The Rise of Tyranny

In writing this on Monday the 2nd of October 2017, yesterday riot police forcefully tried to block citizens of a major European city from exercising their democratic right and voting on a referendum that would see them granted independence. I watched online, through Facebook, Twitter and numerous media outlets, as armour-clad officials of the state beat peaceful protesters, as they threw women out of polling stations, as senior citizens emerged from crowds with blood running down their faces, aghast at the violation of their freedoms. People in those crowds would have remembered what it was to live under a totalitarian regime, they would have known what it was, to finally have democracy in their country. Others, younger, would have received and cherished those lessons passed down, growing up in a country where they believed their voice mattered. But yesterday it would seem that democracy had failed them.

Across the world citizens of dozens of countries must be feeling the same way. In Hong Kong, the ‘one country, two systems’ system is wearing thin as China exerts increasing control through a puppet government. In the Philippines, thousands have died this last year as a democratically elected president pushes for marshal law and extra-judicial murder. ‘The leader of the free world’ is commonly believed to have derived his power from the intervention of a foreign nation-state and in Myanmar the Noble Peace Prize winner, symbol of hope, is standing by as the military commit genocide. For the first time since the fall of Nazism, a far right party has taken a seat in the German government. Brexit may collapse. The promise of democracy is evaporating before our eyes.

The failure is two-fold: that a democratic system may be overruled, altered or ignored against the will of the people; or that the system itself has become so corrupted, so disposed to influence and infection, that the decisions made by the people are faulty. The popular vote has turned bad. The ubermensches of special-interest, super-pact, lobbying initiatives have turned crystal clear waters into an impenetrable muck. Liberal elites are turning on the constitutional freedoms that are so central to their ideological foundation, the conservative mainstream is seeing popularism turn against it, and freedom of speech has become a dirty word. Nobody is winning. Apart from the few figures floating to the top. Like fat settling. Plato warned of the danger inherent in democracy over two-thousand years ago. In the dialogues of The Republic (381 B.C.) he explained that too much democracy would inevitably evolve into true tyranny. Roughly speaking, the equality afforded to “equals and unequals alike” by democracy, leads to unnecessary desires; unnecessary desires clouds the public view from what is important, and thus the state comes to be ruled by those unfit to rule.

Rings a bell? Right? So the freedoms created by our democratic system, actually afford the tyrannical an ability to move undetected, or to play upon our personal and narrow desires, eventually reaching power. This is Trump telling everyone what they want to hear. This is Trump being taken as a joke until it was too late.

But no one reads Plato anymore, so his message falls on deaf ears. We are an image culture and so we need images to tell us these truths. Images like the latest series of works by PANG, an artist, who is currently exhibiting The Rise of Tyranny with 1968 Gallery. In a series of drawings, playing upon the chaotic hellscapes of Hieronymus Bosch and the grotesque mutilations of late Goya, PANG creates a territory of ideas. Landscapes harken back to a religious ideal, or the Athenian, but are filled with disturbing symbolic references: cities have fractured into separate encampments floating on chunks of earth; puppets hover over men, manipulative icons of media influence; violent fires emit hot air distractions into the stratosphere.Like the Weimar Republic before us, it might be that we need to turn to a surrealist approach to comprehend the totality of what is at hand. Only when we see how disproportionately large one man is to another can we understand how ineffective the equality of our democracies have become. Whilst every vote is equal, it is equally true that a vote can be bought, or influenced, directed one way or another by unseen hands reaching down to determine the result. Unfortunately for the Weimar Republic, the outpouring of surrealism could not change the tide; only in retrospect are the works of Dix, Höch and Grosz understood as expressing the precipice of the age. Hopefully we will realise sooner.

Written by Elliot Burns


“The Rise of Tyranny” exhibition will present a selection of figurative and surrealist watercolour drawings from London-based artist PANG. 

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