Big Brother

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 

 Basel, 15 June 2012

It is often energising to do something different from what one normally does. Antigone1984 is largely about politics. Which is why we can recharges our batteries by focusing, for a change, on something completely different –  like art for instance. Which is why we have come to Switzerland to report on Art Basel, the world’s major annual international market for modern and contemporary art.

But hang on a minute….We are mesmerized by a huge sinister bronze bust just inside the stand of Galerie Thomas from Munich.

We have never seen this bust before…and yet it seems… strangely familiar.

The head is an angular block topped by a peaked cap, the nose a continuous sharp edge from forehead to chin. The eyes are two large round holes close to the edge of the nose. The figure has two large ear lugs which appear to be tilting forward to catch every word that you say. There is no mouth. The neck and shoulders take the form of a cone supporting the head.

The sculpture measures 152 x 100 x 94 cm. The bronze sports a greenish patina.

We look over at the exhibit description on the wall behind.

The title of the work turns out to be a name that is indeed familiar to Antigone1984. It is “Big Brother”, the ubiquitous fictional policeman who personifies the totalitarian dystopia created by George Orwell in “1984”, the novel which, along with the Sophocles play “Antigone”, provides the direct inspiration for this blog.

So it seems you can’t get away from politics after all! Not even at the Basel art fair.

The sculptor is Max Ernst (1891-1976). Ernst made a plaster cast for the figure in 1967 but it was not cast until after his death – in 2001. It is one of an edition of eight.

Galerie Thomas interprets and describes the work as follows:

“BIG BROTHER”, the boss, reminds us of the vision of a surveillance state as described by George Orwell in his novel “1984”. Interestingly enough, the figure with the angular features lacks a mouth, underlining his function in the sense of “Big Brother is watching you”. Max Ernst’s expression of a time “in which you constantly have the impression of living in a prison” is based on his wretched experiences during the Nazi era and is as current as ever.

This work is a single figure from the group of sculptures with the title “Faculty for a School of Homicides”, consisting of three large figures. It is one of the most surprising figurative ensembles of the artist.

Max Ernst was born near Cologne in Germany. He did have horrific war experiences, but our understanding is that these occurred during the First, not the Second, World War.

In  the First World War Ernst was drafted into the German Army and served on both western and eastern fronts. According to Wikipedia, the war had such a devastating impact on him that he subsequently referred to his time in the army as follows: “On the first of August 1914 M[ax] E[rnst] died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918.”

During the Second World War, soon after the Nazi invasion of France, Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo but managed to escape.  In 1941, with the help of his wife-to-be Peggy Guggenheim, he fled to America, where he remained till after the war.

Of course, it is naive to think that one can ever get away from politics, even in the world of art. Some of our friends say that they have no interest in politics. They care only for art.

Such a stance, to us, is incomprehensible.

You can’t separate the one from the other. You can’t even understand the one without the other. Politics and art are Siamese twins.

As if to make this point, this very evening (15 June) the 2012 film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” by Alison Klayman is getting its Swiss première at Art Basel.

Yesterday (14 June) art patron Princess Alia Al-Senussi moderated a talk on “The Arab Spring and its Impact on Artists” with contributions from Dubai collector Mohamed Afkhami, New York artist Shadi Habib Allah and New York/Munich curator Till Fellrath.

On Sunday 17 June, the last day of the fair, Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery, is moderating a public discussion entitled “The Artist as Activist”. Taking part are: Tel Aviv/Amsterdam artist Yael Bartana; Seville architect Santiago Cirugeda; Chicago artist Theaster Gates; and Cairo artist Huda Lutfi.

Ah, well, must find some way to relax other than by attending art fairs!


You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

 1. Why? or How? That is the question(3 Jan 2012)

2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich(6 Feb 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices(2 Feb 2012)

4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat(31 Jan 2012)

5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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