Mark Wallinger’s State Britain occupies the vaulted and columned Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain’s most solemn and portentous space.* It consists of a meticulous reconstruction, overseen by Wallinger, of a notorious eyesore: the material Brian Haw accumulated on 40 metres of pavement opposite the Palace of Westminster. Haw first set up camp there in June 2001 in protest against economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. In May 2006 the police removed the lot: banners, slogans, posters, cards, photographs of deformed babies, cartoons of Blair, Brown and Bush, the parliamentary voting records of MPs, grubby teddy bears and toys (as well as the plastic sheets and cans that constituted Haw’s accommodation). They acted under Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act: a rather heavy legal vehicle – and a clumsy one. It designates a one kilometre zone around Westminster within which demonstrators must obtain police permission. The first conviction under this legislation was of Maya Evans, arrested at the Cenotaph for not having received permission to read out the names of 97 British soldiers killed in Iraq.

Haw’s protest slipped through a loophole: the Act was not retrospective and he continues his vigil. On 22 January he won a legal ruling that, in its present reduced state (an area three metres wide, three metres high and one metre deep), his camp does not, as was claimed, fail to comply with the conditions set by the police. These, the magistrate said, were unclear and issued under invalid (because delegated) authority. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner should have ordered the removal himself. This latest manoeuvre is relevant to Wallinger’s display. Despite all the effort that has gone into the re-creation of posters and slogans, his concern is Haw’s position in law rather than outrage at the fate of Iraqi children. The Tate pamphlet – a long fold-out – says that Wallinger is ‘careful to make a distinction between Haw’s protest and his own act as an artist in using the space of the museum to draw attention to issues of freedom of expression in Britain today’. What interests him has to do with ‘the right to protest and the limits and nature of art in its institutional context’.

So the heart of the art is not the slogans – ‘Love’, ‘You Lie Kids Die, Blair’, ‘My Country Right Its Wrongs’ – or the evidence of the way Haw’s life has been absorbed by his outrage at what his government has done, but a line of tape running across the floor that is said to mark (there is some argument about the accuracy of the survey) the part of the one kilometre exclusion zone around Westminster which falls within the gallery. Wallinger’s re-created encampment straddles the line. The transgression, like a child’s toe put over a chalk line in a game of tag, is only pretend daring. Its ineffectuality shows how hard it is for art ‘in its institutional context’ to be serious about things other than art. What Duchamp demonstrated – that once in a gallery any object at all becomes a work of art – has a corollary: once absorbed by the institution a work’s seriousness is merely of the aesthetic variety. The Tate reconstruction denatures Haw’s eyesore. In Parliament Square it should have made MPs seriously uneasy, partly because its very ugliness was evidence that it went beyond the accepted syntax of orderly protest – it was an eyesore. It shamed the administration by taking its hopeful platitudes literally. (The excesses of saints, too enthusiastic or too Christ-like, often embarrassed the Church, which also has difficulty when it comes to matching actions and words.) In the leaflet Wallinger uses quotations from Blair and George Orwell to call the government to order over freedom of expression, but this is no more an argued case than Haw’s banners are. Nor is it the stuff of which martyrs are made. Wallinger is not Daumier, liable to have his incendiary images destroyed, and not a pamphleteer risking incarceration. Questions are raised, but not advanced. The gallery and the act of reconstruction can’t entirely neutralise Haw’s protest, however. It does demonstrate ‘the limits and nature of art in its institutional context’, but some people will, like the man who pissed in the urinal/ fountain, challenge the Duchampian transformation, forget where they are and find reasons to think about the things Haw finds abominable.

The latest displays of British painting in the rooms surrounding the Duveen Galleries show you how Victorian painters responded to the world’s evils. Their pictures don’t offer an easy alternative to Wallinger’s obliquity (in their sentiments they are much closer to Haw) or any leads for moderns to follow. What artist today, driven by outrage at government policy over casinos, would try for a modern version of Martineau’s The Last Day in the Old Home (where the source of the family’s descent is signalled by a dice box and a betting book)? Or, after reading a newspaper account of a fishing boat lost at sea, produce an equivalent of Frank Bramley’s picture of a young woman collapsed on the floor of a low room lit by the grey light of A Hopeless Dawn? These are images you can enjoy, or make jokes about, but not imitate. Steve Bell, with due apologies, might pick up on them.

It is not clear why the direct response to the world’s recurring troubles that you find in painted Victorian moralities is not now available – it is, after all, a vein still worked by novelists and film-makers. Clarrie Wallis over-reaches herself in the State Britain leaflet when she makes the case for continuity: ‘Wallinger’s work might be said to link back (albeit in complex, even ambiguous ways) to the tradition of 19th-century painters such as Géricault, Delacroix and Manet who used the genre of grand-narrative painting to subversive effect.’ It’s better to acknowledge that grand narrative is dead. If that’s what you’re interested in, go to the movies instead.

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