Politics and the periphery at the DCA

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Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen,Tales From the Periphery (video still), 2010, courtesy of the artist.

Dundee may only be half an hour away, but to average St Andrews students it symbolizes another world; one with McDonald’s, Fat Sam’s, Topshop and considerably more Scottish people than our own medieval bubble. The destination of choice for an afternoon mini-break, Dundee can also, cruelly, be the butt of a fair few jokes. However, in addition to its enviable supply of clubs and McNuggets, it also has the Dundee Contemporary Arts centre. The DCA, in addition to two cinema screens, offers a space for contemporary art and culture outside our Barbour-and-port infused melting pot.

The DCA’s latest offerings allow us to imagine being a world leader: a thorough interrogation of most IR students, and the rest, would reveal that very ambition (I know I’ve had my world domination plans in the pipeline from a young age). This makes DashnDem’s ‘Imagine Being a World Leader’ and Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s ‘From the Edge’ fairly awkward viewing. Both consist primarily of film and although entirely separate in their creation and execution, there is a remarkable amount of crossover between the two. Essentially, both shows highlight the deeply flawed bureaucracy of the modern world and the unfair distribution of power and wealth.

‘Imagine Being a World Leader’ focuses on the devices, movements and techniques employed by political leaders when ‘performing’ in public However, the artists give a twist to these Cicero-cum-Obama lessons; they are being given for the benefit of children. A bright handbook which resembles the colouring books of our youth is adapted for the purpose of ‘giving a voice to young people whilst exposing the mechanisms of rhetoric and political coaching’.

The typical conference hall setting is scaled down within the gallery to the small plastic blue chairs of classrooms, and the impressive stately home background that we so often see behind world leaders on the television is printed onto a screen hung upon the gallery wall. The footage being screened is of local Dundonian schoolchildren reciting political speeches with all the rhetorical force and persuasive manners they had been taught. The effect of this is extremely discomforting. It makes us as spectators feel aware of how easily we are duped by the art of persuasion that politicians frequently use. We also feel guilt that our ignorance and apathy has allowed such formulaic duplicity to initiate young children with such ease.

‘From the Edge’ includes several film projects by the Danish artist, Larsen, with the most prominent being ‘Rendezvous’ and ‘Tales from the Periphery’. Where ‘Imagine Being a World Leader’ makes the large and distant realm of global politics and leadership seem small and uncomfortably familiar by placing it in the recognisable guise of the classroom, Larsen’s work reverses this process. He magnifies the small and unremarkable elements of society onto large screens demanding attention, which in turn makes us feel conscious of how much we ignore those who are ‘not like us’. In this instance the normally ignored members of society are the migrant Indian works of Dubai in ‘Rendezvous’ and the inhabitants of underprivileged suburbs in Paris and Denmark.”

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen,Tales From the Periphery (video still), 2010, courtesy of the artist.

‘Rendezvous’ features two diagonally opposite screens, each with its own loop of footage; one shows the migrant workers in their place of work and the other featuring their families who remain in Kerala. The slightly uncomfortable experience of coming between the separated families as we walk across the room is nothing compared to the actual separation that is caused by the consumer driven culture we ourselves fuel.

It is the simplicity of Larsen’s decision to give this multitude of anonymous workers and their far away families an identity and a frame of understanding, the western family portrait, that makes the work so effective.

‘Tales from the Periphery’ moves the objectifying power of the artist’s medium, in this case photography, to the subjects themselves. The inhabitants of these suburbs, famous for high levels of crime and unemployment, use recording equipment as basic as a mobile phone to retell their stories free of the stigma and judgment normally attached to the documentary-style cameras that often enter their lives. They are simply teenagers and youths, and share the same humanity as migrant Indian workers, Dundonian school children, world leaders and us.

These two shows combine to expand our field of vision. Those who we normally admire and respect, the world leaders, are robbed of their identity and reduced to mere tricks and illusions, and those who we barely consider, who reside in the periphery, are identified and are impossible for us to ignore.

The DCA’s latest exhibitions are as accessible as they are powerful, and it would truly be a shame to miss them. If migrant Indian workers can support their families from Dubai, then we can certainly cross the Tay Bridge.

Imagine Being a World Leader and From the Edge are Running at the DCA from 8th September – 18th November in partnership with Discovery Film Festival.

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