The People You Love Become Ghosts Inside of You

Scottish artist Robert Montgomery lives in London. For the past eight years he has been engaged in a public art project, “Words in the City at Night”, in which he hijacks advertising space in the city, often illegally, and uses it to create/display texts…words. Montgomery’s words are part poetry, part an inquiry into our collective unconsciousness.  And part… public art. Montgomery describes his work as “post-Situatonist”, a reference to the avant-garde art movement of the late 1950’s, whose members advocated alternate life experiences to those offered by modern ‘advanced’ industrial capitalist nations. The Situationists experimented with the construction of ‘situations’ – environments conducive to the fulfillment of human desires.

Whew.  That’s a lot of words. But Montgomery’s post-Situationist words don’t pummel us with theoretical manifestos of unitary urbanism or psychogeography; they are simple, evocative, unsettling and, always, poetic.

Like this one.

Sign, painted wood & solar-powered LED lights, De la Warr Pavillion, Bexhill, East Sussex

A confession: his words resonate with me because, at times, they seem frighteningly close to things I have thought, or felt, or come to believe in myself. The idea that people who one cares about can become ghosts who inhabit your life…let’s just say that, it’s not entirely foreign to me. So Robert Montgomery isn’t just a post-Situationist public artist; he’s someone who understands some things about human nature.

About the ironies of our consumer-oriented society – whether you live in a small town in Oregon, a suburb of Guadalajara, or an industrial center in Holland, the credo seems to be the same: buy, buy, BUY. Accumulate, accumulate, ACCUMULATE. Grow everything, from the workforce to the profit margin to the number of possessions that you just can’t seem to do without.

Installation on a London Billboard advertising a Royal Wedding

And yet. Only the other day, trying to jerry-rig a repair on an ancient broken vacuum cleaner, I fantasized momentarily about….what it would be like….to own a new one. And, yes, I already have a good car but, scant weeks ago, giving in to some nameless urge, I test-drove a new one. It was cuter and sexier than my current car but above all, it was NEWER. Am I victim to the same pre-programmed societal lusts that I am judging here? Sure looks like it when I stare at myself in the mirror. Biblical tradition tells us that people who live in glass houses should not cast stones but….is the glass house of my own life really all that….manipulable?

Do I – do we – really need the comfort of….new possessions? new clothes? A new movie star? A special new meal? Or….a new war?

Installation Text, American urban landscape

Do I really want that triple quarter pounder with bacon and cheese and barbecue sauce? Do I really need another dose of the revolution-in-progress from Tahrir Square or the riots in East London or the earthquake victims in Bali? Do I have to have them? What would my life be…..without all of those things, those ‘bits’ and ‘bytes’, the incessant flow of information that bombards me from early morning via my smartphone, my electronic ebook subscriptions, my oh-so-important email updates on the 1001 breaking stories of the Global Village I think I inhabit?

Or all they all chimeras? Illusions? Glimmering mirages like those glimpsed by ancient camel trains across the Sahara? False objects of artificial desires that seduce me into following them?

Busstop installation, London streetscape

The metaphor of the desert is a good one.  So is the metaphor of a bleak 21st century urban landscape with aluminum and glass and here or there a symbolic tree placed artfully by landscapers. And part of you – part of me – says…. No! none of that is real or important. The things that are real or important, I would know if…only I could find them.  See them.  Hear them over the incessant drone of the TV, the smartphone alerts, the multi-media messages that bombard our neurons. And if you did – if I could – find those things that were truly important – truly real – truly alive ….

Well, you’d protect them.  Wouldn’t you.  Nurture them.  Like some lost cold frightened animal.

Installation, urban busstop, London

And sometimes we forget.  Well, okay, let me amend that: I don’t know about you, but sometimes I forget… Things that are important.  Or seemed important. Things that, at the time, I said to myself, I would never forget.

Like the millions killed in Iraq.  Like contested Presidential elections.  Or like the death of someone you once cared for and loved, whose life and works changed you. Montgomery felt that way about Félix González-Torres, the Cuban-born artist who died of AIDS in 1996. He created this piece partially in his memory – but also in the memory of so many other things that….are worth not forgetting. The deaths of strangers, or those we care about. But also the persistence of love.

Billboard installation for Félix González-Torres and Monika, in London

But all of Montgomery’s work is not on the serious or dark side of post-Situationism. He exhibits a sly, twisted sense of humor. Like this special Neon piece –

The Slow Disappearance of Meaning and Truth

I spent a few years living in London.  Haven’t been there in awhile.  But if I was there, I would make it a point to find and/or track down Montgomery’s work. It resonates with people. Not just the cognoscenti, art aficionados, the avant-garde or socially minded artists or writers. But with people on the street –

Montgomery’s work grows on you.  It grows on me.  Little things resonate. Other things provoke.  Still other aspects of it….probe inside me….to places I normally cover up. Like his notion that those we love….come to inhabit us, like ghosts. For some this might be macabre or just plain weird. But for me, in ways I don’t fully (or even partially) understand….it is almost….reassuring.

It should come as no surprise that Montgomery is an ardent supporter of the Occupy movement. At one point he envisaged doing collaborative works in solidarity with them. He also talks of not only the Situationists – but of modern society’s obsessions with creating ‘Spectacles’ –

“The Situationists certainly have been almost a point of obsession for me since I was at art school. I think Guy Debord’s idea of society as a spectacle – he comes from a post-Marxists perspective, but he analyses the coalition of capitalism and the media and predicts, what he calls, a “Spectacular” life where humans will feel disconnected from the things we make. A society where we live divorced from real life, surrounded by images designed to sell us things and give us paranoia. I think we are now living in the Spectacular age.”

Robert Montgomery (right) with his friend Matthew Stone, London DJ/artist, at an opening

Montgomery draws inspiration from the politicized poets and artists who came before him. He speaks of the French Situationists who, during the protests which rocked Paris in May, 1968 – les évènements de Mai ’68 – wrote poems on walls of the campus of the Sorbonne university.  He says, “they saw poetry as an agent for political change, which I find fascinating.”

Montgomery’s work reminds me of the words of the Chilean poet/novelist Roberto Bolaño, who before dying relatively young, immortalized his adopted Mexico City in his cult novel, “The Savage Detectives”. Bolaño said, of the human condition –

“What twisted people we are. How simple we seem, or at least pretend to be in front of others, and how twisted we are deep down. How paltry we are and how spectacularly we contort ourselves before our own eyes, and the eyes of others…And all for what? To hide what? To make people believe what?”

Robert Montgomery creates his works – his installations – to be seen and ‘encountered’ by commuters, ordinary people who don’t know that they are ‘art’; his works are an attempt to describe, in public spaces, what it feels like to be alive right now.

That’s one way to say it.

The other is: his works are transformative….and they fucking rock.

And they have the capacity of lighting a match – and a fire – in parts of our brains, spirits and beings – that have lain dormant for too long.