Lisa Barnard’s photographs are empty stages awaiting actors to enter through the myriad doors, emerge from behind spectral blue curtains, or even to appear hologram-like through a blank screen or a gaping rent in a wall.
The theatre, located at 32 Smith Square, London, is presently between productions. The final curtain for the last show came down in July 2004, though its glory days ended seven years earlier on 01 May 1997, though some would say the precise date of its demise was 28 November 1990, when its leading lady, one Margaret Hilda Thatcher, announced she would no longer take the stage.
It will be evident by now that this now empty building was once the Conservative Party headquarters. A famously squalid building on the inside ( a state encouraged by the party’s then treasurer Lord McAlpine to attract benevolent benefactors) it was the setting for 50 years of Tory election victories, as well as the site where party faithful learnt of the memorable loss of Michael Portillo’s Enfield seat to Labour’s Stephen Twigg that fateful May night.
For many photographers, the chance to make a project in a building so redolent with recent political history would be a gift. But for one with a critical practice (anyone who saw Barnard’s Virtual Iraq at the Brighton Photo Biennial in 2008 will know that her work engages with the political), to perpetuate photography’s passionate affair with disused spaces would have been an opportunity wasted. Barnard has brought something else to the frame; an eye that doesn’t linger over the aesthetics of decay, but rather draws the observer’s attention to the poetics of space. With her cool blue interior shots, she creates the necessary distance for abstraction, moving through this new register of perception to a different spatio-temporal plane where the political and the performative, and the past and the future collapse into each other.
It is as though Barnard is using documentary photography to take the observer beyond the real. Although on the one hand she is simply documenting the last vestiges of an old regime, yet in the same frame she is offering up the possibility that what she is documenting is not real, was never real, just a political chimera, all surface, no depth. To paraphrase Roth, the smallness of politics is crushing. So many doors offer the promise of a way out, yet all the time the observer feels claustrophobic, hemmed in by walls and industrial pipes, waiting for the low polystyrene ceiling to bear down at any moment. Thus trapped, we are invited to consider not just the space/the stage but its lost objects, its props, and the sense of disquiet they engender.
A folk doll is photographed, along with other recovered oddments, almost as a fetish object, as though for a rather surreal catalogue. It (she?) is so pitifully abject, the smallest of capitalism’s useless commodities; a diplomatic gift, perhaps, from an eastern European country. Two disembodied arms hold what the police might term ‘Tory paraphernalia’ – a flag and a scarf of the variety worn by the UK’s first female Prime Minister - literally at arm’s length. The inclusion of a silver spoon carries with it the unpalatable taste of privilege. Barnard has photographed these objects in a style reminiscent of her earlier body of work Care Packages, a project devised by the Blue Star Moms of America, as a kind of grief kit for bereaved parents of dead soldiers. Removed from their original context, these objects, like the Nestle mini marshmallows or Hershey kisses, are rendered absurd, unfathomable, redundant. These are the props of Conservative politicians, who, after 13 years off Broadway, are now waiting fractiously in the wings to take centre, or should that be centre right, stage in May 2010.
Barnard has been commissioned to photograph the building by Pringle Brandon, the architects working for the new owners, and these photographs will comprise part of the final exhibition, which will take place when it opens in its new guise. Though we see evidence of a ‘seemingly fraught’ relationship with the US in the scratched out BUSH sign, or a tiny door tag that reads Washington, there is no sign of the infamous Vive Le Quid posters, or the Keep Britain Out of Europe slogans that characterized the Conservative Party’s loathing of the EU (formerly the EEC) at that time. Which makes it all the more ironic that these same rooms will soon house offices of the European Parliament and the European Commission. As Churchill said: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”