On Colin Darke

Between October 2000 and April 2003, Derry-based artist Colin Darke copied the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in its English translation onto 480 two-dimensional objects, each of which had previously been through an active process of manufacture. The modified objects were then individually laminated between A4 sheets of transparent plastic, to be installed according to the space available at the 2003 Venice Biennale and at Context Gallery, Derry in 2005. Here, Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt considers the resulting artwork Capital.

From behind individual panes, the printed detritus of daily life clamours for notice, bold graphics shouting loudly and jagged edges trying to snare attention. ‘Think Bigger!’ a sheet of paper screams from a distance; ‘Mum’s Taxi’, a die-cut square offers. But something deadens the impact of these messages, a fine gauze of hand-writing spidering over their flat surfaces, casting everything with a greyish sheen. Letters and numbers work their way over a multitude of artefacts – in pencil, graduating to pen, etched in foil and back to pencil – as tabulations and formulae are reproduced in minute detail. In contrast to the bright print of the computer age, these marks stand as vestiges of manual labour in an increasingly slick world, resisting the block capitals of accessibility and eschewing any attempt at counter-propaganda. Receding from view in the top left corner and matched by its inverse in the bottom right, giving a clue about the direction in which the text should be read, is a five pound note issued by the Bank of England. On its surface, if it were possible to distinguish it, someone has written:

A commodity is primarily an external object, a thing whose qualities enable it, in one way or another, to satisfy human wants. The nature of these wants, whether for instance they arise in the stomach or in the imagination, does not affect the matter. (1)

We tend to think of commodities as existing in three dimensions, which relegates the objects arranged here to the kind that might be found abandoned in public space or given away free in cereal packets. The choice of items seems random, with chance relationships forming between them. Cheap needles, of the kind sold by children on the streets of developing countries, sit beside a deflated balloon; a star-spangled Statue of Liberty has a $100 bill on one side and a beer mat that reads “Words Tend to be Inadequate” on the other. Many of them advertise services, whether for takeaway food or for sex, indicative of labour exchange. Some stand as emblems of something bigger, a car advert alluding to a higher-end commodity, a bank statement signifying the machinery of international finance. Immortalised for posterity, these objects form a picture of contemporary Ireland: religious icons and leprechana over-power the pervasive signs of globalisation; the nostalgic cardboard of sewing machine repair and the vintage imprint of a packet of nylons resist modernisation.

When the means of production is used to create an inert object for consumption, the potential energy of raw materials and human skill is used up and left for dead. By appropriating the machine-made objects of consumption as the ingredients of his production, Colin Darke fleetingly unlocks this potential energy, momentarily reinvigorating the Readymade, before it dies a second death by becoming a commodity again. Entombing each of the altered items in transparent plastic, the artist alienates himself from his own production and, in so doing, references one of the central tenets of Marx’s theory, that of the eternal separation of manual workers from the end products they create.

Much of Darke’s work is predicated on an analysis of the awkward alliance between Irish Republicanism and the notion of a revolutionary proletariat. In the past, he has referenced the practice, deployed by Republican prisoners, of smuggling out of gaol communiqués or ‘comms’ written on cigarette papers. Darke used the comm form to inscribe Marxist texts in diminutive lettering, as an allusion to the spectrum of political beliefs within the Republican movement and a precursor to his consideration of Capital.

In the wake of the failed revolutions in the early decades of the twentieth century, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists advocated high culture as a means of preparing the subjective conditions necessary to ensure the success of future revolutions. Enmeshed in Colin Darke’s way of working is scepticism towards the political efficacy of art. He has explicitly resisted the instrumentalisation of art for revolutionary purposes and categorically dismissed its inherent revolutionary potential:
Marxism is not, as it is often described, simply a method for analysing material reality. It is, first and foremost, a tool for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with communism. Art does not have this strategic potential – or even provide a major contribution… (2)
Instead, Darke’s work poses questions rather than providing answers: what is the purpose of art within bourgeois culture? What is the relationship between art and revolution? Tentatively daring to pre-empt change, he attempts to reconcile the intellectual with the labour-intensive work of the production-line, addressing ‘one of the ultimate aims of the Revolution […] to overcome completely the separation of these two kinds of activity.’ (3)

When Karl Marx wrote Capital in the second half of the nineteenth century, he was attempting to define nascent capitalism and to reveal its mechanisms. In transcribing Marx’s magnum opus over the surface of quotidian commodities, Colin Darke exposes capitalism as the omniscient filter through which our reality is mediated. It took more than two and a half years (during which a labour of love must surely have seemed a penance) for him to create an artwork that describes the conditions that have taken a century and a half to establish whereby:
The financial markets are often represented as an autonomous, almost natural, phenomenon: thus television news programmes report the day’s share prices along with the weather. […] one factor undermining resistance to their negative consequences. (4)

Offering up for consumption the individual elements that make up the artwork Capital, Darke establishes an opposition to earlier works which saw him transcribing texts, such as A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, directly onto the wall as part of a deliberate attempt to resist commodification. In allowing the parameters of his works to be determined by the space in which they are exhibited, Darke surrenders to the logic of the gallery, reminding us that art cannot be considered apart from its material reality and acknowledging that culture cannot claim autonomy from the economic conditions of its production. This latest approach, of creating a saleable object, that stands proud from the wall, raises timely questions about the relationship between consumption and creativity in an era in which identities are constructed through consumption, when the shoes you wear often say more than the words you speak. By consciously short-circuiting outcomes for his artwork beyond its ability to be owned, Darke points to the dead end of consumption, which has a particular resonance in the contemporary art world.

The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented privatisation of the public space of art, through corporate intervention and a burgeoning commercial market. As neo-liberalism takes hold around the world, unequivocal support for this approach is discernible in cultural policy documents being issued on behalf of the state, itself an envoy of capitalism.(5) In interpreting government policy, ‘arms length’ public funding bodies have consolidated, rather than resisted, this trend. Arts Council England recently commissioned research into the art market on the basis that:
No artwork, however radical or overtly critical of the market-place, is immune from being absorbed and consumed as marketable material. From the museums through to the heritage sector, Arts Council England and the British Council, the public sector has always been engaged with the art market, and it should not assume that it can or should remain aloof from its activities. (6)
Indeed, scant acknowledgement is given to the fact that artists may wish to have their work judged according to non-market criteria and negligible consideration is being given within the public sector to finding alternatives to rampant capitalism, all of which supports the view that:
Bourgeois theory is blind to the transitory nature of the current forms of social relations, takes for granted the basic unchangeability (the ‘is-ness’) of capitalist social relations. (7)

With this in mind, it is something of a coup that Darke managed to smuggle his large-scale comm into the Venice Biennale, arguably the biggest international shop window for art, albeit one masquerading as a non-commercial expo. In this context, Capital reads as a critique of the complicity of the artworld in reproducing capitalist power relations.

It has retrospectively been claimed that Marx saw the spectre of advanced capitalism and predicted the socio-economic condition we now inhabit. As Colin Darke’s rendering of Capital demonstrates, his words refuse to be over-shadowed by consumer logic and serve as a presentiment ripe for reconsideration. On 14 July 2005, Radio 4’s In Our Time programme voted Karl Marx the greatest philosopher of all time. However, as Marx himself would have said, ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways. The point is to change it.’

Contexts Magazine, Dublin, 2005

1. Karl Marx, ‘Chapter One: Commodities, Part One: Commodities and Money’ in Volume One of Capital, first published 1867.
2. Colin Darke, ‘Working-Class Culture and Artistic Autonomy’, in Noel Kelly ed. Art & Politics – The Imagination of Opposition in Europe, Dublin: R4 Publishing, 2004
3. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, Introduction, 1924 http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1924/lit_revo/intro.htm
4. Alex Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto, Cambridge: Polity, 2003, p. 30
5.For a discussion of this, see George Monbiot, Captive State, London: Pan Macmillan, 2000
6. Louisa Buck, Market Matters, London: Arts Council England, October, 2004, p. 7. This text should be read as a companion to Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, Taste Buds: How to cultivate the art market, London: Arts Council England, October, 2004
7. John Holloway, ‘Fetishism: The Tragic Dilemma’ in Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, London & Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2002, p. 52