THE ART OF DISCONTENT
If it is love that makes the world go round; it is discontent that motors the art world. Each new generation of young artists-if they have any serious ambitions to change the world- will be hostile to everything that has now become conventional and acceptable. They will especially want to blow the immediate past away and replace it with a different kind of art that not only expresses their own contemporary experiences, but is also in tune with how they see their own times. No longer the young rebel, Jeremy Weller however, still remains such an artist.
Weller’s art is motived and driven by discontent- at both personal and a social level. Trained as a fine art student, he attended the highly regarded Goldsmith’s College in the 1980’s, and was there at the same time as Damien Hirst and the YBAs were beginning to emerge as the new white hope of English art. Weller instinctively and firmly believed that the YBAs’ brash and sensational mix of recycled Conceptionalism and Pop- with it media savvy awareness- was more a branch of show business than an art that took its social responsibilities seriously. After much deliberation, he decide to turn to the theatre as a more promising media to fulfil his artistic ambitions.
Again however, discontent motived Weller’s initial engagement with the theatrical world as he saw it. For him it was still mainly enthralled to the deadly and deadening allure of naturalism- with illusionism and the suspension of disbelieve cosying up to each other-to make its audience feel safe and reassured. By contrast Weller’s theatre would be like that of ancient Greece- a dramatic and emotional battleground- where art and life would seek to collaborate, but also violently contest each other to see who would come out on top.
Over the years Weller has very successfully mounted a wide variety of performance projects, involving non-actors who have been given their opportunity to present and declaim their own biographical narratives as unmediated by theatrical conventions as possible. These very tense and high risk productions have dealt with a range of social problems and injustices from the homeless and victims of crime to drug/alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Wherever Weller’s Grassmarket Project stages one of its new productions audiences and critics alike are startled and deeply disturbed by the direct visceral impact of seeing and hearing how other people have to live out their tragically blighted and broken lives under extreme conditions.
Weller’s very distinctive and committed approach to his work in the theatre has rightly brought a great deal of critical recognition and popular admiration- both at home and abroad. Yet for all that achievement and success the artistic discontent is still there. Weller feels that the complexity of his approach to his work is not fully understood and appreciated. Critics and audiences are usually so taken up with the highly disturbing social content of his theatre that they over-look the radical artistic form of Weller’s interpretive staging and direction. Unfortunately he tends to be regarded more as a social and psychological therapist than a creative and innovative artist. On the other hand he himself sees his work as much inspired by the great realist tradition in art- going back to the radical paintings of Caravaggio and through to the films of the Italian Neo-Realists and Robert Bresson- as by the damaged lives of the people who are drawn into his particular form of theatre.
The struggle between art and life that is at the heart of Weller’s dynamic view of his form of contemporary theatre continues to rage. Up until now it is life- in its various powerful and tragic aspects- which has had the upper hand. It is now up to Weller to show us-and we to appreciate- the equally important creative role that art can play, in not only revealing fundamental and transformative truths about ourselves and the world we have created, but also to give us encouragement and hope to make that world a more understanding and less discontented place.
BILL HARE, HONORARY FELLOW IN HISTORY IF ART, WRITER AND CURATOR EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY.