Understanding the ‘Oak Tree’ in conceptual art via Russian politics
I had fresh insight into understanding this artwork and mental concept after recently watching a film by Adam Curtis called, ‘How propaganda turned Russian politics into a circus.’ The documentary discusses and explains how Russian politics is using conceptual ideas from the art world to confuse people so that they are never sure what exactly is occurring.
Vladislav Surkov is an advisor to Vladimir Putin. Surkov was an aspiring artist who trained as a theatre director. He has imported ideas from conceptual art into Russian politics and thereafter into Russian daily life.
This came to the attention of the UK after the Friday 2 March 2018 Salisbury attack. Two men from the Russia military intelligence service, the GRU, entered the UK from Russia. Police believe that the two men travelled during the weekend to Salisbury. It is alleged that while they were there they contaminated the front door of the home of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Sergei Skripal is a former Russian agent who has defected to the west. Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found collapsed on a bench in Salisbury. They had been poisoned with a chemical weapon called Novichok. Later DS Nick Bailey also fell ill after going to their home.
In Curtis’s film, he explains that the Kremlin is very calculating. They intended to create a sense of confusion and falseness where no one is able to find the truth. This is similar to the way the artwork, ‘An Oak Tree’ attempts to create uncertainty.
Understanding conceptual art
The initiator moves the truth, like in the Salisbury attack and in the artwork, to wherever they want. In the ‘Oak Tree’, Craig-Martin tells the viewer the glass of water on a glass shelf is an Oak Tree. In the Salisbury attack, Russia completely denies they had any involvement in the poisoning. However, officials in the UK are confident that the two Russian suspects were involved.
‘Gaslighting’ is the next stage of the process. This is a form of intimidation and psychological abuse where the offender denies everything, leading the victim to doubt their own perception of events. The offender then responses like a school bully, telling everyone they are imagining things and laughing at them. Then he draws attention to something else in order to undermine them. In this case, the Russian foreign Minister tweeted a funny video of the UK Prime Minister dancing. In the ‘Oak Tree’ Michael Craig-Martin draws attention to the mental conception through the questions and answers.
Understanding Conceptual Art
Last week the Russians released a film where the two suspects talk about their phoney interest in Salisbury’s history. Their statement appears to come straight from Wikipedia Salisbury page. The Russians flatly deny any involvement. The outcome of this is that the UK officials to start to second guess their instincts.
The Salisbury attack experience has given the UK and the world an insight into Russian daily life and the television they are allowed to view. It shows two Russian nationals who are thinking about defecting, that not only can the Russian state find them anywhere in the world, but also that the state can leave traces back to Moscow. Therefore, if the state gets suspected or caught out they will then just laugh the problem away.
Michael Craig Martin, The Oak Tree
Just like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the French taunt the English outside their castle. The Russian statement is saying that we know that you know we did it. However, we have come up with this absurd response to further humiliate you.
Michael Craig-Martin said about an ‘Oak Tree’, “I was trying to work out what was the essence of a work of art. I thought it had to do with suspension of disbelief. You get it in theatre – why not in art?”
The Salisbury attack is very similar to the ‘Oak Tree’ (1973) artwork but with much more humiliation and an affront to the viewer.
Stuart Bush Studio Notes – Michael Craig-Martin
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"I am delighted when I have a paintbrush in my hand, making something I have never seen before"