On 5 March 1977, approximately two years prior to the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of the UK, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra introduced the world to Judge Dredd. A ruthless lawman, Dredd’s zero-tolerance approach to the preservation of civic peace would come to provide a caustic satire of the Iron Lady’s governance through the 1980s. These sadistic escapades featured in the British sci-fi weekly 2000 AD and were set against the heavily inked mise en scène of Mega-City One, a smog-laden conurbation notable for its automated workforces, mass unemployment, dilapidated ‘stratoscrapers’ and colossal perimeter walls.
‘Medieval-City One’ draws continuities between the rampant avarice and crony capitalism of this farcical locale and its historical context, and the flagellant delirium of post-Brexit populism, prolonged austerity and feudal nationalism. Seeking to recalibrate the so-called Dark Ages as a conjectural interstice between present and future, artist-run space 2 Queens invited a group of artists to think about the future in a ‘medieval state of mind’.
Unfurled with the gravity of heraldic standards at the threshold of an appropriately gloomy gallery, Ashley Holmes’s tapestries, Bore, Jook (all works 2017), are printed fabrics studded with afro-combs remodelled to resemble the surgical implements of trepanation. Suggesting a strange intimacy between enlightenment and cranial trauma, barbering and hazily remembered therapies, these long canvases resemble ambiguous arsenals: tools of initiation that might as easily inscribe the cultural codes of racial identity as administer punitive medication.
The Israeli duo Pil and Galia Kollectiv’s digital video The Decision Maker Does Not Anticipate stages the absurd bureaucratic protocols of border control as an elaborately costumed mummers’ play. Enacting the preservation of geopolitical boundaries as pantomimic superstition, the film’s performers appear to ward off otherness in the charged vicinity of that most mythic emblem of British nationhood, the weathered standing stone.
FF Gaiden: Black Death continues Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s remarkable body of work exploring the psycho-pathologies of racism as postulated by Frantz Fanon. Enlisting the voice of Kamile Ofoeme, the short film, created within the video game Grand Theft Auto V, is perhaps the most lyrically arresting, aggrieved and provocative work in their ‘Finding Fanon’ series (2015–ongoing). ‘Thatcher weren’t the first to bring the bad stuff, massacres and madness,’ Ofoeme intones, whilst calling out an increasingly hostile UK Home Office whose draconian policies continue to reiterate a long history of racial discrimination and hypocrisy.
In contrast, the short excerpt of Georgia Horgan’s richly researched video All Whores Are Jacobites centres on the first documented instance of same sex intercourse in British history: the attempted prosecution of trans woman Eleanor Rykener in 1394. Horgan uses Rykener’s case to suggest an alternative judicial approach to the understanding of gender along performative lines, finding within medieval legislation a curious nuancing of sexuality and its social construction.
For a show that seeks to re-animate the barbarism and ignorance of the Middle Ages as a context distressingly relevant to our conflicted present, a new work by Medieval Helpdesk (Lara Eggleton and David Steans) provides a conclusive and fittingly amnesiac motif in the form of an audio tour voiced by a hapless guide haunted by his own stories. ‘Little has changed since then, to my mind,’ he muses on the violent histories he recounts, ‘those in power still seem determined to abuse it whenever they get a chance. This is not a world that welcomes truth, or a human approach […] instead it favours those who lie and deceive.’
Let us hope we’re not trapped in Medieval-City One for much longer.
Main image: Ashley Holmes, Bore, Jook (detail), 2017, print on mesh, bore tools, thread. Courtesy: 2 Queens, Leicester; photograph: Jules Lister
First published in Issue 190