Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire
SAATCHI GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 28, 2018 – FEBRUARY 17, 2019
Alluding to Charlie Brooker’s dystopian TV series, Black Mirror primes the viewer for a dark and critical engagement with contemporary culture and technology. Unfortunately, those expecting a dark vision of our politically fragmented and technology obsessed times are likely to be disappointed.1 Given that the majority of the exhibited works were produced before 2010 (with the most recent from 2015), engagement with recent seismic shifts typified by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is actively avoided. Instead the show looks to the past to comment on a present that has, by and large, already passed.
There is also a substantial divergence between what is conventionally understood as satire, and the exhibition’s more superficial relation to the tradition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as “a […] work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary”. Saatchi’s Black Mirror presents a more literal conception: satire as the simply amusing or visually absurd
This is especially pronounced in Gallery One, with its Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sense of the surreal. David Herbert’s VHS (2005) is a towering Styrofoam and Plexiglas videotape of 2001: A Space Odyssey that dominates the entrance like the black monolith from the film itself, while Bedwyr Williams’s installation Walk a mile in my shoes (2006) invites you to try on an assortment of his forty-five pairs of size thirteens, each with an amusing anecdote attached. Jade Townsend’s sculpture Cash Cow (2012) is self-consciously humorous—we see a disembodied pair of legs transporting an almost blank canvas-but the conveyed message reading “Big red painting about sex and death,” mocking the art-world formula for success, is hardly revelatory. Even the exhibition’s own “black mirror,” coming in the form of Alejandra Prieto’s Coal Mirror (2011), is a very literal interpretation of the title: a large block of coal smoothed into a reflective surface.
While the works in the first gallery raise a smile, touching on characteristics of satire such as humour and exaggeration, they are largely bereft of purposeful critique. Without additional context, it is difficult to see how these pieces highlight the exhibition’s declared intent to “dissect […] power structures, question […] societal norms” or “visualize […] political unrest.” One exception is Michael Cline’s series of oil paintings, executed with New Objectivity frankness. Like George Grosz’s paintings of urban life in 1920s Berlin, Cline depicts the homeless and disenfranchised of contemporary America. However, while these works imply a contemporary criticism of American society, their temporal and geographical ambiguity blunt the force of their critique. In Free Turn (2008) the brownstone houses in the background suggest New York City, but the man prostrate under a box on his back could reference any number of economic recessions. The long hair, moustache, and polo shirt of the unconscious man on the street in Police Line (2008)-surrounded by drug paraphernalia-suggests ’60s era hedonism, but this jars with the brown military uniform and ’20s bob hairstyle of the woman leaning over him.
In the second gallery, both the work of James Howard and Jessica Craig-Martin explore modern vanity. Howard’s single work Untitled (2007), which comprises forty-six digital prints, is a spectacular display of ocular overload. His brightly coloured mock adverts run riot with lurid imagery and reams of accompanying text: reappropriating online material available before the World Wide Web became so well-regulated. In one piece, rhetoric about debt management (“You turned to debt calculators, talked with friends, and ultimately came up with a two-pronged plan of merciless debt destruction”) merges with religious symbolism pulled straight from the pages of Jehovah’s Witness magazine The Watchtower. Multiple images of individuals cast in flames—their anguished expressions depicting the pain of re-payment plans—cede to the dominant central image of two women bounding across a blue sky in a depiction of transcendent relief. Keen to distance himself from the negative taint of satire however, Howard describes his work as “positive, non-judgemental [and] non-critical,” understanding the meanings latent in his work, and their subsequent emotional effects, as incidental. The various plumes of energy created by his juxtapositions are in his words “schizophrenic, that’s the point […] there is no one center.”
Suggesting a similar, non-judgemental ethos, Jessica Craig-Martin’s tightly-cropped, Cibachrome photographs of charity benefits and opening galas render her subjects with almost sociological detachment. Instead of faces she focuses on the paraphernalia adorning female bodies, such as acrylic nails, silver jewellery, and sequinned dresses, and captures body language that indicates boredom or unease. Bob Holman notes that her apparent “satirical punches at a rarefied world” with renewed attention become “humanizing portraits of a class that has too much, but never enough.” Craig-Martin gives equal attention to sagging skin and human vulnerability as to her subjects’ diamond-encrusted carapaces; preferring social documentation over objectifying mockery.
Meanwhile Brooklyn-based artist Valerie Hegarty inventively challenges America’s historical record while managing to remain contemporarily relevant: producing replicas of famous American artworks using Foam core, papier-mâché, and canvas to engineer their ruination in a blistering comment on the country’s colonial legacy. Critiquing the idea of Manifest Destiny, in other words, that it was God’s will for settlers to colonize the supposedly unpopulated New World, Niagara Falls (2007) is a facsimile of Frederick Edwin Church’s Niagra (1857). Its frame, gnarled like the wrecked hull of a ship, suggests the destructive repercussions of American idealism and an ideology of progress, which are present today in the return of a fervent Nationalism.
Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire is a bazaar of the surreal; a disjointed profusion of colour and conjoined forms. Rather than making us laugh at the visual shock of an unspoken but identifiable truth, or tackling injustice by exposing the arbitrary nature of power, it largely embodies a superficial absurdity, and so struggles to resonate on a deeper emotional or intellectual level. Unifying these diverse works under the umbrella of satire proves detrimental, both to the richness of the individual artists’ practice and to the show’s integrity. While the most palpable vein of social satire comes via an interrogation of historic American values and their contemporary manifestation-as seen in Cline and Hegarty’s work-even this is clouded in anachronistic ambiguity. Black Mirror feels like a missed opportunity; a disorienting experience straining for contemporary relevance that glances only tangentially at current realities.
- The television series Black Mirror was eerily prescient in foreshadowing Trump’s presidency and the rise of populism with the 2013 episode “The Waldo Moment”—depicting the electoral success of a blunt, crudely spoken cartoonish figure.
Daniel Pateman is a freelance writer based in the UK with an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture.