'More Passion' a neon piece by Tracey Emin was recently installed in Downing Street. Emin is refreshingly honest about her passion for the Tories ("They are massive collectors"), yet has donated a piece that says precisely nothing. Maybe it is dedicated to Nick Clegg?
It has been said that all art is political and it is certainly true that The Mona Lisa, The Sistine Chapel, and 'For the Love of God' cannot be divorced from politics, any more than 'Triumph of the Will' or 'Guernica' can.
To Michelangelo Pistoletto, one of the founding fathers of the art movement Arte Povera, social change is an intrinsic part of his work, yet his current show at the Serpentine gallery can only be described as beautiful but obscurant. Many British artists these days choose neutrality over engaging directly in their work with global political issues. Whilst artists happily put the minutia of their lives up in their work for us to inspect rarely are political opinions expressed. Plus of course, one must think about the buyers...
Last year our gallery PayneShurvell showed a piece in a group show by the artist Lucy Wood. It was a striking, hand-crafted map on animal skin that was also a plan charting the deaths of economic migrants between Mexico and the US. It was incredibly powerful and got a lot of press attention. Since then we have been working with Upstream, her gallery in Amsterdam, to give her a solo show in London.
Lucy's work is difficult and opinionated; that is what I like about it. I have no time for people who dismiss art because it is 'difficult'. One needs provocation and we certainly need some kind of reaction or it's just Holiday Inn art. Lucy's work has immediacy in its conception but is politically ambiguous which makes it challenging. For sure it encompasses issues of denial and social exclusion but she doesn't shy away from emotionally charged topics. Like the artist, her work has forthright views that are both provocative and raw.
But Lucy Wood is above all an artist and like so many of the artists we show, a great storyteller. It just so happens that in this case she is telling a story through conceptual art. A story that, possibly, we have become indifferent to: human trafficking.
This year, nearly 50,000 North African migrants have come ashore in the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa or the 'port to Europe' as the migrants call it. Lucy's new show documents the migrant's journey across unmapped territory between two politically opposite landscapes - North Africa and Lampedusa, a tiny island with only 5,300 local inhabitants whose waters are littered with empty North African fishing boats and dead bodies.
The show, the third part of Distant Neighbours (a Mexican slang term for Americans) focuses on a massive rescue of 800 migrants in Lampedusa Harbour, and the acts of extraordinary human kindness by ordinary people whose island has become a political minefield.
Artists like Martin Parr, Margaret Harrison (who we also show), Mark Wallinger and others have long worked with specific political issues. There are many artists who don't who I find just as interesting and just as challenging. I certainly don't believe all art need to have a political edge which would be boring. I just think it's refreshing.
This week I visited several of the MA shows in London and was dismayed to see the total lack of engagement with global issues in a period of history which is significantly more political. I believe in the power of art to change opinion, to tackle lethargy and indifference, and above all to communicate ideas. I believe it is the artist's job to ask questions. There was very little of that going on in the degree shows.
Doug Saunders, whose recent book Arrival City charts the third of humanity that is on the move, is a great admirer of Lucy's work and sums her up perfectly: "Lucy Wood has done something extraordinary, using the artifacts of our era's greatest migratory tragedy to create a shockingly vivid artistic narrative."
Lucy Wood will be at PayneShurvell, London 9 September - 22 October.