Tuesday, 18 July 2017

John Green reports on why artist Phil Collins has just shipped a statue of Friedrich Engels from Ukraine to Manchester, where it’s now on permanent display in the city centre

From the Morning Star   Tuesday 18th June 2017

PHIL COLLINS is an unusual artist, in that his strong left-wing political sympathies are directly expressed through his work.
With a passion for, and commitment to, people and human progress, he’s drawn to political movements and ideas, deploying his art as a vehicle for intervention and to make an oblique commentary on contemporary social and political processes.
In the past, his work has often originated in areas of conflict, shifting the focus from sensationalist news coverage to uncover unexpected aspects of life in contested territories, be it from Belfast to Belgrade or Baghdad to Bogota and Berlin.
In They Shoot Horses, he organised and filmed a disco-dance marathon in Ramallah with a group of young Palestinians.
“For me,” he says, “there really is a heroism to live in a place it’s impossible to leave, to be split from families, imprisoned by an apartheid wall and, maybe worst of all, to be forgotten by a world which refuses to understand you.”
His work Marxism Today, shortlisted for the Turner Prize, is two short interconnected films based on experience of life in East Germany which examines what happens when a whole system and culture is demolished overnight.
And his latest project, a statue of Friedrich Engels permanently located in Tony Wilson Place in Manchester city centre, keeps that German connection alive.
Collins feels strongly that Engels, Marx’s friend, financial mainstay and collaborator, should be properly celebrated in the city where he lived for most of his life and which gave him many of the ideas for which he and Marx have since become world-renowned.
It was there that Engels wrote his most celebrated work, The Condition of the Working Class in England.
After two years of seeking a suitable Soviet-era statue of Engels, Collins managed to locate one mouldering away in a scrap yard in the village of Mala Pereshchepina, in eastern Ukraine.
It is 3.5 metres high and made of concrete — not easy to put it in the boot of your car and drive to Manchester, so Collins hired a flatbed lorry to transport it there.
On the way, he visited places of importance in Engels’s life and work, a journey which was filmed and which forms part of the Ceremony event.
The statue also marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, inspired by the ideas from the Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels, and Collins is particularly interested in the history of communism and what happened in eastern Europe during the Soviet era.
He’s also fascinated by the idea of transmission, how ideas travel through time and space.
Ironically, all symbols and icons of the past socialist era have been banned in Ukraine in a manner highly reminiscent of the way the nazis banned such symbols.
That’s how Engels ended up in a scrap yard.
Collins sees Manchester as a meeting point, where the birth of capitalism brought about the emergence of an industrial proletariat. But he stresses that Manchester is also a city with a strong tradition of resistance to the capitalist system, from early demonstrations for parliamentary representation in 1819 that went down in history as the Peterloo Massacre after peaceful demonstrators were attacked by government troops, through the Chartist movement to the battles of the Suffragettes for women’s voting rights.
The inauguration of the statue at the weekend was marked by an innovative ceremony, with music from Oscar-nominated composer Mica Levi and Demdike Stare and a new anthem written by Gruff Rhys, together with a live performance featuring stories of today’s Manchester workers collected by Collins.
They are accounts of everyday resistance to the current political crisis. “In harrowing times for so many, it’s more important than ever to remember Engels’s legacy,” Collins says, “and the spirit of solidarity and dignity which beats at its core.”
Thus the statue marks poignant moments in the city’s history.
But it also chimes with the new mood in the country since Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, something Engels would surely have been excited about.

  • John Green is the author of Engels: A Revolutionary Life (Artery Publications, £11.99).

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