“many malignant and devilish Papists, Jesuits, and Seminary Priests, much envying and fearing,The preamble to the Observance of 5th November Act 1605
conspired most horribly, when the King’s most excellent Majesty, the Queen, the Prince, and the
Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, should have been assembled in the Upper House
of Parliament upon the Fifth Day of November in the Year of our Lord One thousand six hundred
and five, suddenly to have blown up the said whole House with Gunpowder : An Invention so
inhuman, barbarous and cruel, as the like was never before heard of”
The show hangs in the balance of what was, what is, and what could have been.
Des Bains presents High Treason 1605, Billy Fraser’s first solo show.
The exhibition, which opens on the fifth of November, features over forty new and unique works themed around the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, its icon Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night created by the British State as an annual celebration of the plot’s failure, synonymous in modern times with spectacular firework displays. The Gunpowder Plot was the first known attempt to wipe out the entire British establishment in one go.
In focusing on the morphing of a failed, extreme act of revolutionary, religious violence into a public celebration Fraser tracks the slipperiness of history as it is both written and received and Power’s seemingly inexhaustible and depressing ability to co-opt and neutralise resistance through (beyond coercive force) its ruthless shaping of narratives. The main body of work in the show comprises clear, cast resin slabs in which Fraser has neatly set the contents of a series of commercially available box-sets of fireworks. The original boxes are presented alongside the resin elements, thereby providing found titles such as, ‘The Equaliser’, ‘Inferno’, ‘Sovereign’, ‘Sunfire’, and so on, that are themselves set within shallow, graphic spaces, populated, naturally, with exploding fireworks.
The particular fireworks trapped by Fraser in each of his works, will of course (we hope), never explode, setting up the mournful tension of bright futures, eternally deferred. Metaphorically, of course, it is not just the fireworks that are impotently suspended but, within the context of the show, the idea of revolutionary action itself which in the post-WWII West was first directly suppressed and then rendered anachronistic by the dominance of consumer capitalist culture. Despite ever expanding social and economic crises and imminent environmental collapse, revolutionary change remains in ‘the West’ largely a historical idea, save, unfortunately, on the nationalistic far right.
In Firework Compositions, another series of resin sculptures, Fraser articulates simple, multicoloured, radial patterns, describing, in this context at least, celebratory, firework explosions. The series also demonstrates Fraser’s increasingly experimental use of resin, his current medium of choice.
The shifting iconography of Guy Fawkes forms the subject of Fraser’s Wanted paintings. The works cycle through contemporary portraits of Fawkes, alive and spiked, decapitated, on Traitor’s Gate at London Bridge, arriving in the present day with the Anonymous mask which, first imagined in David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta (published 1982 – 1985), became a global icon around 2010 when widely adopted by Occupy movement. The series acutely charts
Fawkes transformation in the popular imagination from violent religious extremist into, albeit in highly abstracted and depersonalised form, an icon of active democratic resistance to hegemonic power, highlighting the fact that, of course, countercultures have no more intrinsic fidelity to fact or truth that the forces of dominant Power. Pinned on a large pinboard and surrounding Fraser’s paintings are fifty or so portraits of Guy Fawkes by schoolchildren that Fraser invited to contribute to the exhibition. Here the schoolchildren’s drawings serve as a charming stand-in for the public’s role in the reception and dissemination, both witting and unwitting, of such cultural and political narratives.
Treason is, of course, a matter of perspective. As it happens this exhibition coincides with COP 27 (6th November – 18th November 2022). In its run-up, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the collective commitments of G20 leading industrialised nations governments to tackling the unfolding climate catastrophe as coming “far too little, and far too late”. The primary responsibility of any, even nominally, democratic state is to protect the lives and wellbeing of their current and future citizens and subjects. Already facing multiple crises of legitimacy there will become a point when our governments’ collective inaction spills over into treason. It is clear, however, that it will take catastrophe in ‘the West’ to shatter the obscene stasis of the current political status quo. Exhibition text by Nick Hackworth.
Billy Fraser, High Treason 1605, Des Baines, 24 Bocking Street E8 4RE, 5th – 2Ist November (Tuesday – Saturday). @billy_fraser