How finding oil can be a country’s downfall
In Oil is the Devil's Excrement, artist David Jacques looks at how oil discoveries can hamper a country, as domestic manufacturing and agriculture fade and growth suffers in the long term
From the series 'A Psychopomp' for Juan Pablo (2017) by David Jacques (centre), part of 'Oil Is the Devil’s Excrement'
Evil pollutant or vital source of energy? There’s every reason to have mixed feelings about oil. Back in 1975 Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso made his clear when he declared that petrol was “the devil’s excrement”. What is surprising is that he was the Venezuelan minister for energy at the time, and just 15 years previously had been the chief architect of Opec, the mighty cartel of petrol exporting countries. So what caused him to recant his former beliefs? “It brings trouble,” he said. “Look at this locura [madness] – waste, corruption, consumption, our public services falling apart. And debt, debt we shall have for years.”
It’s nuggets of information like this, those reversals, paradoxes, flashes of humanity tugging at the edges of history, and things that just aren’t quite right, that get under the skin of Liverpool-born artist David Jacques. Working in film, installation and paint, Jacques has built a renowned career exploring and revealing the breakdowns, injustices and frailties of society. His work frequently involves a layering of time, and rather than beating you round the head with an obvious polemic, instead encourages you to see how things might be different. His latest exhibition, Oil is the Devil’s Excrement, opens at the Triskel Arts Cenrtre in Cork on April 6th.
Born in 1964, Jacques was ideally placed to come of age at a time when the UK was reeling and seething under the policies of Margaret Thatcher. In conversation he references terms that he acknowledges seem dated today: “the struggle”, “the working classes”; but thinking through the prism of our current crises and political upheavals, it could well be time to resurrect them.
In The Dionysians of West Lancs (2014), footage from a local illegal rave is cut through with stories from the Acts of Enclosure that privatised lands once held by the people, along with stories of conflict between legislators and the general public. Put together, the overriding sense is of ancient yet timeless tensions between those in power, and the power of the populace.
Jacques says his ideas can generate through the hiatus period that follows each project. “You may get the endorphins of a good blue, a word or a phrase, then things start to pop around it.” A 2006 project for Dublin Port and the Fire Station Artists Studios, . . . a hundred flowers to bloom, saw the artist working with local primary school children to make banners depicting some of the approximately 920 non-native or “alien” plant species growing in Ireland, many brought in as part of the incoming ships’ ballast. What we think of as natural and Irish can have a complex historical past.
Studying at the Chelsea School of Art in London, Jacques was on what was one of the first public art courses, although at that time it was termed “Mural Design”. This led him to what he calls “large scale history painting”. While he mentions his admiration for artists such as Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz, the focus was on what he wanted the art to say rather than any particular school or aesthetic. Was he anxious or angry? “Probably a bit of both. They were troubled times,” he says. “Actually, I was young and earnest first, the anger came later.”
Delving deeper into the subject of oil, Jacques, who describes his projects as “kind of cyclical, taking on average a year or two years to do”, discovered intriguing trinkets: Opec cufflinks, an Opec album of folk songs from 1980; and then the information that oil wealth actually hampers a country’s development. “When I was putting together this narrative, I could have picked a tyrant, a Rex Tillerson figure, but I went for Pérez. He’s a conflicted character. He kind of knows that this stuff he’s dealing with is noxious, but he also knows there’s untold wealth to be had. So he sets that conflict aside, until he realises that economic ruin is around the corner.”
For anyone who’s still unconvinced that oil brings misery, the Economist takes a similar view. A 2003 article, also quoting Pérez Alfonso, shows how “an oil bonanza causes a sudden rush of foreign earnings; this drives up the value of the currency. That, in turn, makes domestically produced goods less competitive at home and abroad. Over time, domestic manufacturing and agriculture fade and growth suffers.” For Jacques, insights like these are what fuels his projects. “For Pérez it was an altruistic thing he was intending. It wasn’t a get-rich-quick, with yachts for him and his mates; but he realised at the end he was wrong. That was the poetic thing for me, that quote of his was the petrochemical icing on the cake.”
The “devil’s excrement” quote itself draws on even older pre-Columbian histories and myths, and the centrepiece of Jacques’ exhibition, which also includes two series of paintings, is a film. It takes the idea of Pérez Alfonso, dying in hospital, being visited by a psychopomp (in Greek mythology, the guide that escorts souls to the afterlife). The film is a heady mash up of imagery, mythologies and styles. The background music is a sampling of the folk songs from the Opec album, while the psychopomp’s words, though written in a heroic pentameter, are set out, karaoke-style across the screen.
The idea of a central character being visited by a sentient entity isn’t new to Jacques’ work. It also appears in North Canada – English Electric (2010), a project exploring toxic industrial wasteland, which led to lawyers’ letters and police requests to leave the site. “It’s about going through delusions, the chorus of disapproval,” he says. “Voices in the head. How else would you make sense of the introduction of neo-liberalism, high capitalism?
“Underlying it all, is this darkly picaresque approach that I tend to gravitate to – I don’t know why, but you’ve got to have something to get out of bed, to have a laugh.”
This sense of the ridiculousness of life, cut through with a serious intent, is what makes Jacques’ work so effective. It also ties in strongly with a generation of artists coming out of the UK, whether as writers, visual artists, theatre makers or musicians, driven by a desire to make people see what is happening right under their noses, to realise that what we take for granted about our political and economic systems may be fundamentally flawed, and may also, if enough people get involved, be changed.
He describes the drive as “communicative” and how, when he started, he “kicked around with mates in bands, writers – there were very few manufacturing jobs back then”. We talk about how today those times almost seem innocent, bad as they were, and Jacques, with his characteristic hand gestures and his animated, hyper-intelligent train of thought, agrees. “It’s not looking good right now,” he says.
Our talk turns to how oil is “indelibly tied to capitalism. There’s only so many whales you could use, then they get on to kerosene, and then we go on to the industrial revolution and high capitalism.” We look at the images that accompany the film. Painted in “gloss paint yacht varnish, floor paint – all good toxic stuff”, some are silhouettes from the 15th century, of figures from the Schembart Carnival. “It was one of those Lent-type festivals where things end up messy – they’re really surreal.” In Jacques’ case, the figures are dressed “in the garb you’d see from petrochemical workers, but obviously demonic”. He’s also painted them playing with renderings of the human genome. “Did you know they can patent those things? That’s another upshot of capitalism, everything’s for sale. The horse has left the stable on that one.”
If that is the case, what is to be done? “I don’t get away from the fact that, whether we’re responding in ways that are either scientific, artistic, anthropological, or social, we’re still in that struggle. We still use that word. I think of it as a struggle, a configuration of people still getting out of bed, still engaging in it.”
So is he optimistic or pessimistic about the future? He pauses, his blue-grey eyes narrowing briefly as he considers. “It depends on what day it is. If Nigel Farage is on the telly, I’m very pessimistic. But then, when there’s a small victory, things change.”
Oil is the Devil’s Excrement is at Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, from April 6th to May 28th. The film will run on a monitor throughout the exhibition, but will also be shown once a week on a big screen. See triskelartscentre.ie for times and dates