitalism when economic power, or more importantly the lack of it, can define our lives and opportunities. And many of them, like the Austrian collective WochenKlausur, are actively intervening in our economic lives or using their own lives as the stuff of art.
The project emerged from the pair’s research in contemporary art, Dimitrakaki as an academic at Edinburgh University and Lloyd as a curator and researcher. They identified a chill new wind blowing through the contemporary art world in the past 15 years or so, and particularly since the financial crisis in 2008.
“What happened was a definite shift in artistic practice after the end of the Cold War, after the fall of communism,” says Dimitrakaki. “Contemporary artists, or at least the most interesting ones, were showing an interest in how we live in material circumstances and economic relations, how we live as economic beings.”
There is a clear emphasis on gender: “There are more female artists than male in the show and we think that economic relations affect women much more than men.” Economy, she suggests, defines our sex lives as well as our working lives, where and how we live, whom we live with and our family life. “Both Kirsten and I are mothers and our different experiences here have been very similar.”
The most striking example in the exhibition is the art of Tanja Ostojic. “She comes from the former Yugoslavia so she’s not a European Citizen,” explains Dimitrakaki. “Her project, Looking For A Husband With An EU Passport, turned her own life into an experimental ground.”
Ostojic placed an online personal ad, searching for a husband, accompanied by a nude picture, which is shockingly stark. It might have been read as a parody of the phenomenon of the mail order bride, were it not for the fact that the project encompassed and defined her own real life for almost half a decade. She began by advertising herself, ended up meeting and marrying a German artist she met at a public event, was denied EU citizenship, and divorced in 2005. Her artwork presents these events in archived documentation but the artist herself will speak about the work at Edinburgh College of Art on 15 March.
Dimitrakaki is also a novelist writing in her native Greek. She first came to the UK for postgraduate study some 20 years ago: “I belong to a generation that grew up in the EU rather than a specific country. I’ve lived in the UK for a long time. I came for a year, didn’t think about it: you make friends, fall in love, get a job.”
Now, of course, she also brings the perspective of her insight into the deepening economic catastrophe in her own country. “I’m not very comfortable with the term cosmopolitan, it’s a word associated with wealth and I come from an ordinary background,” she says. “But that’s the way it was and now it has polarised again. You go to bed as one kind of being and wake up as an economic migrant.”
Like the issues it deals with, the show itself is enormous, with a reading room in Edinburgh, and film screenings and public events in both cities. “We couldn’t fit it all in the one place unless we chose the Tate or something,” says Dimitrakaki. “But we also wanted to go against this Edinburgh/Glasgow rivalry thing. I can see the historic reasons why, but Scotland is a small nation, it seemed mad. The cities should work together. Although the economies of the two cities are very different, the economy as a whole is global.”
In Glasgow that link between the local and global concerns will be highlighted by WochenKlausur, who will work with the organisation Drumchapel Life. Visitors to the CCA can meet the artists and hear about their work from their temporary office in the building which will be open at set times each week day.
But if the economy defines us, how does the personal fit into all of this? I wonder how, surrounded by such overwhelming issues, Dimitrakaki doesn’t dissolve in a sense of powerlessness. “I was asked exactly the same question about a recent book of mine,” she says. “I call it pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.” «
• ECONOMY is at Stills, Edinburgh, until 21 April, and at CCA, Glasgow, from Saturday until 23 March. http://economyexhibition.stills.org