Life after Marxism: Marxism Today exhibition
Friday 08 October 2010
Ryan Gallagher takes in the latest exhibition from artist Phil Collins
It Is by no accident that visual artist Phil Collins has chosen Manchester as the place to premiere his latest exhibition Marxism Today.
It was in Manchester’s Chetham’s library that about 170 years ago Marx and Engels embarked upon researching what would later become their most notorious and earth-shaking piece of work, the Communist Manifesto.
Marxism Today, though, is not concerned with revisiting the origins of Marxist ideology. Instead the emphasis of Collins’s latest work is on the here and now.
Consisting of two short films, you are immediately struck by the first upon entering the darkened gallery room. Flowing more like solid video journalism than erratic visual art, it focuses on interviews with ex-teachers of Marxism-Leninism who worked in East Germany prior to the reunification in 1990.
The interviewees tell their stories and explain the direction their lives took after the end of the socialist government.
One woman, a former teacher of Marxist economics, recounts how she decided to embrace capitalist ideals to “try to get rich,” while another explains that she gave up her job as a political economist to work at a dating agency.
But the Marxist principles that were instilled in the interviewees prior to reunification have not vanished.
Petra Mgoza-Zeckay, who went into social work after her career as a teacher ended, recalls seeing former German chancellor Helmut Kohl handing out Coca-Cola and bananas at Karl Marx Platz in Berlin. “I’ve never been able to eat a banana since,” she says.
The tone of the film is unwaveringly human. Instead of treating the reunification and the events that followed as a mere historical spectacle, Collins provides what is in essence a people’s history – a fascinating insight into the lives of individuals who lived, worked and once believed in the GDR.
The second film that features as part of the exhibition, in contrast, is more intellectual than emotive.
Viewers must sit behind a wooden school desk and don headphones as they watch a woman interviewed in the first film deliver a class on the mechanics of Marxist economics to present-day German students.
It makes for interesting viewing, as the generation featured in the first film had lived and worked immersed in the politics of East Germany, while Marxism is ideologically alien to the young students in the second.
Many of the students look baffled as their tutor outlines the tenets of Marxist economics, from use and exchange value to the role of the surplus. Once she has explained the basics she invites questions.
One student asks: “Why are things ordered to the disadvantage of the worker?”
“Where will we be in 50 years,” queries another, “or where should we be?”
And in that moment, as the film fades to black, Collins’s point seems to have been made.
Despite the demise of East Germany and the falling popularity of Marxist economic principles, the theories outlined so meticulously in the three volumes of Das Kapital continue to have resonance. More than a century since their publication they persist in raising the same pertinent questions, in spite of the stigma that surrounds them.
Outside the exhibition, back on to the bustling streets of Manchester somewhere between the McDonald’s, the Starbucks and Chetham’s Library, drifts the downtrodden socialist spirit of Marx and Engels.
Marxism Today suggests we could do much worse than to revisit some of the ideas they formed here all those years ago.
Runs until November 28. Entry is free.