Signs of the times

Political posters in Queensland
Queensland Art Gallery

Signs of the Times: political posters in Queensland was an exhibition that served as a panegyrical catharsis for a post-Fitzgerald state. The seventy-five posters displayed dealt with nearly every conceivable issue: land rights, gay rights, women's rights, civil rights-all of those 'rights' which we, as a community, had so meekly allowed to be violated in the previous twenty years of conservative government. In applauding the tenacity and commitment of the political postermaker we, the audience, attempted to purge the guilt of our own destructive indifference. In many respects this exhibition was a doubleedged sword which allowed us both to celebrate and to mourn. In its recognition of the political poster as an important and vital art form Signs of the Times made an essential contribution to our understanding of this much maligned medium. However that self-same recognition was tinged with just a hint of regret for it carried with it the suggestion that radical politics was now a retrospective activity which we could happily consign to the archive. It was almost as if political posters, and indeed the polemics of political art, were things of the past-relics of a different   age to be kept and conserved as curios.

Such a notion was never the intention of the curator, Clare Williamson, but differing perceptions of the political poster through its integration into the state gallery were inevitable. It is the nature of political art that its existence be tenuous and peripheral for it is from this marginalised position that it draws its power to disrupt. A political artform's reputation for veracity relies heavily upon the very lack of official sanction or acknowledgment it receives. In mounting this exhibition of political art Williamson was well-aware that she opened a curatorial 'Pandora's box' for, as she states in her introduction concerning the contextualization of the posters, '1he acquisition, display and critical evaluation of political posters by a state art gallery could in itself be seen as a political act."

Certainly there will always be an element of the paradoxical in the placement, or rather displacement, of the political poster on the gallery wall. In their original site, the street or the workplace, posters are a very ephemeral form of mass-media, designed for an immediate impact on both public spaces and public debates. Within a gallery situation, devoid of their original context, some of the poster's nucleus must, of necessity, change-what is of interest is the constitution of that change. While on a collective level one may have reservations regarding their collection and display, on an individual note the poster retains a remarkable amount of its anarchic strength. This occurs not in spite of its recontextualisation, but because of it. The driving purpose of the political poster, its message, is invigorated by the powerful disjunctive juxtaposition of its raw, brutal aspects in contrast to the soft-light sophistication of the gallery walls. Somehow the communication of 0. If the unemployed are the dole bludgers, what the tuck are the idle rich? seems all the more astringent and satirical from the stand-point of its institutional situation.

It is one of the ever-present ironies of the political poster that something which appears so elementary and straight-forward cannot only project complex issues, but cause such complex reactions. The basic tenant of the successful political poster is simplicity-its effect must be immediate and unambiguous. Often the concise format of the poster with its uncomplicated lines, bold colours and clear text, can be a form of disarmamentallowing intricate polemical issues to be presented with all the clarity and cohesion of a commercial advertisement. This is not to imply any notion of a poster aesthetic, for such an argument would be contrary to the strategies of poster-making itself. The attention given the format of the poster has a political element in that those who manufacture it, whether they think of it in terms of an artform or not, deliberately keep their print runs cost-effective and are careful to deny all notions of high art.

Signs of the Times was an exhibition well overdue in the arts arena for there has been little, if any, attention paid to the Queensland political poster. In the initiation of this program, and in the purchase of a number of the posters through various bequests and trusts, the Queensland Art Gallery must be given credit. In the not-so-distant political past such an exhibition would, I believe, have been inconceivable at this venue and although one suspects a little hedging on the part of the QAG's administration in its siting of Signs of the Times in a corridor of the gallery, this is not Jude Walton. No Hope, No Reason, 1991. Photo: Warwick Page. The time to be ungenerous. However what is of most importance is the way in which this exhibition demonstrated the substance of the political poster as an artistic format. Signs of the Times recognised and gave credit to the fact that political art offers a freedom of community liaison which few other art forms can match-it is one of the few times art really matters on a street level and it is from this position that it derives its potency.