Although a Thatcher far from her 1970s heyday, her rigid, manic expression is unchanged. Each portrait is almost identical, her manner performative, her gaze unflinching. With only the smallest variations in pose or posture, together they form a strange serial portrait of the woman responsible for changing Britain forever, and rubbishing the society she perversely claimed no longer existed.
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These images form part of Lisa Barnard’s project 32 Smith Square, arising out of her ongoing documentation of the former Conservative Central Office, commissioned by the building’s current architects Pringle Brandon. Like an archaeologist excavating the remains of Thatcherism, Barnard has examined the building – unoccupied since the Tories left in 2004 – twice each month since August 2009, so far producing 5 films-worth of images. Some of her images picture the building’s strange, decrepit corporate blue spaces, stained carpets and cracked plasterboard; others its surreal wasteland of diplomatic gifts, dishevelled election posters, rosettes and un-blown balloons. But it is the portraits of Thatcher, unearthed in an old cupboard, which bring together these works and define the project. Her iconic image is synonymous with the twisted moralities of the free market, the capricious exploits of buccaneer capitalism, privatization, debtor economy and age of banking that has defined Britain’s politics and reconfigured its culture since the 1970s.
Barnard’s fascination with the found portraits hinges on their disturbing combination of beauty and terror. Re-photographing the official images, and cropping out the various international dignitaries with whom Thatcher had originally posed, Barnard exposes the photographs’ corrupted state; an ode to the impermanence and instability of colour photosensitive materials. Like Thatcher’s vision of politics, the portraits’ aged and slightly bleached surfaces are diluted and distorted in their present form. Deteriorating at different rates, the yellow, magenta and cyan dyes have reacted to time, humidity and damp, resembling the psychedelic chemical colour swirls of oil slicks. Their tones match the artificial dyed chestnut of Thatcher’s regimented bouffant hair. Her nacreous skin appears brittle, as shell-like and luminescent as the signature pearls clipped to her ears and strung around her throat. A yuppie’s Queen Elizabeth, styled by a TV producer, scripted by a playright, and marketed by ad men.
Not a documentary photographer content with simply being present, Barnard’s practice engages with and respects the small revelations involved in the viewing process. Her project relates to the tradition of photography’s discursive critique of politics established with Gary Winogrand’s photographs of JFK at the Democratic National Convention of 1960, or Paul Hosefros’ images of Reagan’s 1984 address to the Republican Convention via closed-circuit TV. Yet the work is not only concerned with the theatre of politics and its always-mediated nature. Barnard’s practice, from Polska Postcards to Virtual Iraq, has sought to negotiate the difficult places where politics, psychology and aesthetics meet. With 32 Smith Square, this involves working through the complexities and absurdities of British politics past and present, reflecting upon the political processes of fetishisation, aestheticisation and reification, as well as the complexities of political temporalities and the peculiarities of historical memory.
Creeping up Thatcher’s body, the warped form of each photograph transforms the appliquéd blue fabric of her jacket into that of a velvet dressing gown. Thatcher is aging, suffering from dementia, being domesticated right in front of us. Yet Barnard’s timely project makes explicitly clear that the lady is still not for turning. Despite having recently witnessed the collapse of banking, financial meltdown and guargantuan public bailouts, staggeringly we have ushered in a blue Britain once again. This time around, the Tory Central Office where David Cameron’s Conservatives celebrated their ‘victory’ was the same Millbank Tower where Tony Blair rang in his 1997 triumph. Indeed, although Barnard’s project might appear to document the end and aftermath of a certain kind of British politics, these found portraits make the point explicitly: Thatcher’s warped ideology lives on, and the past continues to shape the future.
As Terry Eagleton reminds us, Walter Benjamin believed that how we act in the present has the potential to change the meaning of the past, in the sense that the past doesn’t literally exist (any more than the future), but lives on in its consequences, which are a crucial part of it. Benjamin was not afraid of nostalgia, and believed that with the benefit of hindsight we have the possibility to make more sense of the past than we could hope to at the time of its unfolding. More than this, he believed that with this privilege comes the power to correct the future. Thatcher also looked into the past and sought to project it into the future. Her version of the past, however – the once ‘great’ Empire also sought by Churchill – was a skewed and selective version of British history. It was a vision that played a fundamental part in her election. Under the slogan ‘Britain is going backwards’, the Saatchis’ 1978 political broadcast for the Tories showed black and white film of Stephenson’s rocket steaming backwards, jetliners landing in reverse, and Big Ben’s hand’s winding anticlockwise. Yet arguably no less terrifying is Blair and Cameron’s apparent fear of history, their desire to make it, and the future, blank. If Benjamin rejected this kind of philistinism, it was because he recognized, too, that those who obliterate the past risk abolishing the future.
Barnard’s portraits also bring the past into the future, and ask us what we have learnt from our position of hindsight. What we should have learnt is that Thatcherism was built upon a reckless and often illogical commitment to privatisation, influenced by figures such as the accountant and investor Jim Slater, who pioneered the hostile take-overs and asset stripping – known as corporate raids – of public companies. Yet the lesson, too often overlooked, is that privatisation didn’t actually work. It didn’t result in increased productivity, instead producing short-term financial gain through mass redundancies; ruthless, often illogical restructuring, which in turn led to social disintegration and despair. Before Thatcher even came to power, during the banking crisis of 1975, Slater received state support. Following the subsequent takeover of his company by the Bank of England, 15 charges were brought against him for allegedly misusing more than £4,000,000 of company funds in share deals. The case was thrown out in 1977.
Today, in the aftermath of the most serious global financial crisis since the 1929 Wall Street Crash, privatisation and corruption continues unabashed, and appallingly big city bonuses are still being justified. The lesson of Barnard’s work is profound, and one well-known by Benjamin: that true power means sovereignty over what has already happened, not simply the capacity to determine what happens next.
Published in Photoworks issue 15, 2010-11
Commissioned by Photoworks