This page contains a Flash digital edition of a book.
reviews Simon & Tom BLooR
simon & Tom Bloor:
The Ballad of Gunpowder Joe
moT, London
17 novemBeR – 16 decem BeR
The Ignorance of the People, 2007. courtesy moT, London
Joseph Priestley, the hero of Simon and Tom Bloor’s The Ballad of of shelving decorated with triangles of neon paint or illustrating them with
Gunpowder Joe, was an eighteenth-century scientist and theologian. His collaged photocopies of etchings on neon paper.
accomplishments range from a written history of electricity to the invention The aestheticisation of these texts seems somewhat double-
of soda water to being the focus of what would come to be known as the edged, at once elevating phrases such as ‘operated upon the mind like a
Priestley Riots. The riots, in 1791, targeted Dissenters and those who spoke pestilence upon the body’ to conceptual abstraction, while also serving
out in support of the French Revolution, as Priestley did, and it was claimed them up as neutralised bon mots. The point of reference here is an era of
that they were incited and organised by local Birmingham officials. Priestley open letters and direct action, and it seems almost comical to reroute its
eventually sailed for America, hounded by political cartoons and burning language into the gallery, where the eye tends to skip over text in favour of
effigies, while back in Birmingham few members of the mob were brought the form that supports it. Although the cheap materiality of the Bloors’s
to trial and even fewer found guilty and punished. shelving and neon seems a distinct decision to represent a contemporary
This is an interesting episode in the ebb and flow of political history. hoi polloi, the firm adherence to the originating history is confusing, so
For instance, it might seem surprising that Priestley was also ill-regarded that we are caught between historical examination and contemporary
by the poor, considering he was so outspoken against the monarchy. This analogy. The press release claims that ‘like Priestley, who embraced
unpopularity was due to a tract he published on maximising the productivity many disciplines, the Bloors do not limit themselves to one particular
of the proletariat, and demonstrates how class distinction, religious medium’ – an outrageous claim if we think of the breadth of Priestley’s
movements and political allegiance come critically together at this point in output as scientist, theologian and political radical, and the personal loss
the encroaching industrial phase of the Enlightenment. The Bloors’s show, resulting from his convictions. I’m all for artists mining history for inspiring
however, would be hard pushed to articulate such particularities – and there events and figures, or even just the interest that lies in outmoded ideas
are few who would insist that art should. Instead the Bloors evoke a broader and conflicts, but I’m hard-pushed here to grasp the Bloors’s point.
hint of such rhetoric, painting fragments of Priestley’s writing on the back Sally O’Reilly
arTreview 118
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