‘Metropolis M’ – No 4, August/September 2010 by Xander Karskens
What has a speech by Zhao Ziyang, the former Chinese General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1989, a carillon in Amsterdam-West and a meeting for the elderly discussing the question "Can we leave things as They Are?" have with one another? It was in the work of the still very young Rory Pilgrim (Bristol, 1988) during the annual exhibition 'Offspring' at de Ateliers, Amsterdam that these three main elements formed the pillars of a project. Brought together, they formed a work by Pilgrim which intertwined his interest in political activism, collective musical experience and ideological relationships.
Pilgrim's work, strongly shaped by his religious and musical backgrounds, often creates rudimentary and temporary conditions in which a single activity (such as parts of an aesthetic / spiritual experience) may take place. It may seem at first that his work builds upon what we now understand as relational aesthetics, but his work is instead a much closer examination at earlier movements of critical, socially engaged and radical activist American art from the 1970's and 1980's.
In Pilgrim's recent work for example, were works that focused upon gay rights in Africa, the difference of age and role of ideological and non ideological outlooks in different generations within our society. It is engaged art with a strong humanistic interest, serious and with a somewhat solemn tone. However, in all its silvery mercury, associative nature and understated imagery never preachy. Pilgrim's work thus acts as a means to open discussion and comment upon specific social issues such as social inequality and discrimination, using seemingly unrelated information that sparingly provides visual stimuli. Thus art is not used as a crowbar or megaphone for politics, but creates an ambiguous place with no clear answers to his hands - a reflection of the complexity of the great issues he raises.
In ' Can we leave things as They Are ?' at de Ateliers, Pilgrim installed in a large, bare room a circle of chairs around a bonsai tree, and hung a simple noticeboard, as seen often in churches and community centers. Each quarter of the hour chimes rang throughout the building. Within the notice board hung sheet music of the music played through out the building, entitled with the question. Also included was a photograph of a carillon, with an invitation for the elderly to come on the last day of the exhibition to use the space for a group discussion upon the state of affairs in our society and their role as elderly persons. What should happen?
Can the world be left to the younger generations? After the discussion, the group went to the Freedom Carillon situated on the 1940-1945 Plein in Amsterdam West, where the composition was finally performed and rung out to the city. For each of the three possible outcomes of the group (' We can leave things as they are', 'We can't leave things as they are' , or ' We can't decide) was a different ending written for the piece of music composed by Pilgrim, thus broadcasting the decision of the participants.
Hanging in the noticeboard also, reads the single quotation that was famously made by the former Chinese General Secretary Zhao Ziyang during the Tiananmen Square riots in 1989. While the students were on hunger strike, Ziyang went to the students and gave a speech pleading them to end their hunger strike and embrace their future. It was in this speech that he famously called out to the students ' We are already old, and do not matter'.
In the carillon composition this text is subtly interwoven, hinting at communist state music. Similarly, he plays on the cultural significance of the carillon in the Netherlands, which historically shifted from a religious to secular function. In his work the individual voice versus that of the mass in a recurring theme, bringing to attention the rhetoric of authority and its manifestations in public life - a subject he as a minister's son much affinity with.
While in the exhibition, you may wonder that such a question as ' Can we leave things as they are?' may open a discussion too open and undefined as described that would never be useful. However, the scope and content of the headstrong and self-conscious formal choices within this early body of work provide sufficient reason to be curious about what follows.