State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

a girl, a wolf and Karl Marx

Several years ago simultaneous events, one local, one global impacted my thinking and my life in stunningly acute ways. We had a wolf problem here in my area. The problem for the media, hunters and frightened cottagers was that there were a growing number of wolf sightings and something had to be done since wolves are considered highly dangerous predators. My partner is a former expert on habitat and large predator issues; his thinking was that the only problem with these wolf sightings was the slanderous hype surrounding them reinforcing a stigma against wolves. What was actually happening was that wolf sightings were above average because the ban on hunting wolves in Ontario put in place in the last decade had worked. Wolves regained their numbers and were thriving.

At the very same moment these wolf issues came into my world the stock market tumbled into oblivion wiping out a third or half of people’s savings all over the planet. I am a firm believer in tying big and small events together in order to ascertain meaning. I think I must have gotten into this habit through my Catholic indoctrination; God or mysterious forces in nature held some influence in our little, insignificant habits.

While researching wolves in order to create an anti-hunting/safety brochure that myself and a few artists would print and distribute in our area I found that I was suddenly researching the most famous story about wolves ever written, Little Red Riding Hood. This story is a very old one, universally known and about as odd a parable as you can find. I could spend many a blog deconstructing its various analogies from rape and incest to rural/agricultural/anti-wilderness propaganda. But what I saw in its words was something distinctly activist and familiar; I am a girl in a log cabin after all.

It seemed to me that the Riding Hood character gets into bed with a predator through the most heinous manipulation and defends herself by questioning the wolf’s authority over her. I must have absorbed an enormous amount of anti-capitalism rhetoric that was swirling around in the media because of the stock market crash because the Little Red Riding Hood story seemed more like a political polemic than a fable to keep children out of the woods.

Marx's grave in Highgate  Cemetary in London, UK or just a girl sanding by a monument near the woods.
Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetary in London, UK or just a girl sanding by a monument near the woods.

On a side note, I had a commercial exhibition of my paintings on during the crash of 2008; my dealer extended the exhibition because for two weeks no one came into the gallery. It was as if being near art would be ruinous to a bottom line.

What came from this experience is my project ‘a little red, a manifesto in fairy tale form’.  My first task after realizing I had to create something about this synethesia I was experiencing was to a find a way of rewriting the story as a dialogue on capitalism and its dark side. I didn’t need to go far as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was in my reading pile. I then began melding the discourse on economics by Marx with the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It took a long time. Reading Marx isn’t easy, Das Kapital is all over the map (in a good way) and the Communist Manifesto, though brilliant is also kind of crazy. But, Marx is kind of funny and he liked a good time, loved art and artists and if alive today would probably be blogging and getting all feisty on Twitter. Most importantly however was that I found a lot of strong ideas about Europe’s move from rural based economies to industrial economies and how that shift caused an enormous amount of strife and instigated an anarchist movement that still exists today.

Then suddenly everyone was talking about the economy and anarchy and the Occupy Wall Street movement was citing verbatim so many things I was reading and writing. Perhaps this wave of enlightenment regarding the corporate takeover of our culture needed many voices and mine could be added. In many ways a new me was created along with this work.

Marx has some beautiful ideas but his words also influenced the worst kind of totalitarianism the world has ever seen. His reputation because of this is tenuous at best. But if you read him you realize he deplored violence and would be horrified by what has occurred in his name. I found a great deal to like in his writing and though many ideas would no longer work today, much of its sentiment has found a place in our current world where many economies are built on false ideas of growth and hopelessly regressive ideas about labour and innovation.

Marx and the story of Little Red Riding are comfy bedfellows, the mash up works. Rural Prussia in the 19th century (where the Grimm Brothers brought the fairy tale back to life) was a place of ongoing struggle which Marx wrote about early in his career. The distinctions between the status quo/authority and the restless, starving underclass that wanted change are stark. Throw in the tsunami of mechanization which made workers into cogs and you have a world where the balance of power in humans and nature is dangerously off kilter.

But how is all this art? It is a really good question and one that I hope to answer my installation of ‘a little red, a manifesto in fairy tale form’in a gallery this week in Peterborough.

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