Hew Locke The Kingdom of the Blind 2008
their magnificence. They vary in size, with the biggest reaching up to 14ft tall, dwarfing the accompanying figures and suggesting an aura of authority. According to the press release, the scene depicts a victorious moment in battle that led to the leader’s rise to power. However, buried under a shimmering layer of garishly coloured objects, the identities of these statuesque figures are impossible to discern, making them mummified objects without agency. Their bright and shiny surfaces invite the viewer to come close. However, as soon as you approach the source of this sparkling excess, disappointment dawns upon the realisation that it is constructed out of layers of cheap plastic and mundane ephemera sourced from pound shops. It is precisely through this process of seduction and disillusionment that Locke challenges the assumptions society makes based on various representations of power, which can only ever be a distant and illusory picture created out of conflicting interests. These figures bring into play many binaries – the powerful and the impotent, the extravagant and the mundane, the beautiful and the grotesque – creating blatant contradictions which point to a crucial inconsistencies in the attitudes of liberals in the West. How can we be outraged at headlines describing the poor working conditions and starvation wages in the developing countries while effectively sanctioning these conditions by our continued demand for low-cost manufactured goods? When Locke confronts the viewer with the reality lying behind these images, he effectively challenges the belief that this kind of exploitation exists only in distant places. The glitter and extravagance fade as soon as proximity unveils a tactile reality. To subvert the visual language that reinforces the concept of power and authority, Locke shows it is at first necessary to adopt it. In fact, it is the very tactility and allure of the images that draw the audience in, so implicating them in the mechanism
that enables and sustains the power of colonial authorities on the one hand and global commerce on the other. However, rather than a simple denunciation, Locke puts forward a double-edged analysis of the subject. The myriad forms that build up the figures evoke conflicting associations which do not always lead to a straightforward condemnation of the exploitation of power. Certain forms such as dismembered baby dolls, toy guns, gold chains and leather bags unavoidably point to the violence of political conflicts and the surplus of global markets. However, these are interspersed with signs of nature whose ambiguity at times disrupts the dominant tone. Flowers, vegetation and wild animals also form a substantial part of the structure, thus allowing nature to be indexed in direct opposition to culture. However, symbols of nature alone cannot provide much solace. Locke simultaneously suggests both the imagined healing powers of nature and the dangers of using it as a simple antidote to the failures of culture. Locke also shows herethat even the tyrant cannot be reduced to a simple idea of ‘evil’. Once put in a position of power, individuals lose their agency and control as the mechanism of power itself develops organically, consuming everything in sight. This is reinforced by the heaviness of the figures, whose movement seems gripped by the weighty chains dragging them down in the same process that displays their power. While these comments on the nature of power are revealing, they are on the verge of becoming generalisations due to the level of abstraction in which they operate. However, the fine execution together with the rich and nuanced layers of meaning, manage to deliver a potent work which continues to expand Locke’s investigation of power. ❚
SHANPENG is a writer based in London.
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