The timeline on the wall outside the Fighting History exhibition at Tate Britain tracks from 60000BC through to 1990. Over this vast span of history are random points of struggle that have been depicted spanning 250 years of British historical art and that form the focus of the exhibition. What I found striking throughout the artworks across the six rooms was how it made me consider history and how it is portrayed together with the title of the exhibition ‘Fighting History’ and how this was reflected in the art. Who is fighting who and why? what was the story behind the images captured by artists across the years and indeed what is the fight? It also made me think about how can you take individual significant moments from history (whatever period that is) and distil that moment or event and in doing so what story are you telling of the event?
My preconceptions perhaps before going in were that I would be confronted with images of Nelson and other heroic figures of British history bathed in patriotic fervour. However the first image that I was confronted with was related to the poll tax riots as the first room dealt with radical history and how British artists have sought to show the resistance to authority. Also in this room was the Jeremy Deller picture above, a seemingly simply mind map linking Brass Bands and Acid House within which is the Conservative governments’ attempts to outlaw a particular type of music via the Criminal Justice Bill and how, perhaps as a result of that threat, dance music is now simply another corporate money making enterprise far removed from invention and radicalism. It’s safe to say that this was not exactly what I was expecting in an exhibition on Fighting History and I found it brilliant thought provoking stuff.
Other rooms continued to educate, inform and enthral me through looking at ancient history, mythology, large scale moments of history, individual moments of fighting history (and there were some fascinating interpretations of what this might be) as well as the humankind’s constant battle against nature. What I particularly liked in the way the rooms were curated were the different artistic interpretations, so for example there were modernist takes on both the Battle of Hastings and the Biblical Flood which I thought really showcased how different artists interpreted events.
History is written by the winners and this exhibition made me reflect on that and our place within it and it made me consider how we remember things, how do we keep events alive and relevant? who tells the story and what story is it that they are telling?
All of these things came together in a room that looked at the 1984/85 miners strike and in particular a documentary on a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, again done by Jeremy Deller, which interspersed interviews with those affected by the strike amongst the preparations for the re-enactment of the battle, which was meticulously done by ex miners who where there at the time and volunteers from various re-enactment societies. It left a very powerful impression on a key moment of recent British history that many would like to see forgotten and asks some uncomfortable questions around the truth and whether we will ever really know it.
A truly interesting and thought provoking exhibition.