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Rites of Social Engagement

The sense or spirit of place has become not just a cliché, but a kind of intellectual property, a way for nonbelongers to belong, or to appropriate a place, momentarily, as long as it is convenient… given the history of this hemisphere, such an emotion becomes alarmingly proprietary.

Lucy R. Lippard from Notes from a Recent Arrival, 1995

In episode two of Grayson Perry’s TV series, Rites of Passage, the artist offers a troubling view on the contemporary relevance of ritual and ceremony. The series focuses on a different rite of passage each episode, beginning with an exploration of ‘Death’, then ‘Marriage’, ‘Birth’ and finishing at ‘Coming of Age’. This article will focus on ‘Marriage’. Perry is a Turner Prize winning artist, renowned for his ceramics and textiles, who in recent years has moved into show business and public engagement. Working with two couples, one preparing for their marriage and the other finalising their divorce, the viewer witnesses a clear divergence of motive from the host: Perry as both artist and anthropologist. However, the attempt to satisfy these two positions within the overarching role of a television personality, in our opinion, leaves the programme feeling unresolved and hollow.

The following article will take the reader through a selection of moments from this episode. This analysis of Perry’s role in Rites of Passage will act as a basis for tackling the wider argument, which is the involvement of artists and institutions within communities. It will investigate the position of privilege necessary to embark on a socially engaged project, and the ethical and moral implications that come with it. Alongside this discussion, we consider the attachment social practice has with objects – in this case, the creation of a relic, and the conversion of art into capital, which will be touched on later.

Pablo Helguera describes the artist’s role as social disruptor, a presence that opens up new channels within an ossified social order. This, from our understanding, is what the series holds in part as its aim – to investigate areas of British social life that require an update, especially in smaller, overlooked communities. An example of this can be found in episode two; the two couples on the show, Dilly & Mark and Ben & Sarika are both going through changes in their marital statuses – one being divorce (D&M) and the other marriage (B&S). Perry disrupts perceived assumptions towards tradition and ceremony in a number of ways. For instance, he attempts to create new ceremonies in the place of non-existant ones, such as the entirely new ‘divorce ritual’, which involves various layers of interaction and from that, object creation. It is through the lens of the new that we can see the old rituals in a different light. Moreover, by pointing us to areas of our lives which are lacking in ritual, he talks about the necessity of ritual as a whole.  

Although Perry’s discussion on ritual might be relevant and worth unpacking in contemporary Britain, the episode presents the viewer with a succession of ostensibly unchallengeable assumptions, which later unravel to be false foundations. The show begins by taking us to Japan to witness an immaculate Shinto wedding – the ceremony is treated as a point of entry which later sets up the point of discussion for the episode. Through introducing the episode in this way, it puts forward the premise: if Japanese Shinto marriages are so perfect and (relatively) recent in history, can we not set up secular marriage with an equal measure of ritual and ceremony? This question assumes a lack of secular tradition, despite there being several prominent contemporary initiatives in ritual. For example, one long running participatory project by artist-writer-facilitators John Fox and Sue Gill responds to the necessity of ritual in important stages of life, such as birth and death. Intensive week long workshops are run with those who seek them out, and focus on learning about ritual and finding their way back to their communities. They continue to provide funeral services, which are grounded in a secular tradition, to many people across the UK. Fox and Gill’s ties to tradition and participation offer a counterpoint to Perry’s observations on Britain’s lack of ritual in contemporary, secular ‘rites of passage’.

Unlike Fox and Gill, Perry’s newly introduced traditions are not based on a material analysis of the local community over any extended period of time: there is a clear lack of engagement in wider discourse around community and ritual, which is perhaps apparent in the hyper-focus on select couples, and the lack of acknowledgement of other traditions, say, beyond the Shinto wedding. Maybe a whole series for ‘Marriage’ would have been necessary to fully flesh out his ideas, and gather a more meaningful body of research. The artist presumes that tradition can be imposed upon a community rather than coming from it, whereas, according to Fox and Gill,

The question for a fragmented and rootless secular society is not whether we need rites of passage ceremonies or not, but rather what form they should take, who provides them, are they private or public, what are they celebrating and who are the celebrants? Should they be trained and if so, by whom?

This lack of dialogue, immediate hierarchy (deference to the artist) and false assumptions regarding the nature of ritual become clear in the finale of the episode. Perry produces artworks which he presents to the couples, who are now Perry’s project; the works are a surprise to the couples (both the subjects - projects of his work) upon presentation. This is no collaboration, but an imposition, which the attendees of the ceremony have no choice but to accept. One further example of this level of interfering curation over the more authentic and unpredictable outcome of chance can be seen in the power dynamic between himself and the children of Mark and Dilly: during the final procession that marked the divorce ceremony, the children carry the tapestry Perry created. But as the tapestry is about to be set down, it is plucked from their fingers, in our eyes by an overeager Perry, who takes it upon himself to plant it in the ground. This raises the question of the extent to which artists welcome chance in social practice. Another question this raises is whether it would be more unpredictable if it was not publicly broadcasted. A certain level of orchestration must benefit a socially engaged artist in order for them to feel the project has been successful. However, ethical problems here are likely to snowball; who is each individual project really for? An overall ethic must be developed along the lines of context, dialogue, and collaboration: the artist must retain the right to be a disruptive force, but only in the sense of shaking the area of knowledge they’re inserting themselves into, to create something anew. This is also the role of rites of passage: of “Separation … transition … re-incorporation” (Fox and Gill).

It might also be pertinent to talk about mythology, which is an inevitable part of the creation of ritual - for there are several mythologies bound up in Perry’s programme, and by extension, artists involved in social participation. There exists the mythology of ritual itself, which is a marker of a moment in history; the intimate mythologies of the two couples, but also that of Perry himself, and his personal mythology. Perry becomes the autopoet in the Beuysian sense, inscribing myth foremostly onto himself; he is the creator of his own mythologies, and this is his art. When he walks to the front of the aisle in the ceremony and dedicates the ceramic jar to the newlyweds, he does so by drawing attention to himself; he is an artist, and therefore has the qualifications to speak and orchestrate beyond anyone else in the room.

This is a point of tension that resides in any artist-led community project, rather than an artist-facilitated project. One pressing question is whether the artist should be present or not; or whether an artist is even capable of facilitating ritual through the community. On top of this, should the artist ever be the sole creator in a community project? Surely this will only ever lead to the artist manifesting as a strict, unaccountable and hierarchical force. Being aware of the context of the work and the community can give this position the artist holds, in this series the autopoet, a place. Perhaps it is easier to exist within this artist-created myth of a happy resolution as a result of an artistic intervention, rather than to explore the material conditions and lived experiences of the communities with which the artist is interacting. In the way we all do, Perry brings with him his particular lived experiences, which are those of a “working class transvestite potter”. Arguably, he does not use his life experiences to engage meaningfully with the couples’ ‘rites of passage’, but rather he uses them as an excuse to bypass a critique of his own role and privileges within his projects. This is a clear route that many artists follow, but we must insist on the artist’s need to doubt and criticise oneself, and that this is a liberating tool for both artist and community.

For Perry, this inability to self-criticise is especially clear through his choice to broadcast his project on TV; his anthropological studies come across as a safari of the world he has left behind, yet might still represent, i.e. pertaining to be an authentic working class voice from newfound fame and the accompanying wealth and social status - the pots or banners emerging at the end as a souvenir, or a relic, of his time interacting with these communities and couples. It could be that these objects, the artworks created by Perry, benefit the people they are given to, but they introduce an unfortunate power imbalance, as they represent a colonial enterprise. These objects are ‘relics’. To elaborate, a relic has fragmented connotations of ritual objects viewed through a colonial lens; it becomes, in an ossified museum-sense, ‘mystical’, rather than ‘practical’. We can see this with the de-contextualisation even in contemporary exhibitions of ritualistic items from across the world. For example, in a recent exhibition in Rotterdam by Walter Van Bierendonck, a series of costumes and masks were displayed without the context of their origins having been labelled. They were presented for superficial enjoyment instead, the mysticism an integral part of the colonial package sold to an occidental audience. This is just one example of how a ritualistic object can become stripped of its original intent and re-presented as a relic. In the case of Perry’s objects, it is slightly different, but the effect on the object and ritual is broadly similar; by anchoring the rituals to his objects, such as the tapestry in the procession for Mark and Dilly’s divorce, the ritual is imparted to the object and resides within it, rather than in the act of the procession itself. To a certain extent it is removed from the act, which then begins to rely on these contrived objects to exist. This is the beginning of a mythos, but if one is to create a long-term communal tradition, perhaps this is not a necessary action, but one of vanity. In community projects, the need for an art-object must arise from the material conditions of the work: here it appears that Perry has simply elected to do so because, in his words, “I’m an artist”.

To address this discussion from another point of view, in Richard Long’s investigation of the way humans leave traces in their environment, A Line Made by Walking (1967) he walked up and down a field until a line was visible from one position at the side of the field, and then documented it. This documentation - a photograph - has become the work. In effect, it removes the real-life material consequence of the project (which was the most intimate, and also the most profound, because it spoke of temporary existence and physical affect to a greater degree than a photo ever could), and replaces it with something directly appropriated by the gallery system, and thus by capital. Perry’s objects have a similar end; they become symbolic of the interaction between Perry and the communities to a large degree, and are easily appropriated into an art-market discourse that wouldn’t necessarily be present if the communities had created their own objects, or if no objects were involved whatsoever.

There must also be a dialectical approach; can the community create the object? For example, Bread and Puppet Theatre Company work collaboratively within their community to produce their objects and utilise them for specific theatrical purposes. Their objects are simply made props, costumes, cardboard cutouts, etc.  An imposition of objects feels like a divinity/subject approach (it is an art-market promethean fire): We must also take into account the monetisation of the rituals as a result of well-known artistic interference. The objects are worth a lot within the market system as a result - how does this devalue or interfere with the humility that is being asked for in these ceremonies? Such humility might refer to having an identity dissolved and reaffirmed within a ritual, and the essential exchange of self within a collaborative effort. Perry’s reactions to the end results of the ceremonies highlight his disinterest with an authentic result; he is contriving and mastering a situation for ease of narrative. It tells a smoother story, and there needs to be a conclusion in order for the artist to feel accomplished. The interpretation offered is the accepted story.

If we have decided, from our point of view, that this is an unacceptable community project, what are the hallmarks of a useful one? One project that highlights the importance of a long-term involvement in community is that of Cardboard Citizens, a community theatre group based in London, who employ homeless and formerly homeless people as actors and play to a homeless audience. They work towards a common goal, acting along the pedagogical lines of Jacques Rancière and Augusto Boal. They don’t deny the importance of aesthetic intervention (through objet d’art), nor do they deny the artists’ individual voice, but instead use them as an integral part of their working process. Or, Glasgow’s own WAVEparticle, a team of artists focusing on public art and urban regeneration; consultation with the community is the centrifugal point from which experimental and inspiring projects stem. Both of these organisations, amongst a wealth of others, would be considered successful community projects because an essential, continuous dialogue with the community and an understanding of the importance of collaboration lies at the heart of it.

The broadcasting of socially engaged practice on a TV channel subscribed to by millions of people skews the intention of an artwork. Since the 1990s, the ‘art world’ has seen a social turn, with artists seeking out groups within communities to work on projects with. This reinforces Lucy Lippard’s ideas about the uneasy concept of ‘place’, which only becomes apparent when an artist is present. They introduce a different understanding of the space around them - essentially turning it into the ‘unknown’ place; on the artist’s departure, it returns to the ‘known’, with no lasting consequence. A highly localised place becomes space, becomes malleable, but quickly solidifies once the artist leaves. We can see this in Perry’s engagement with his communities (see: audiences) that his rituals are ends in themselves. They become inaccessible even to those that part in them, because they are orchestrated and then collapse once Perry is no longer present. In the case of both couples, there are clear moments when they are shut out of their own ritual; when Perry walks down the aisle and symbolically places himself on the same level as the married couple, and when he takes the tapestry from the arms of Mark and Dilly’s daughters, to place it in the ground himself, are both clear examples of a social detournement. All at once, the ritual becomes not about the couples, but Perry himself.

There are numerous trends within Perry’s work that can be applied to social practice in its broader context. Artists such as Perry, working within a social field, have to take into account the impact of their personality, and if they are planning to affect meaningful and long-term change then there is a responsibility to moderate the impact of their status and links to institutions. It is also a question of not necessarily knowing the community’s reaction, but to know that fixed conclusions often prevent a work from reaching the full potential that arises from the unknown. Perhaps incidentally, through Perry’s TV series, we have also learnt of the misapplication of objecthood and the dangers of capital’s appropriative grasp; this is where a material analysis of the situation must occur. In any community engagement, the artist must be aware of the situation they’re entering, and engage with all and sundry within it. The opportunity for chance is not to be shied from, and neither are the socio-emotional effects they will inevitably leave on the community.

Seth Randall-Goddard studies Fine Art painting at Camberwell School of Art.

Esther Lovell is a writer and artist based in Glasgow. Esther is the founder of the Gravel Press.

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