17 June – 8 October 2017
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Review by Sarah Burgess.
For those self-identifying as staunch Conservatives or Thatcherites, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art’s Wilderness Way exhibition is probably going to leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth. But, for anyone from the North East or of industrial, specifically mining, heritage, it may give you a strong sense of vindication, catharsis and pride; a repertoire of emotions long-denied to those who were personally vilified by Thatcher’s regime. The exhibition’s epicentre is the definitive picture of Margaret Thatcher walking across the abandoned site of former industrial company Head Wrightson in Teesside in 1987. She stands alone in the picture, her rigidly-sharp outline and coal-black suit juxtaposed with the hazy grey backdrop of dereliction and neglect. This is an image that poignantly reflects the disparity between the precision of her policies and ideology at Whitehall, and the dire consequences felt by local communities across England as a result.
Although the photograph could be deemed symbolic of the much-needed regeneration in the Teesside area, a challenge many believe Thatcher firmly addressed (even if by brutal means), it is clear that Wilderness Way takes the alternative interpretation and questions the moral legitimacy of Thatcher’s legacy. By structuring the exhibition around key episodes of Thatcher’s career between 1977 and 1987, such as her ‘Swamped’ speech of 1978, the 1981 Race Riots, the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike and the 1988 ‘Section 28’ flashpoint, Wilderness Way deftly incorporates the intersectional nature of Thatcher’s oppressive tendencies, focusing not just on the British working class but also the British migrant and ethnic communities – as well as the gay community. All of whom, as the exhibition demonstrates, were targeted by Thatcher for their divergence from her white, elitist and heteronormative capitalist ideal.
Through a series of videos, films, photographs, music records, news footage and memorabilia in relation to each flashpoint, the exhibition succeeds in offering oppressed communities a clear voice and sense of agency, giving much attention to under-reported incidents such as the Toxteth and Brixton race riots, the Ogreave Miners’ Strike of 1984 and the arson attack on a house in South East London in 1981; an event in which 13 black individuals were killed, but the Thatcher government refused to acknowledge as racially-motivated. In this way, the exhibition almost recreates the tension between the centre and periphery as the different ‘flashpoints’ congregate around, but also stand in clear defiance of, the pivotal image of Thatcher looming large in the heart of the room.
As well as contemporaneous images and political satire, there is a concerted effort throughout the exhibition to connect past with present. Through films such as Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s ‘Black Death: 2017’, and the ‘House of (Un)Commons’ by Aikaterni Gegisian, the issue of race and identity in relation to Brexit is questioned, illustrating the persisting isolationist policies that hang over from the era of Mrs Thatcher. Through video-game aesthetic accompanied by a rap in grime genre, ‘Black Death: 2017’ is particularly jarring in exposing racism and prejudice as a relevant issue, while Keith Piper’s ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (1984) satirically combines the rise of right-wing politicians with the world’s impending nuclear doom. All serving to cement the stark relevance of Thatcher and right-wing ideology to the political tribulations of the present, the Wilderness Way exhibition immortalises the issues that arose throughout the 1980s and shows that they need continuous questioning and revisiting; making the exhibition a must-see for all ages.