Brian William Haw lived for almost ten years in Parliament Square. He was a thorn in the flesh of the British establishment and became a symbol of the anti-war movement against the conflicts first in Afghanistan and then Iraq. An evangelical Christian, he’d served in the Merchant Navy, worked as a removal man and had a wife and seven children, whom he left to set up his protest in 2001. A one-man political protest, his camp and banners were erected on the grass in Parliament Square, creating a striking contrast to the 19th-century architecture and seat of power across the road. After legal action, the Greater London Council relocated Haw and his assemblage to the pavement that was administered by Westminster City Council.
An attempt to prosecute for obstruction failed. Pedestrians, it was deemed, could get past the banners. A long legal tussle then ensued over Haw’s rights to protest in Parliament Square. In the early hours one May morning in 2006, 78 police arrived to remove his makeshift placards and objects – many of which had been donated by the public and included paintings, graffiti, and traffic cones, along with photos and posters of maimed and burnt babies that screamed ‘Blair Lie, Kids Die’ and ‘Baby Killers’. A Banksy stencil and a wooden cross with an image of Haw wearing a T-shirt emblazoned ‘Bliar’ across the front were among the centrepieces.
The operation to remove Haw cost the Metropolitan Police £27.000 and in 2007, the Channel 4 Political Awards voted him the Most Inspiring Political Figure. In the same year, the artist Mark Wallinger painstakingly recreated Haw’s weather-beaten placards, peace flags and banners, along with the many messages amassed from well-wishers to create an installation in the Tate Britain’s Duveen Hall. It even included Haw’s makeshift tarpaulin shelter and tea-making area.
During the fabrication of the forty-three-meter work, it became clear that the Duveen Hall of Tate actually fell within the circumference of the one-kilometer exclusion zone inside which, under the recently passed Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, protests against parliament could not take place without police permission. Wallinger taped a line on the floor of the gallery at the point where the exclusion zone ended, deliberately placing State Britain half in and half outside the zone. It was both a challenge and a provocation. By straddling this invisible boundary, was Haw’s collection of objects – now transmogrified into art – breaking the law? Mirroring the original assemblage in every detail, was it subject to the same legal constraints that it had been outside, or had it now been transformed into something ‘safe’, art displayed in an institution supported by taxpayers money for the consumption of the liberal elite? Was this a brave act by Wallinger – challenging questions around freedom of expression and the erosion of civil liberties – or an act of appropriation by a sophisticated, knowing artist at the height of postmodernism when everything was turning out to be a pastiche or simulacrum? Was Wallinger’s recreation a form of political solidarity, or did it turn viewers into cultural voyeurs? Was this collection of sanitised street ephemera, in fact, really the equivalent of crowds paying to gawp at the bearded lady in a fair?
Often associated with the YBA generation of artists who were grabbing attention in the early 2000s, Mark Wallinger was, in fact, older by nearly a decade. While for most of them, nothing much mattered except irony and high visibility, Wallinger had grown up in a political household and was politically sophisticated. While living and working in Germany in the early 2000’s he missed the big anti-war march in London but was much taken on his return by Haw’s presence and began to photograph what he felt was a daring, moving and informative assemblage that was making points few conventional news outlets dared to make at the time.
Once Wallinger had the idea of recreating Haw’s protest, he approached the artist, who gave him his full support. Copyright had to be obtained for the different photographs, but as Haw had made the majority of the banners himself, he was able to help Wallinger source the necessary material for their recreation. The Tate held a special opening for Haw and his family and the work was nominated and later won the Turner Prize.
But there were those who had difficulty with the piece. It included a copy of a painting by one Abby Johnson, a member of the Stuckist protest group that promoted figurative art in the face of postmodern conceptualism. She’d given it to Haw as part of the original protest and objected that Wallinger’s installation was simply a conceptual fake, insisting that she and the other people who had donated to the original display were the real artists. What, some asked, if Haw had gone to the Tate himself and said – look, Nick, the rozzers are about to obliterate my stuff, how about you find me a spot for it in the Duveen Hall? He’d likely have been thrown out with a flea in his ear. But when Mark Wallinger, the artist of ces jours-ci who’d just represented Britain at the Venice Biennale suggested it, it was given the go-ahead. It had now turned into edgy art in line with Duchamp’s idea of the readymade. Only this had the problem of not being readymade (or as Boris might say now, oven-ready) but a copy.
Yet might it be argued that its performative element fitted Derrida’s contention that ‘[i]terability requires the origin to repeat itself originally; to alter itself so as to have the value of origin, that is to conserve itself.’ (French philosophers had the habit of being that arcane and pretentious in the early part of the century). Perhaps, then, the justification for Wallinger’s ‘copy’ was that it added the potential for not just a new audience but for new modes of reading and interpretation. Wallinger’s drawing attention to the boundary line that would have rendered the piece illegal outside the gallery while it was tolerated within only served to emphasise the double standards of establishment power structures and showed State Britain to be a clever, radical and hard-hitting piece of work.
Haw died in Germany in 2011, where he had gone for treatment for lung cancer. Before he left, Wallinger went to visit him at Guy’s Hospital. He was, he says ‘the most obstinate protester you could imagine. The last protester really….it was like everybody else gave up, but he never did…. And he was proved right; we know we went to war on lie. Now he’s gone, who else have we got?’ Brian Haw was the last of a kind, and Mark Wallinger’s State Britain stands as a fitting memorial to his stubborn idealism.
Published in Artlyst