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Return of the Baroque: A Theatre of Protest

In Response to Christina Mandilari’s Take Me Out to Art War!, Allison Everett argues that we’re experiencing a new Baroque – and it provides the perfect lens through which to better understand our society
words – allison everett
location – edinburgh, scotland
photography – steven zucker, dgeezer

To begin, some stage setting. You’re standing in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall; the moon, the sail, the wave, the earth and the wall are woven and dancing in front of El Anatsui’s monumental installation, ‘Behind the Red Moon’ [2023], exploring foundational forces with human histories of power, oppression, diaspora and survival. The artist presents his group of symbols to prompt his audience to think about the Transatlantic slave trade. The enormous hangings which recall heavy, glittering stage curtains feature a mix of shimmering materials including Nigerian liquor bottle tops that are sourced from a present-day industry built on colonial trade routes. The viewer is invited to approach a monumental theatre of protest, featuring a performance of sculptures.

I think, when we span out, and settle into Contemporary Art right now, it becomes a stage we are invited to approach. The theatricality of participation in art – especially art that incites strong emotions – has brought us into a new, reformed Baroque that battles and questions the inequality so rife within our society. “Art is tangible. Art is participatory,” wrote Christina Mandilari in her piece about art as part of the fabric of social change. She likens it, in our contemporary times, to “the voice of the people” and “one of the most lyrical expressions of humankind, holding the potential to trigger sensitivity and rage within everyone…” Baroque art specialised in this, and provides an apt lens through which to better understand the world we find ourselves within and the goals we must work towards for a better future.

The Baroque, which spanned across the late 16th to early 18th Centuries in Italy, and then across the globe, was born in a time of post-plague economic crash; this resulted in extreme, chaotic inequality that was reflected in the art and culture of the time. Italy was finally overcoming a plague that pervaded the entirety of the country from 1630-57. The plague halted cities, and devastated villages. Industry and agriculture were in crisis. The similarities between this and our current times cannot be under emphasised. Italy’s economic disaster reinforced antiquated noble hierarchies, and this shift resulted in the number of skilled urban craftsmen and merchants decreasing whilst that of illiterate peasants increased, and noble power intensified. As the economic crisis spread, middling ranks lost out and social stratification between the rich and poor took hold – causing a profound wealth gap to affect all aspects of culture. In such desperate times, cultural extremes developed and art followed suit. It became a spectacle.

Art was theatre in the Baroque: the viewer [the audience] activating the work by standing and taking witness of a dramatic moment. Just as El Anatsui invited us to his theatre, Baroque artists swept the viewer into melodramatic installations of narrative. When Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Italian Baroque painter more commonly known as Caravaggio – and identified as such in his numerous police reports – had a commissioned painting installed in a chapel, it sat in situ as a sort of spectacle.

Caravaggio’s viscerality mirrored the times. Bare, dirty feet; bloated corpses and sensuous, longing stares encapsulated the chaos and drama of a 17th century Rome at once emaciated and luxuriant – the city’s broad spectrum of quality of life presented on canvas, at scale, for all to reflect upon and bear witness to. ‘The death of The Virgin Mary’ [1601-03] was reimagined with the lifeless body of a recently deceased sex worker. St. Peter’s dirty feet are presented to the viewer as he resigns himself to his martyrdom in ‘The Crucifixion of St. Peter’ [1601]. Caravaggio was impulsively restaging biblical scenes with what he encountered everyday, creating an artistic visualisation of the society he found himself within. When you view his ‘Deposition’ [1600-04], currently hung in the Vatican’s expansive Pinacoteca, you are deposited into the scene. You stand in Jesus’s tomb, watching the corporeal group of mourners struggle, muscles straining, faces in agony and grief, stumbling towards you as they carry Jesus’s lifeless body to his tomb. It is a giant and live reimagining you are partaking in. A monumental theatre.

There are a number of artists working today, in our current economic and political environment, who have sent similar invitations to attend their installations as audience members. Josie KO, a Glasgow based artist with Nigerian heritage, creates stages with a nod to traditional public sculptures for the viewer to approach. In KO’s work entitled ‘Monuments,’ the artist presents thinking on Black Scottish histories with her own experience of moving to Scotland centre stage. When conversations about public monuments in Britain gathered pace after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, KO decided to build what she believed a British monument should be. Rather than a monument that presents a figure that built or contributed to racist systemic exploitation, her monument uses the fabric of exploitation itself to elevate the Black female figure. She uses easily accessed materials like newspaper and bright coloured paint to create textural surfaces and exaggerated expressions. Her giant Black female receives the same status and scale enjoyed by white male figures in historical British public sculpture, and invites the viewer to attend a show featuring the erasure of notable Black British figures in our past.

The idea of the Baroque multi-medium stage as a device was most memorably employed through sculpture. Installations like Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Theresa,’ and ‘San Andrea al Quirnale’ were experiential, sculptural theatres – frozen in marble and metals, and awoken by their viewers. St. Theresa, who wrote about an angel in flames piercing her with an arrow and imbuing her with divine ecstasy and knowledge, sits elevated in an aedicule in the Cornaro chapel of Santa Maria Della Vittoria in Rome. Her billowing cloak suggests a windy day, but the jagged, straight folds in their motion simultaneously read as earthly and rock like. The angel, with arrow in hand, rises as a sensuous flame – flickering softly and gently above Teresa of Avila, about to pierce the writhing Carmelite Spanish nun again. A theatre hewn from marble for audiences to witness and better understand their surroundings – and place within them.

It is a literal theatre, alive, breathing; a fitting showcase of the new Baroque and how it can serve as a vehicle for understanding challenging societal occurrences and narratives.

Fast forward to present day and Jesse Jones’s series of witchy Feminist works are similarly theatrical in their nature. In her 2023 work ‘The Tower,’ The Irish artist used sculpture, curtains, film projected onto floor to ceiling screens and live performers to tell a story about how the powerful, inuitive and nuturing nature of femininity was quashed by the veritable genocide of women accused of being witches – a slaughtering that spanned from Medieval times until only very recently. Jones meshes together a fabric of Medieval, folkloric and magical thinking to present a tapestry of theatre which cracks open the discussion and provides a vehicle to both assault and understand it. The viewer is part of the installation, often interacting with the performers and following lights and sounds throughout the piece. It is a literal theatre, alive, breathing; a fitting showcase of the new Baroque and how it can serve as a vehicle for understanding challenging societal occurrences and narratives. It is art bridging the gap, presenting the conversation and opening the door for all to contribute.

Another palpable and central characteristic of the Baroque is ‘too-muchness.’ It was often visually Maximalist, but its experiential, sometimes emotional approach was a visible and material notion of too-muchness. An artist who has run, arms open, to this sensibility is Chloe Wise. The New York based artist has leaned hard into an over the top aesthetic – using traditional oil paintings, lifelike still-life food sculptures and chandeliers and light sconces fashioned from caesar salad dressing soaked romaine lettuce leaves alongside mounds of butter on plinths. Wise pulls the food out of Baroque Pronkstillevens, and makes them even more excessive – in doing so, addressing and questioning the consumerist culture so rife today. Her digital presence seems to have melded to her work, making it a performance of sorts. There is a theatre in this model that speaks to how Contemporary Art sits alongside digital culture; occasionally mixing and affecting one another, creating an overwhelming feeling of too-muchness which reflects our seemingly insatiable connection to the digital world. And in light of such tumultuous times, that too-muchness has become a mercurial aesthetic that feeds into artists’ practises right now.

The straddling of digital and tangible too-muchness has been a notable trend in Contemporary Art, and beautifully summarises the Maximalist too-muchness and theatricality of the Baroque. Rachel Maclean has deliciously traipsed into this genre, and grabbed the Baroque bull by the gilded horns. Maclean’s mixture of art historical, camp, pop culture, film and sculpture is the Baroque’s logical conclusion. Her 2017 ‘Spite Your Face,’ screened on behalf of Scotland at the Venice Biennale, tells a story of a ‘post-truth dystopia’ that turns the world on its head – leading her strange, polished characters to lose sight of their sense of right and wrong. Her work has continued in this vein, the parallels to be drawn with society plain for all to see. Her most recent installation, ‘Mimi’ [2023] walks us through the demise of the British High street and the backbone of our previous consumerist culture. Playing out in Maclean’s shop in Ayre, ‘Mimi’ presents a disorienting, experiential theatre of protest. It extends the thread of Baroque theatre rendered through popular culture, just as she does with the rest of her work. Maclean is an expert at railing against the problematic and ugly layers of contemporary culture, by painting them in bright pinks and Titian blues, and revelling in the cracks on the canvas.

The Baroque was the first time a style of art swept across the world. It made its way from Italy and France, all the way to China – gathering pace and reflecting the changing civilisations it presented along the way. The new Baroque has done much the same. In a world still reeling from a global pandemic, and a resulting struggling economy, we have found a new Baroque: one that employs its theatre convention in a viscerally powerful way. Danielle Thom, in her article for Art Review, argued that we are in a new Rococo, and we are craving a return to a tongue-in-cheek lightness – seeking out a means to find contentment and respite “to navigate our desire for pleasure in a painful world.” And while Baroque and Rococo are similar in a lot of ways, with their opulent decoration and aesthetically pleasing visuals, there is a noted difference in the tone that each respective style displays. Rococo has a more private, soft, interior feel that sits pleasantly before the viewer, while Baroque art is dramatic, exterior, reactive and viscerally powerful. It offers the perfect sign of the times we find ourselves within. As our world feels ever more challenging, with new powers to rally against each and every day, I believe we are in a new Baroque – witnessing an all too familiar theatre of protest.

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