“Artists are so bizarre and come from such strange places”: Glenn Ligon interview below

Amore e Piombo @ Brighton Photo Biennial 2014

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The years of lead (or anni di piombo for you Italian speakers) lasted from the late 60s to the early 80s. Thanks to festivals in Venice and the anni di amore are still in full effect.

As a result this is one of the only exhibitions where you can reasonably expect to find photos of the Hollywood A-list alongside those of victims of social unrest. Dead victims, that is.

1976 may be some time ago. But the fate of Vittorio Occorsio still provokes dismay. You can see his last photo, a body falling from a car, blood making rivulets on the asphalt.

The deceased was a magistrate, and since his day job entailed chasing up links between a black Masonic Lodge and Italian neofascists, it’s not hard to guess where to lay the blame.

Suffice to say, whatever your leanings, the press photos of the aftermath will appall you. The blood is still wet and the covert struggle between political extremes is still fresh.

Nearby are press photos of the unfortunate Aldo Moro. The Red Brigade killed five bodyguards in order to kidnap this former prime minister, head of the Italian Christian Democrats.

After 55 days imprisonment, he too was killed. But the evidence is not as graphic. The facts of his death are not as alarming as those of the brave magistrate. And this is an interesting problem.

Since the Terrorism Act of 2006, even the attempt to justify the way of the gun is a criminal act. So far be it from me to explore the strange nostalgia which so many of these agency snaps provoke.

But Italy in the 1970s really was a land of extremes. Of the many photographed demonstrations in this show, there are various mobs agitating for divorce, the monarchy and a ban on French wine.

The situation appears volatile. There may be as many demonstrations in our day and age, but the many millions who in February 2003 marched against war in Iraq barely caused a ripple.

If we can draw a conclusion from that, we might say there is no hope and no alternative. And yet in the years of lead, you had more factions running about left and right than in a Pynchon novel.

But the presentation of terrorists alongside filmstars here in a museum library is tantalising. The path of armed resistance is not so far from the stuff of movies. Can we even get away with seeing that?

Amore e Piombo: The Photography of Extremes in 1970s Italy is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until 2 November 2014.


Sara Shamma, Q (2011)

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A queue is a Q is a question. Perhaps ‘what are we waiting for’ or ‘why are we waiting’. The answer will depend on your location, class and political circumstances.

In the West we are on the whole happy to queue for a checkout or a cash point. It is, as Jessica Lack points out in the publication for this show, the sign of a ‘civilised way of life’.

But artist Sara Shamma lines up some 10 characters who would surprise you if you met them at your local post office. They are at times translucent, weightless and ethereal.

So, another question, why might ghosts join a queue? Perhaps the queue in this painting represents the scene of a trauma, such as the flight of Shamma’s Syrian compatriots.

Her monumental work is 17m long and is to be read as a series and a circular one at that. Panel one features a mother and child, panel ten: a child and a foetus.

This loops her sad procession into infinity. It would be interesting to know of the first queue in history, just as it would be frightening to receive advance warning of the last.

There is also a menagerie on this road to ruin: elephant, ostrich, ape and shark alike are in line for a so-called promised land. They give the whole scene a certain freakiness.

But what could be more freaky than the frightened population of one city all packing up, leaving home, and heading for a border. The animals tell it like it is.

Another widespread motif is the ironic balloon. Were it not for the anguished expressions here and there you might conclude this was a carnival.

Many of those faces, however, show the skull beneath the skin. Some are treated with the grainy black and white of newsprint. Some feature thick, expressionistic daubing.

The queue has many facets. Shamma breaks the continuity in panel five by painting a line of faceless figures snaking off to the horizon and back. Newsworthy numbers here.

And in a Dalí-esque touch the artist hints at comfort with a tiny chair suspended above a vast abyss. If society breaks down, this epic painting may come back to you.

Q ends on December 2 2013. So get in line at the Upper Gulbenkian Gallery at the Royal College of Art, London.