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OPINIONSocietyDecember 2, 2020

False flag: The Mercy Pictures furore and the dangerous power of art

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The fallout from the Mercy Pictures exhibition People of Colour continues to inflame the Aotearoa art world. Here, art writer and former gallerist Sarah Hopkinson attempts to understand the often contradictory values that produced Mercy Pictures, and what the tumult means for the future of the industry.

In October I attended the opening of Mercy Pictures’ new space on Karangahape Rd. The title of the artist-run gallery’s exhibition, People of Colour, had signalled it would be provocative but I didn’t know quite what to expect. As it turns out, the exhibition comprised several rooms of small printed canvases, each featuring a single flag. Over 400 in total. The flags I noticed first where those featuring swastikas, and as Amal Samaha hoped in their piece for The Spinoff,  I did think and perhaps say out loud, “fuck, there are a lot of swastikas”. The exhibition also featured tino rangatiratanga and the mana motuhake (sovereignty) symbol of Ngāi Tuhoe, a number of international protest flags, including Black Panther, and flags associated with far-right white supremacist organisations.

On leaving that night I felt anxious and unsettled. In my mind, this artwork was a trap, a not very well-disguised one. It seemed that bait had been laid for certain groups in Aotearoa’s artist community, in particular those practitioners who are engaged in the many forms of emancipatory politics. It was also clear to me that both the premise and specific details of the exhibition would goad certain individuals within those groups, with whom the members of Mercy Pictures have historic grievance. What was not apparent to me at the time – nor I assume, to the exhibition’s architects –  was that in setting the trap, they might topple into it as well.

I still engaged with the exhibition as an artwork first, as I am conditioned to do. When something is designated as an artwork, we locate that thing in an arcane system of meaning-making and knowledge, built on art’s proximity to “truth”. The concept that art can somehow disclose the truth of society is art’s most enduring and powerful narrative; it gives the artwork value, and a kind of immunity to “real world” critique.

In the days following, I debated the show with several friends who are also committed to the art world’s critical health, and the consensus was that while it was an extremely frustrating situation, it was best not to “feed the trolls”. It was clear that the show wanted attention more than anything, and that if we could starve it of oxygen it might expire quietly and we could all move on. What I have come to understand much more acutely than ever these weeks, is that my ability to intellectualise and ultimately dismiss the exhibition was predicated on privilege (I am not directly affected by any of the featured material and therefore did not have a trauma-response) and power (I occupy a position of relative seniority in this little ecosystem), and that I wouldn’t have one without the other.

Toward the end of the opening, a couple of art world mavericks turned up, in white-face, and took a flag; the flag that one of them identified with. My default, again, was to decipher that act in the context of art, and for a show that appeared to be about identification and sovereignty, this was a logical, practical action.

This act of reclamation was very quickly narrativised as theft, providing Mercy Pictures the chance to play the wronged party; to position themselves as victims, and in doing so deny their own complicity. The artist and writer Linda Stupart recently wrote about just this kind of self-serving reframing in an essay about Nina Power, who would go on to provide an accompanying text for People of Colour: “This circular production of victim-subjects also means that any criticism is immediately reframed as an attack, thus furthering claims of persecution at the cost of all others.”

That K Rd opening night was the first act in a sordid story of bullying and intimidation that went far beyond anything I have ever witnessed in my time working in contemporary art. Perhaps in another time this exhibition would have attracted less attention, but in 2020 the art world, like the rest of the world, is a restless and volatile place. A tweet recently popped up on my feed, quoting the New York Times describing abolitionists in 1859: “They are as rancorous and abusive as if they are on the point of utter annihilation…”. I saved it to my phone.

The mechanics of the industry

It’s apparent to me that the issues at the heart of the People of Colour debate are structural. The outpouring of anguish – of real rage and frustration – by young artists who have spoken out against Mercy Pictures appears to be motivated, in part, by a lack of representation and attention. The exclusionary nature of the industry is both basic – a result of fierce competition for limited resources – and more nuanced: we are taught at art school that we are all “artists”, yet in reality, the myth of heroic individual genius that underwrites art’s value can only accommodate so many.  In the ever widening gulf between underground artist-run spaces and larger well-resourced institutions, Mercy Pictures is one of the only young galleries that managed to claim some territory (and audience) in between.

However the recent saga has shown that not only is Mercy Pictures not a programme that its artist community feels represented by, but many among them feel actively undermined by the People of Colour project. I imagine a version of this frustration and alienation is being felt by Mercy Pictures too. Unfortunately, in this exhibition, and more explicitly in clapping back at the criticism of it, this frustration is now being weaponised against other (often more) marginalised people.

Mercy Pictures emerged out of a larger crowd of punky art kids who gathered for a time around Terror International, a gallery project that occupied a rundown apartment above Joy Bong restaurant on K Rd. I don’t fully understand the fractious group dynamics and turf wars that ensued, but it is fair to say that Mercy Pictures have a track record of building platforms on the energy and resources of a collective, then divesting themselves of that collective in a dramatic manner.

The individuals that comprised Mercy Pictures at the time of this exhibition were the artists and founders Jerome Ngan-Kee and Teghan Burt, and a new member, Jonny Prasad. (Prasad is an odd addition to the collective; as far as I know he is not an artist, and he has an ex-military keto-diet personal brand incongruous with wider art kid culture). By my count this is the third iteration of Mercy Pictures, and the founding members are in their late 20s or early 30s.

One of Mercy Pictures’ achievements has been the cultivation of a scene around itself. In version 3.0 this took the form of relentless promotion of young “it” girls and boys, recruited from fashion and other art-adjacent spaces. I have been involved in several artist-run spaces and I know there is value in situating your project as the heir to a legacy. Mercy Pictures was good at emulating the punk and counterculture aesthetics that have coalesced in various guises around K Rd since the days of Testrip and Fiat Lux, Auckland’s pioneering artist-run spaces of the 1990s.

Mercy Pictures are known to idolise Giovanni Intra, one of the founders of Testrip in Auckland and China Art Objects in Los Angeles. Intra was a sort of enfant terrible figure, a local bad-boy genius who got out and made good in the US then died from a heroin overdose in 2002. He’s a useful cipher for the way in which Mercy Pictures romanticised a gritty 90s nihilism as part of their conceptual project.

To an extent, the Mercy Pictures team were only doing what was expected of them as artists and gallerists. There is no other market that better understands how to extract value from (and therefore neutralise) transgression, resistance and protest. This is one of the contradictions at the heart of the industry: contemporary art is expected to challenge the status quo and offer alternatives to the very economic and social structures that it relies on for its survival.

Until recently, Mercy Pictures was operating as an artist-run dealer gallery; that is to say they survived on the proceeds of donations from and sales to private collectors. Mercy Pictures effectively leveraged a punk attitude to attract an audience who wanted a thrill, and in some cases to see themselves (their younger selves) reproduced in the ethos and activities there. To me it was always apparent that it was just that, a style; the “punk” signifiers had been emptied of any meaningful critique of structural power.

People of Colour was also a trap for Mercy Pictures’ supporters; for the various people that orbit around the art world, in particular collectors, who are typically oblivious to the mechanics behind the scenes. And of course, for them, the stakes are lower. A collector can dismiss the exhibition and go back to their (highly paid) day job. Collectors bought work from this show and, as far as I know, stand by those transactions. I’m sure some have divested of the project entirely, because it’s no longer the buzzy time it once was. These are inadequate, but unsurprising, responses.

Collecting art is a way to signal not just wealth but socially progressive values. However, due to the socio-economic profile of most art collectors, the people who make the work and the people who buy it often occupy different points on the political spectrum. Despite the powerful influence of galleries, museums, critics and publishers, the art world organises itself around a market, in which the major players are governments (most institutional collection budgets are in decline) and high net-worth individuals (who are spending exuberantly). Rich people, I have noticed, don’t like being told what they can and can’t do, and the art world has become a space where they can exercise the ideal of freedom; the same type of freedom that they exercise as holders of capital in a free-market capitalist system.

Recent calls to de-fund and de-platform Mercy Pictures – to take away their resources – highlight this paradox, and the ultimate futility of any efforts to correct it. The conversation around Mercy Pictures reveals again that, fundamentally, the interests of the market are irreconcilable with the interests of the grassroots, and because the art world is deregulated, there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Platforms and platforming

The rhetoric surrounding this exhibition has been vicious and polarising. The most extreme accusations are that the members of Mercy Pictures and anyone who supports or endorses them are racist, homophobic, transphobic, fascistic, alt-right and white supremacist. Slightly less inflammatory is the charge that Mercy Pictures as a project gave a platform to these violent ideologies. Some don’t believe it’s possible to distinguish between the two positions. Then there is the Freedom of Speech crowd: Mercy Pictures are clever rogues who made an exhibition that pokes the bear of political correctness gone mad and the social justice warriors should “harden up”. Some of this cohort also believe Mercy Pictures are the victims of a cruel and undeserved cancel campaign. I know there are more moderate critics poised to give comment, but they appear to be waiting for things to de-escalate. In the meantime, it’s radical, oppositional voices that are the loudest.

I can sympathise with people who are struggling to decipher the chaos online – that is kind of the point. The Instagram campaigns that accompanied the show featured contradictory material from Mercy Pictures and the members’ personal accounts, apparently designed to keep us all lizard-brain doom-scrolling in a vain attempt to work out what was sincere and what was “fake news”. Later, new meme accounts popped up, including one that appeared to be run by an alliance of people both inside and outside of the gallery. One of their many tactics was a campaign “calling out” certain members of the wider art community (including myself) for past transgressions, drawing parallels between situations that might appear similar, but are not equivalent. In the context of this confused and confusing proliferation of content, a few older people weighed in to draw equivalence with historical uses of provocative imagery, or other recent high profile cancellations or exhibition protests. Indeed, Aotearoa’s own Peter Robinson used swastikas in his protest paintings from the 1990s. But would he do that now? No. Absolutely not. Times change.

A smarter argument could be made here, about an ambivalence endemic to contemporary art, and about the virtue signalling and diversion tactics employed in the art world to obscure our complicity in structural racism. Or, a conversation around art’s influence being post-peak, its failure to metabolise rapid changes in communication technologies, and the rise of the meme as a more effective reflection of a mood and moment.

The side-effect of so much of this debate playing out online is that the urgent issues become occulted within a flow of contradictory information, and people, particularly older generations, tend to switch off. This is unfortunate because it is these groups who have the economic power to make change, and in this case at least, they appear unwilling to recognise that need, and have no incentive to address it.

Response, and institutional responsibility

This episode has affected all members of the art community, and beyond. It has exposed stark differences between the constituent groups, and it’s more difficult than ever to understand how this art world fits together.

The question that young people in the art world have been asking is: how could they not get it? How could they not recognise the show for what it is? The “they” in these sentences is the mostly-Pākehā art establishment, of which I am a member.

It appears to me we are experiencing a long overdue moment of ideological rupture, and it is dividing along generational and racial lines. A friend likened the Aotearoa art world to a classroom where the teacher has left: for a while it’s super fun, then it got a bit wild, and now the kids are tearing each other apart. By removing themselves, the “teachers” not only abdicated a responsibility of care, they also missed an opportunity to learn from people younger than and different from themselves (and I do mean different – it’s a very diverse art classroom). Groups that may previously have felt a connection to one another are now alienated and have lost respect for each other, and perhaps most crucially for this story, lost the ability to communicate disagreement.

Work is being done. An open letter authored by Quishile Charan, Jasmin Singh and Anevili attracted over 1500 signatures. Sensible and sincere apologies have been made, including by Mercy Pictures co-founder Jerome Ngan-Kee and by prominent members of the art community who have been implicated one way or another. Small working groups aimed at de-escalation and harm reduction have assembled. It was telling that among the people assembled at a recent hui – comprised of people who had reached out after Jerome published his apology – there was not a single white hetero cis-man. There were representatives from the two big art schools (women), and beyond that, young POC and queer folk, and a few more young women.

Barring the art school professors, these are, for the most part, under-resourced people living precarious lives themselves. They are not less afraid to incur the wrath of the trolls – in fact they are more likely, due to their proximity, their gender identity and the colour of their skin to be targeted – but they recognise from hard experience that if they are going to survive this, they are probably going to have to do the labour themselves.

There are people whose job it is to care for artists; who are paid, in direct and roundabout ways, to advocate for the needs of the community. I am pointing to curators at the publicly-funded galleries, and the professors and tutors at the major teaching institutions, and the many people employed at Creative New Zealand, which has recently funded Mercy Pictures (albeit not for this particular exhibition project). These people and organisations have been, with a few exceptions, silent.

I can understand institutional nervousness. Covid-19 has put extra pressure on budgets in the cultural sector that were already shrinking. For years, we’ve watched in dismay as humanities departments around the world (and here) are gutted in favour of job-ready degrees. This saga blew up in the same week in which AUT University announced the proposed disestablishment of St Paul Street Gallery as we know it, a restructure in which several people will lose their jobs.

However, art schools continue to graduate hundreds of students a year carrying student loan debt into a world of degraded arts infrastructure controlled by aging, entrenched administrators, and fewer and fewer opportunities.

People and apologies

Contemporary art attracts some of the most diverse and interesting people; it considers itself a safe place for individuals who may not fit easily elsewhere in society. In Aotearoa, we are a tiny sector not immune to drama, but for the most part there is a common understanding that we will probably have to co-exist in this closely-held system for a long time, and there is a sense of solidarity to a cause.

I can condemn this exhibition as insensitive at best, rotten at worst, and also not want to see the individuals responsible for it destroyed. It is possible for me to hold both things in my head at once, and I fear a climate of negative solidarity, in which we celebrate the other’s immiseration. I am concerned for some of the individuals who are at risk of becoming collateral damage; they are brilliant, radical thinkers, and we can’t afford to lose them.

When I read Ngan-Kee’s apology, I cried tears of relief. Then, such is the climate of suspicion and mistrust, I wondered for a moment if it was part of a long, intricate troll. Despite attempts to discredit it as “fake news” (on Mercy Pictures’ Instagram) or undermine Ngan-Kee’s autonomy (as in John Hurrell’s troublingly favourable review of the exhibition on Eyecontact), most now believe the apology to be sincere. If it doesn’t sound like something he would write, it’s because he had help from Tāmaki Anti-Fascist Action, among others.

Ngan-Kee’s apology included a frank admission that his decision to work with Nina Power was a mistake. When I received the invite to the show, I mistakenly thought Nina Power was the author of the exhibition. In fact, she had been invited by Mercy Pictures to write a short text to accompany the show. Power’s name rang a bell, but I couldn’t place it. On the night, Ngan-Kee informed me that she is a British writer who has been “cancelled” for an alleged connection to members of the alt-right (an allegation that Power repudiates). This rang a louder bell.

By now, cancel culture is widely understood as an action that reduces complex issues to a one-line cancellable offence that can be circulated rapidly through social-media channels, shorn of context. A mechanism that was initially useful – to hold people accountable who would not otherwise be made so, were the complaint to be lodged in conventional channels –  has become anarchic in the unregulated, de-contextualised space of the internet.

Why was Power included in the People of Colour project? Was it to ask questions about cancel culture? A question of tolerance? Or a comment on the legitimacy of a manichaean world view, in which things can only be good or evil?

In isolation, the text Power wrote for People of Colour is banal, which is partly why it didn’t attract much attention initially. It is not the content of her writing that has proven incendiary, it is the question of whether this voice should be given a platform here, at the expense of other voices. Where one falls on this spectrum will, again, depend on your individualised experience and subject-position. You might be able to engage with it as I assume it was intended; as an intellectual proposition about the murky spaces of internet discourse, or the unsettling phenomenon of ideological drift. But, for many people, including within the queer and trans community, giving Power a platform here in Aotearoa is categorically unacceptable.

It’s become apparent that the inclusion of Nina Power, along with the apparently last minute decision to include certain flags, helped grease the slide in perception from “Mercy Pictures are edgelords” to “Mercy Pictures are crypto-fascists”… to a large swastika being graffitied on the front door of the gallery.

The Power of Art

Mercy Pictures finally released a statement in mid November, after a weekend of vitriol that saw this saga spill out into the mainstream. The statement from Mercy Pictures was categorically not an apology; I found it cynical and evasive, at times openly antagonistic. But it did reveal their ace: the Power of Art.

Like its bedfellow, Free Speech, the Power of Art/Freedom of Expression line is an effective rhetorical manoeuvre. It’s a dog whistle to certain, mostly older, mostly white members of the art audience, who make it their cause to fight for, even if it’s clearly not their liberty that is at stake.

The concept of free speech has historically validated and given value to art. It’s a big knot to untangle (and others have done it better than me) but partly because free speech is foundational to art, art has struggled to defend itself against attacks from free speech absolutists.

I believe in the power of art. I believe we need to hold space for artists to test radical ideas, and I’ve dedicated my entire professional life to that cause. It has had a profound effect on me; art and art discourse has allowed me to imagine different structures and possibilities for thought and for the world. I’ve witnessed art offer joy, growth and transformation to its audiences.

“Art” is not going to wither and die at the mere suggestion of free speech reform. If art is a space of radical imagining, surely we can imagine placing reasonable limitations on the expression of toxic views, acknowledge that “freedom” of speech has been inconsistently distributed and enforced (the volume has been turned up on some voices and down on others, for centuries), and not compromise what makes contemporary art special.

The question at the core of the debate around People of Colour (as with debates about exhibitions at LD50 gallery in London in 2017 and Greenspon Gallery in New York in 2018) is this: are we as a society willing to accept freedom of expression when it acts as a cover for the promotion of paranoid and violent politics?

For those that are struggling to understand why some people are so upset by the exhibition: imagine someone whose family members were killed in the Christchurch mosque shootings. Do they want to see the flag that the shooter wore on his backpack at any time, let alone while they are still mourning? What about next to flags they might identify with? As one commentator noted, the show equated “emblems of extremist organisations with emblems of people those extremists would literally have eradicated from the face of the earth.”

You don’t have to be particularly empathetic or “woke” to understand this rage and anguish. Rage and anguish that is compounded when, on expressing that pain, you are told (by white people) that your feelings and experiences and subject-position are irrelevant here, because this is “harmless” and an “interesting” topic for debate. Or, worse, you are ridiculed publicly for giving a fuck.

This is an extreme example for extreme times. Last week local media reported the details of a thwarted school shooting in the Tasman area, and Wellington High School went into lockdown due to a “serious, imminent threat”. Both cases make mention of online connections to far-right, extremist organisations. These are existing situations of violence, in Aotearoa, that remain unresolved. The very least we can expect is that symbols associated with violence, genocide and hate are handled with care.

The idea that art is not accountable to any external code of ethics may be regressive, but it is persistent. What the People of Colour exhibition makes apparent is that, in our unregulated art industry, there is no due process for dealing with these kinds of divergent situations. It’s also confrontingly clear that we don’t have the adequate tools to articulate the problem to everyone involved.

Look to where you stand

This is the situation at the time of writing: the exhibition is over, the doxing and deluge of memes has abated, and children from nearby Kadimah School have hand-painted flags from all over the world outside their doors in what is so far the cutest counter-action. On Friday, Toi Tū Toi Ora opens at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki; it will be the largest contemporary Māori art exhibition since the gallery’s inception. It’s a big wiki o te toi Māori.

I was speaking to a friend who is Māori about how incoherent, unresolved, and unresolvable the Mercy Pictures situation feels right now. They suggested I look to where I stand. We stand in Aotearoa, a country with a Human Rights Act that places reasonable limits on free speech; limitations meant to protect individuals and groups from emotional distress and to prevent the inciting of “racial disharmony”.

We stand on indigenous land – the gallery in question stands on an ancient Māori passage and redoubt. Should art be accountable to the history of race in this country? Are we not, always, as individuals and as a nation, accountable to Te Tiriti ō Waitangi? The answer to these questions is yes, even if I’m uncertain as to what comes next.

What I hope is that this episode helps all the various forms of art world custodians (myself included) to recognise that the power and resources they have accumulated were accumulated in an unequal society, redouble their efforts to cultivate opportunities for people who have previously been excluded, and create more equitable conditions for future generations. In this moment of reckoning, I hope both righteous anger and paralysing shame, and all the emotions that fall in between, can be transformed into a kind of productive energy conducive to building a contemporary art context that is not phobic to difference and change.

Keep going!