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  • John Russell 'Angel of History: I Can See for Miles'
  • 12 September to 22 October 2011
John Russell ‘Angel of History: I Can See for Miles’
12 September to 22 October 2011

‘Angel of History: I Can See for Miles’ is the first in Focal Point Gallery’s new series of temporary public artworks commissioned specifically for the railway bridge that spans Southend-on-Sea’s pedestrianised high street. For this inaugural project, artist John Russell has digitally reworked a famous portrait from 1981 of former British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and focused exclusively on the aging woman’s eyes. This new image, which will effectively gaze down Southend’s main commercial thoroughfare, is installed on the north side of the overpass and printed on a fifteen-metre wide custom-made support.

The title of Russell’s project refers to the German literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin’s essay Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940). In the ninth section of his text, Benjamin famously uses the painting Angelus Novus (1920) by the artist Paul Klee to illustrate the concept of the ‘angel of history’,
that of a figure being propelled backwards into the future by a storm. Representing historical progression, the angel’s eyes are fixed on traumatic events as they happen in the past. Where we might perceive history as a chain of events that take place one after another, the angel of history sees them accumulate catastrophically.

By representing Thatcher as the angel of history, Russell’s work reanimates Benjamin’s theoretical allegory to consider how, at a time when the UK is undergoing a full-scale political transformation since the election of the new Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, a familiar historical lineage is being allowed to recur in Britain. It could be said that the image prophetically portrays Thatcher disappearing backwards into a future where a new Conservative Prime Minister is in power, senior Tory politicians have declared that they are the ‘children of Thatcher’, David Cameron has avowed that he would ‘rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of [Gordon] Brown’, while public cuts decimate the country’s
social infrastructure and its economy. As such, Thatcher’s eyes stare back in awe at her irreversible creation; at an irreconcilable Britain, permanently forced to be embedded in and ruled by fixed notions of class, privilege and superiority.

Exactly twenty years after the original photograph of Thatcher was produced, a foreboding sense of catastrophe has been made pertinent by the recent riots in cities across the UK, which it could be argued were in part a product of an uncertain future felt by a disenfranchised youth during a time of political upheaval. Moreover, more than forty years after Pete Townsend of The Who – a band with distinct cultural connections to English seaside towns – wrote I Can See for Miles (1968), Russell’s title humorously throws a nod to philosophical and political mystics, soothsayers and prophets, together with a sense of retribution, by obliquely referencing the song’s lyrics ‘I know you've deceived me, now here's a surprise, I know that you have 'cause there's magic in my eyes.’
In another respect, Russell’s project focuses on the political context of Southend. For example, after the Conservative party gained overall control of Southend Borough Council in 2000, the outgoing Liberal Democrat and Labour coalition, in an antagonistic gesture, named one of the council’s civic buildings ‘Margaret Thatcher House’ in their honour. The sign that adorned the front of the building was recently removed and there remains no record of the board in archives or online image databases. Russell became interested in this erasure of recent local history and his exaggerated visual display could be read as a vehicle for questioning the legitimacy of public memorials for individuals who have polarised opinion through political influence, such as the recently erected statue of Ronald Reagan in London’s Grosvenor Square to honour the former US president and political ally of Thatcher.

Unusually, another memorial or reassessment of the former prime minister’s career, this time in the form of a film entitled The Iron Lady will be
released later in 2011, starring Meryl Streep as Thatcher. A friend of Thatcher’s family has reportedly said that they are appalled by the prospect of the film, because ‘it sounds like some left-wing fantasy.’

The launch of ‘Angel of History: I Can See for Miles’ will take place at The Sunrooms, 20-21 Market Place, Southend-on-Sea, Essex SS1 1DA between 4.00pm and 7.00pm on Saturday 10 September. During the evening, Hannah Perry will perform BodyHacker, a work that consists of a continuous video installation incorporating live film and a DJ set by Paul Purgas. This event is free and all are welcome.

John Russell’s 'Angel of History: I Can See for Miles' is generously supported by Arts Council England and Southend-on-Sea Borough Council.

For further press information please contact Lib Fox at Focal Point Gallery on 01702 534 108