At Nottingham's New Art Exchange, Dr Keith Piper presents a four part exhibition titled Unearthing the Banker's Bones. It takes us from earlier, interactive digital works through to a recent multi-screen video from this extremely influential British artist, curator, critic and academic. In a film by Chris Havord, Piper states his conscious decision for this show to 'assemble clues ... like the act of excavation ... excavating the banker's bones'. The onus is on us to patch together our own version of truth.
An issue based artist, Piper is known for his unabated efforts to raise the profile of black artists as well as voice his own critique on racial, social and political issues in the UK. Along with Marlene Smith, Eddie Chambers and Donald Rodney, he formed the BLK Art Group in 1982. The Group was partly influenced by America's Black Art Movement and their efforts are acknowledged by proxy in the Tate Modern's upcoming Soul of a Nation exhibition. Arguably, the BLK Art Group also helped pave the way for Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen, Yinka Shonibare and Hurvin Anderson, all contenders for the UK's prestigious Turner prize.
Re-working his seminal 2001 Robot Bodies, Piper presents a room of interactive screens chained to their trackball masters. With the power at our fingertips, we direct the endless manipulation of the screens' morphing bodies as they highlight notes on the dissection of mechanical beings. Discombobulated imagery, from photographs of cotton pickers, body builders, popular Hollywood sci-fi film stills to the dubiously named Soujourner rover on Mars, flicker with depictions of the black body. The analogy drawn here is between the black body and the physical power, durability and suspiciousness of the machine.
In the other galleries Piper mixes traditions of high and low art to portray narratives of history. Proposed comic books refer to future history paintings while history paintings refer to comic ridicule of power structures and their key players. They portray snippets of the Empire and capitalism in cahoots, gambling the fate of the many, though never straying far from the artist as researcher, archivist and observer.
Personified by one of the paintings, Piper's fact-probing methodology emulates Théodore Géricault whose controversial The Raft of Medusa 1818-1819 resulted from meticulous research of the ill-fated French Meduse and the surviving crew who descended into murder and cannibalism. Piper's painting attests to the many refugee boats whose journeys have ended in tragic wreckage. The finale of the painting series depicts the splayed corpse of the banker. His dead weight replaces the dead Christ indicating the absolute dead end.
The exhibition's centrepiece is a three screen film which looks back in time from a post-human standpoint, a device often used in sci-fi fiction. Introduced to us via American writer Octavia Butler's unfinished novel, Parable of the Trickster, Piper's trickster has evolved from his mechanised form to a shady, hooded figure who exists at the edge of a post-apocalyptic landscape. Drawn from New York based The Last Poets, he paces the edge of a new age. This is a time premised by Lord Byron's Darkness 1816 coinciding with Mount Tambora's eruption and Mary Shelley's The Last Man 1826, the story of a world ravaged by plague. They depict varying degrees of future human miseries.
The trickster witnesses the hundreds of thousands crossing from dead worlds to dying worlds, suggesting a dismal, recurring outlook on today's abandoned people who officialdom deems to have no rightful place in the world. Meanwhile, the banker serves to represent the height of capitalism and is ultimately buried in a pyramid of his own making. The trickster as anthropologist locates his bones and presents these along with three official ledgers which are housed as physical objects adjacent to the film. They serve as museum testaments of how it all went so horribly wrong.
Despite Piper's intention to be the clue presenter, his film seems to conclude quite succinctly that the blessed meek shall indeed inherit the earth as foreseen by the book of Revelation. But is it a worthy triumph? Wandering about a once fertile landscape, its resources pillaged, its surface irrecoverably scarred and shrouded in darkness, the trickster's isolation in a new kind of hostile environment seems a hollow victory. He recalls Caspar David Friedrich's iconic The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog 1817-18. As an image which often braced the cover of Mary Shelley's The Last Man, Freidrich's wanderer, like Piper's trickster, is a vision of contradiction - the lone hiker's mastery is over a possibly ruined and incomprehensible landscape which exaggerates his insignificance.
Unearthing the Banker's Bones is a touring exhibition including a commission for the Arts Council Collection's 70th anniversary and is produced by Bluecoat and Iniva (International Institute of Visual Arts).