Lynn MacRitchie

Right on for the Darkness


At one stage during a discussion about her installation Right on for the Darkness, Lynn MacRitchie exclaimed, “Maybe I should call this piece Damn it, It’s Political!’” This enraged hesitation over the title of the piece highlights an important problem in recent contemporary art: the idea of the supposed absence of overtly political art in today’s world. Lynn MacRitchie’s wise decision not to use that title shows the quasi-impossibility of literally avowing to make “political work” on the eve of the new millennium.


How dare she? How can she claim to be able to make a political comment when the collapse of the autonomy of the art object in the last 50 years has rendered any political critique redundant and impossible, when the destructuring of the visual language has sidestepped meaning and content, when the emergence of fractal societies and identities has blurred every boundary established by the Enlightenment?


Lynn MacRitchie’s history in this context is an interesting one and should pave the way to a better understanding of the problem at hand. Born in Glasgow and trained as an artist and art historian in Edinburgh, she arrived in London ready to “change the world” in the early seventies. The socio-economical and political situation of Britain and in a wider context of the Western World at the time, required from artists a direct activism into current political questions. It was the time when Artforum organised symposia on art and politics in response to both the American Civil Rights and the anti-Vietnam war movements. It was a time artists such as Carl Andre declared that political action by artists was a necessity and when critics such as Lucy Lippard proclaimed: “It becomes clear that today everything, even art, exists in a political situation.” [1]


It was also the time of the social idealism of Joseph Beuys (who Lynn MacRitchie interestingly was one of the last to interview) which declared that artists cannot function politically in any material or organisational sense but only through art. “Every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself. In an age of individuation, away from collective groupings, self-determination is the central concept.” [2]


This statement by Beuys could be Lynn MacRitchie’s life long motto. Even before graduating, she started addressing important social issues single-handedly. For example, in the final year of her MA, she organised at the risk of being expelled and against the traditional academism prevalent in Edinburgh at the time, two shows which already addressed a political issue by opening up her college to a wider social context. (The 3 Day Event and the Participation Art Event).


When she arrived in London in 1973, “ready for the revolution”, she quickly became a founding member of the seminal Artist for Democracy which included artists such as David Medalla and Rasheed Araeen. Alongside these collective ventures and following Beuys’ statement, she also carried on working as an artist in her own right, determining things for herself, articulating, as it were, the problems of the world on her own terms. In this context, she made a series of solo performances, as well as working with  Sally Potter and Rose English in the Serpentine Gallery Festival of Performance in 1974.


The advent of the 1980s turned things on their heads by expanding the relationship between art and the political into the realm of language. The rejection of political activism in art by eighties artists, in favour of an endless critique of the condition of commodification became central to most art practices: Peter Halley clearly summarised the problem at the time: it became “difficult to talk about a political situation: along with reality, politics is sort of an outdated notion. We are now in a post-political situation. ... Rather than addressing topical issues, I think a work of art has to address critical issues: the topical political issues of the day, to the extent they exist, are certainly of concern to people as individuals, but in a work of art it is the structural questions behind those topical issues that are important.” [3]

Structure, language, codification and the semiotics of power and oppression replaced seventies political activism.


The emergence of groups such as The Guerrilla Girls and Fanny Adams (“Anthony D’Offay showed less than 15% women artists, or none at all, in 1991” [4] ), Act Up and Gran Fury (“Fuck your profiteering, People are dying while you play business” [5] ), and of artists such as Barbara Kruger and, at the opposite spectrum, Andrea Fisher, changed our understanding of the role of the artist in society, insisting that since art is a language, it is therefore through its semiotic vessel that art can change the world. 


Throughout this complex and contradictory period, Lynn MacRitchie dealt with her own decision of abandoning making art. As soon as the eighties kicked in, she realised that the revolution was not going to take place, that the world was not going to change. Faced with this disillusion, she turned to writing. First for  Performance Magazine. Then realising that no money could be made out of art criticism, she abandoned art altogether and took on a “real” job in 1981 and made “eighties money”. As she says: she was “fed up with the woolly thinking of the art world, that no one was getting anywhere, that nothing was being done, that nothing was changing.” Throughout the Thatcher years, Lynn MacRitchie became a professional writer, silently watching in dismay an art world getting progressively fascinated with its own image and language, quietly noticing that no artist was picking up on the great issues of the time, the miner’s rebellion, the poll tax upheaval, the draughts in Sudan, etc.


But the necessity of keeping a foot in what she originally devoted her life to became impossible to avoid. Interestingly, one of her first returns to art came in the shape of an article published in the Financial Times in 1991. The article reviewed a series of shows in disused spaces in the Docklands (one of which was organised by Matts Gallery) and drew the attention to the renewal of interest by artists in showing their work outside conventional frames, of making their own mark outside the remits of the gallery. Through this little open door to a more politically based form of art practice offered by site-specific art, Lynn MacRitchie re-entered the art world.


The period which saw her re-entry into the art world also witnessed the emergence of overtly political work based on the last bastion of identity politics. The radical work of British curator Eddie Chambers was in this context essential. His 1994 exhibition Us an’ Dem poignantly yet sadly foresaw the inevitable unfolding five years later of the explosive Lawrence tragedy and called way before anyone else to the necessity of addressing the whole problem of the relationship between the police and the black community. Indeed, “when will dis ting ever end?” But besides these rare one-off events, political art had overall been side-tracked.


Lynn MacRitchie is now a well established professional writer, regularly reviewing exhibitions for the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. This position has given her power, the power of the media without whom even the most seminal event would go unnoticed. Dressed in grey suits, she deals with the advantages and disadvantages of her profession, the hypocritical smiles and the fantastic opportunities offered to a newspaper critic. Essentially, one could say that she has it all, she finally reached the pinnacle of her career, being professional, making money and working in the arts.


So how to deal with her re-emergence as an artist? Why did she get a studio in July 1997 and began drawing and making art? Beyond the potential contemptuous remarks of her fellow colleagues of the media, and beyond the exclamation of surprise by artists, how can one understand this return to making art, and above all of making art which has a political content?


The expansion of the remit of artists’ work (Damien Hirst’s flirtation with the food industry, pop music, publishing, film and even opera, for example) and the blurring of the boundaries of professionalism should allow us to accept this daring new career move from a newspaper critic. The idea of the artist as a lone creator is no longer valid. Artists are now part of the creative industries and as such can easily slip into other creative roles. Therefore, the question should not be “why is Lynn MacRitchie changing hats?”, but more precisely, “why this sudden need to make work at the end of the nineties?”.


The answer to this question lies in the change of attitude in art towards the political.


The great post-structuralist reassessment of the realm of “Le Politique” by Catherine David’s Documenta X brought an urgent need to reconsider the evolution of the relationship between art and politics. The focus on memory and historical reflection throughout her Kassel’s “Parcours”, underlined the necessity to examine today’s pressing social and political issues. These are numerous and complex: the emergence of fractal societies and the persistent division between east, west, north and south economies; the birth of trans-national identities and the prevalence of nationalism and racism; the swallowing of the real through digital and virtual realities; the never-ending globalisation of modernity; the expansion of the urban realm; the planetary expansion of markets over redundant national policies, etc.


Amidst all this whirlwind of contemporary socio-political topics, Lynn MacRitchie wisely does not choose one in order to propose solutions. She knows how history operates, how a statement today will become obsolete tomorrow. As an art historian, she knows that alone she cannot deal with these pressing issues, that in these times where individuality predominates, no grouping can no longer press charges against the injustices of the time. There can be no more association of revolutionary artists, no more billboards, no more banners, no more sit-ins, no more demonstrations, no more manifestoes.


Time has passed.  What she gives us in her installation Right on for the Darkness is a subtle piece of intricate political poetry. Three images from the past, of men relaxing from the business of war, a blurred snap shot of four children standing by a crater projected onto a basketball stand and an enveloping and obsessive sound: the bouncing of an invisible basket ball. Simple, evocative and entrenched with an emotive content of significant proportion: The piece draws together real / imaginary actors from a past, but unnamed armed conflict: the executioners and their victims, the young and innocent recruits and the young and innocent children. These are not dramatic pictures, no weaponry, no wounds, no blood, no parade. The soldiers and their victims are placed on the same level (four projectors): alive and relaxing before the next move, the next conflict. Right on for the Darkness reveals the symptomatic drama of survival under extreme conditions, when men take breaks between battles, when children contemplate the devastation of war before running back to their shelters in anticipation of the next bombing. The sound of the basketball echoes the sounds of war, the real players are absent, the reality of war has been metaphorised, violence is here anaesthetised.


Although the subject is war, there are no shocking tactics involved here, no messages, no deconstruction of meaning, no shifting semiotic strategies at work. The press-wise MacRitchie leaves these tactics to advertising agencies, pressure groups, NGOs and the media. They generate discourse and debates which have no more play in contemporary art. As Paul Virilio says “The punch is the beginning of communication: a punch brings you back into proximity when words are lacking.” [6] The “in-your-face” attitude of so much art of the nineties is here discarded. This is the new millennium, these old tactics have become commodified, they’ve become a much overused marketing ploy which can no longer generate a true comment or a true debate.


Lynn MacRitchie thus presents us with a fight for the here and now. Alone, following her Beuysian motto she works her ideas through, she presents us with vague images that could belong to any past, the Vietnam war, the Korean war, the Gulf war, etc. This trans-national, timeless position points to the problem of the search for “real time”, a time that resists acceleration, maintains distances and depths. A time of community and reflection for which action is no longer dedicated to improve the world, but to simply make a better community. The change of attitude in art towards the political enfolds precisely around this element. As Jean-Luc Nancy says: “History does not belong primarily to time, nor to succession, nor to causality, but to community, or to being-in-common.” [7] History and in particular political history is here treated as performance rather than narrative and knowledge. It has lost its Marxist goal, it is no longer the grand collective destiny of mankind. “Our time is the time, or a time, when this history at least has been suspended.” [8] Total war, genocide, the challenge of nuclear powers, implacable technology, hunger and absolute misery, have all become part of the continuous unfolding of our present and have to be acted upon here and now and no matter what the future holds. There is no longer a history in the making with a goal or a paradise to reach, there is only our present reality, the daily shadows on the horizon of our lives, our future.


Right on for the Darkness exposes this by bringing together these unknown, yet familiar faces, a photograph of a lost uncle killed at war, of a grand-father during his military service or just before getting married. It draws us together. It points to what Nancy calls community: “ (It) is neither an abstract or immaterial relationship, nor a common substance. It is not a common being, it is to be in common, or to be with each other, or to be together. And together means something that is neither inside nor outside one’s being.” [9]   “Together” is Lynn MacRitchie’s political/poetical message: it simply means not being by oneself. The shadows of war, of human misery, crime and injustice are always there, they are our present reality, our daily dimension. Uncle, distant relative, children, friends, the web is large. Lynn MacRitchie works her way to tell us that we are here and now, we are still a community, albeit fractured and partially displaced, but we are the we that happens. As Heidegger says: “History has its essential importance neither in what is past, nor in the ‘today’ and its ‘connections’ with what is past, but in the proper happening of existence.” [10]


Jean-Paul Martinon
Department of Visual Cultures
Goldsmiths College

[1] Lucy Lippard, “Postface”, Six Years, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1973, p. 264.

[2] Joseph Beuys, interview with Georg Jappe, translated by John Wheelwright, Studio International, Vol. 184, No. 950, December 1972, p. 227.

[3] Peter Halley, Flash Art, No. 129, Summer 1986, p. 47.

[4] Fanny Adam, advertisement 1992, as reproduced in The Cutting Edge, Barbican Art Gallery, London,13 August - 18 October 1992, p. 72.

[5] Wall Street on 24 March 1988, Gran Fury printed up dollar-looking bills with on the reverse aggressive AIDS awareness messages.

[6] Paul Virilio interviewed by Catherine David, “The Dark Spot of Art”, Documents 1, Documenta X, p. 52.

[7] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Finite History” in The Birth to Presence, translated by Brian Holmes, Standford University Press, Stanford, 1993, p. 143.

[8] ibid, p. 145.

[9] ibid, p. 154.

[10] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, New York, 1963, Par. 74, p. 386.


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