The artist appears to have a simple and urgent proposition: to render the past absurd is to neutralise the rhetoric of the political right.
Without a golden age to hark about, no one can promise to make America, the UK, or India ‘great again’. And we can instead progress to a state of internationalism, equal rights, economic parity and perpetual peace.
Rahal lives in Mumbai, but he points out that the whole planet is “kind of a scary place to be working, globally”. He is, however, welcome in the North West, where for the duration of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial, his sculpture and film is being shown across three sites.
We met at Cains Brewery, a cavernous space for art enjoying a good year. It is however scruffy, and Rahal’s work looks in keeping with the general state of repair. It is the first thing a visitor sees: nuggets of clay arranged on trestle-like tables; bits of scaffold, locally sourced, covered in clay; and black-box monitors which appear to emerge from the mess on which figurines breathe or practice with lightsabers.
“I’m a huge nerd and I obviously have all these Star Wars references”, the artist cheerfully informs me. But like many contemporary sculptors, he aims both high and low, looking to Jorge Luis Borges for ”vast metaphysical narratives”, and for that writer’s concern with “creating this itinerary of our culture”.
In short, this itinerary is dystopian. The artefacts presented appear fresh from some archaeological dig. But what kind of half-formed world do they conjure up? A: it is a world run by idiots in which technology has failed us and we have forgotten basic craft skills. And that seems to me the worst of all possible worlds.
“I like the fact that these characters, or these objects of clay could somehow become like harbingers of something, you know?” Rahul tells me as we contemplate his pottery-based triage stations which all appear to somehow breathe in the light of the moving image work.
He also says: “I’m more interested in putting them together to form meaning… from these absurd things, which are beyond reason in a certain way. In that meaning-making ritual that people perform, how do we create allegiances? How do we create bonds across space-time?”
An interest in travel and time travel chimes in well with the 2016 Biennial, which is a nebulous animal in which Monuments from the Future is one of six official themes. You may find, as I did, that as you come across Rahal’s work more than once, you build a picture of what might be becoming.
It is a picture of a primitive time around the corner. Rahal expresses concern about right wing governments that have followed the Arab Spring, the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the hate-filled effect of Brexit here in the UK.
If politics is performative, the artist has another highly political aspect to his practice. Rahul stages improvised, ritualistic performances which offer only “fleeting, fragmented glimpses” of a narrative, and which change gear according to pop cultural requests from his viewers.
“Even I don’t have a bead on [these],” he tells me. “Essentially, what’s interesting for me is that I’m also a viewer as well.” One supposes that in these powerless times, we are all to a degree little more than viewers, even as we march, occupy, tweet or blog.
But perhaps in the light of our political horizons, we’ll do well to maintain any civilisation at all.
Despite everything, Rahal is making the most of circumstances: “Earthenware has so much meaning to our origins so I’m drawn to that, but saying that it’s also so much fun to just dive into clay and get mud all over me.”
As well he might, since in Summer 2016 we are all up to the neck in it.
You cannot help but wonder: did a 50-line letter painted onto the front and rear of a pair of white radiator units have any incidental effect on government policy? Did it really spark a heated debate?
Beyond the headlines about tax credits, the Autumn Statement revealed that the Arts Council can also breathe a sigh of relief and consider its budget protected for five more years.
This is not the beef raised by Smith, who talks tuition fees, the threat to art schools from property developers, and the culture of consumerism which now extends to the student experience.
None of this has changed. But the artist signs off with a message which may just be getting through: “I THINK THE ARTS ARE REALLY ABOUT SAVING HUMANITY”. What did Osborne think of that?
There are dangers in cynicism, however. A positive and polite reaction to this news about the Arts Council could be more likely to encourage the Conservative government in this cultural direction.
But giving credit is not abject gratitude. As Smith says, in another set of emphatic capitals: “ART IS YOUR HUMAN RIGHT”. Just as education is a right, welfare is a right, and healthcare remains so.
As inhumane as austerity is proving to be, the left should remember we don’t have a monopoly on humanity. Again, appeals to this quality may prove more tractable than immediate class war.
That could be why Smith’s naivety, both in tone and execution of this open letter, strikes an effective chord. It treats the Chancellor as a reasonable human. It invites him to enjoy contemporary art.
But this is also is a bit of a joke. Smith is only an artist; he is not the head of a bank. The banker uses headed notepaper, and not beat-up used radiators. So to who does the future belong?
To hear this described, you might imagine something on a more imposing scale: a blasted tree hung with bodies of soldiering age, the reconstruction of a Goya etching.
But the truth is, Sturm und Drang looks a bit like a toy. This wicked bronze plays out in the shadow of the viewer, as if these dead were sent into battle in our name.
And that’s not a million miles from the way in which wars operate. How many are to be killed on our behalf in our comfortable lifetimes? If we consider ourselves moral, the joke is on us.
Or if we consider ourselves rational, these grinning corpses might say otherwise. From the 1760s to the 1780s, Sturm und Drang was a German movement which celebrated passion and nature.
But the artists don’t seem like Romantic (or even proto-Romantic) types. This piece is ironic about Goya, ironic about German literature, and ironic about anyone who takes the above seriously.
Cadavers are not the stuff of enlightenment statuary. This piece presents you with skeletal forms which you could play like a xylophone and entrails they are yet to relinquish to dogs.
Since the entirety is in monochromatic bronze, the forms emerge slowly. The faces come to you as goblin masks; maggots are having a time of it. The Chapmans have been to the joke shop.
That’s one place I would love to be a (plastic) fly on the wall. It says something that two of our most fêted artists source their materials from a realm of cheap costumes and tricks.
A pity that’s where we’ve ended up, and nowhere could be further from the culture wars of the 18th century. That’s the Chapmans for you: nihilists who must only get out of bed to laugh standing up.
Sturm und Drang is now on permanent view at Ekeberg Sculpture Park, Oslo.