File Note 93: Ruth Ewan - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Charles Esche



The world turned upside down, again Images References Quote Biography Credits

The world turned upside down, again

Everything that you see in contemporary art galleries started with the French Revolution. The things that most people have come to recognise as art today have their origins in the heady days of 1789 and its consequences for France and the world that Europeans had already begun colonising. Boris Groys, one of the world’s smartest art historians said it very clearly recently: “…before the French Revolution there was no art, only design”.1 The art he is referring to, of course, is a particular kind of object production. Before the Revolution, the term ‘art’ referred to the task of beautifying spaces and objects as well as pleasing the gods and keeping mortal patrons happy. It was largely a skill, a craft. Afterwards, art gradually became something else as well; a critical thinking tool dedicated to changing perceptions and comprehending human nature in new ways. This new definition, which came to be known as autonomous art because it wrote its own rules, started to dominate the common social understanding of art over time, so that by the early modernist period (the Impressionists etc.) the character and role of the artist – genius, troublemaker, romantic – and the purpose of his or her art – to provoke, break rules, show the as-yet-unseen and incomprehensible – were aims to which almost all serious art and artists would aspire. Perhaps it is then no coincidence that a publicly supported art gallery like Camden Arts Centre chose to invite an artist who has been concerned with the living legacy of the French Revolution in her earlier work. At a time when the social democratic arguments for public cultural funds are less persuasive than ever, art institutions might, even subconsciously, want to discover other historical justifications for their existence; and the idea of revolution is one of them.

By going back to the roots of modern artistic practice, Ruth Ewan might seem to want to renew art’s connection with revolution or at least with the aspiration for art to have an effect on the world. After all, if an artist can rename every day of the year in service of a new society that would put away childish things like religious faith, then wasn’t art and its connection to politics truly effective once? Changing the names of the days alters much more than just the words uttered to describe something. It creates conditions to reconstruct mind-sets and establish different social norms through which shared values can be re-forged. In this case, renaming the days stresses nature, material and work as they relate to the passage of time. What is put aside are the gods, heaven, authority and the miraculous, as manifested through the Christian saints’ names of the old calendar. This poetic gesture, when combined with the political will to impose it, has a real capacity to effect change in society’s value system and how it constructs its collective common sense. This is what the 18th century revolutionaries understood about art and why they not only created new scientific measuring systems, but also sought to requite the desires for religious belief and cultural identity through new rituals and spectacles. The ambition of the Republic was to be a place where humans could be masters of their own fate but where wonder at natural forces could still be felt. The revolutionaries were also very aware that poetic values can unite and comfort a people distressed by so much change. Hence the ambition to both change the calendar and replace it with something familiar, materialist and timeless, like animals, plants, minerals and tools. These elements all draw on the substance of the natural world and again suggest the superiority of the new order over the hierarchy of class and social function that had shaped the ancient regime of monarchy, aristocracy and church.

If this short history maps out some of the background to Ewan’s work here, it fails to explain why we are looking at a manifestation of the revolutionary calendar in this gallery today. If the artist had wanted to, she could have updated the names with relative ease – a financial product here, an iPhone there and it would have been done. Instead, she chooses to take us back to the source of the idea of social change and distanced from current day-to-day concerns. She also reminds us that the poetry of the naming stems from a revolutionary poet and marks an aggressive act of political imposition through which cultural traditions were hoped to be eliminated. In contrast to any contemporary version, which would be merely an artistic gesture without any force of law, we are asked to contemplate the beauty in an act of political violence. 

The work might also be read as a labyrinthine, colourful critique of the role of art in 21st century society. To begin with, such an alliance between an artist and state politics is very hard to imagine today. Perhaps, Back to the Fields, with its hint of a later Cultural Revolution, might suggest something quite troubling for those invested in an oppositional art practice – that the capacity for revolution on the scale of 1789 is no longer possible, whether in art or politics. If that is even partially true, then the autonomous forms of critical art created by revolutionary potential might also no longer be so appropriate. Looking at the plants and animals, what we see is a way of thinking and a level of political ambition that feels out of reach today. By the 21st century, humanity’s experience of revolution may not have been so positive but the sense that the world could be turned upside down is still a ghostly presence that haunts what remains of the avant-garde in contemporary art. Indeed, potential revolution of some kind is almost a requirement to maintain any idea of art as transformative or revelatory, but the problem is that such a belief is hard to sustain in the face of art’s actual role in contemporary society today. 

Back to the Fields can perhaps best be understood as a double play. In one reading, it recalls a historical moment when there was an attempt to connect to a new symbolic materialism that intended to shift society’s thinking about its relationship to the environment. In parallel, it might also serve as a suitable requiem for the end of the modern period and art’s attachment to revolutionary change. If either strategy seems mournful, they do not have to be. Arguably, it is only by letting go of the modern revolutionary era that art, politics or the urge for social justice could rediscover its capacity to help turn the world upside down again. Or, more simply put: to go forwards again, we might first need to go back to the roots of the modern society we once created for ourselves.


1. Boris Groys, On Art Activism,, 2014 

Gibbon, Lewis Grassic. Sunset Song. (Jarrolds Publishing, 1932) 

Harmon, Chris. A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium. (London: Bookmarks, 1999)

Hsiao, Andrew and Audrea Lim (ed). The Verso Book of Dissent: From Spartacus to the Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad. (London: Verso, 2010)

Linebaugh, Peter. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and
Commons for All
. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

Morris, William. News From Nowhere. (1890)

Perris, Arnold. Music as Propaganda Art to Persuade, Art to Control. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985)

Shaw, Matthew. Time and the French Revolution: The Republican Calendar, 1789–Year XIV. (Woodbridge: Royal Historical Society, 2011)

Tressell, Robert. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. (London:
Grant Richards, 1914)

La Commune (Paris, 1871).  Dir. Peter Watkins. (13 Productions
and La Sept-Arte, 2000)

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment. Dir. Karel Reisz. (British Lion Film Corporation and Quintra, 1966)

The Radio Ballads. Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker. (Argo Records, 1958–1964)

 ‘In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.’ Bertolt Brecht, ‘Motto’


Ruth Ewan (b.1980, Aberdeen) lives and works in London. Solo projects of her work have been presented at Tate Britain and the Collective Gallery, Edinburgh (with Astrid Johnston) (2014 and 2013); Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, the Glasgow International and the Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe (2012); Dundee Contemporary Arts and the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Sevilla (2011); the ICA, London (2008); the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland (2007) and Studio Voltaire, London in 2006. She has realised projects in London for Create (2012), Art on the Underground (2011); Frieze Projects (2009) and Artangel (2007). Her work has also been included in survey exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw and Tate Liverpool (2013) and the New Museum, New York (2009).


Charles Esche is a curator and writer. He currently lives between Edinburgh, São Paulo and Eindhoven.

Supported by The Henry Moore Foundation.

Special thanks to the collective endeavours of: Agricultural Museum Brook; Dr Maurice Bichard; Julie Bixley; Borough Market; Chew Valley Trees; Crayfish Bob; Essex Rural Attractions; Field to Fork Organics Co-operative Limited; Franchi Seeds of Italy 1783; Antonio Garcia Acosta; Caro Halford; Martyn Hix; Astrid Johnston; Charlotte Juhen; London Canal Museum; Mr Wood’s Fossils; Oxford University Museum of Natural History; Francesca Pappacoda; Victoria Pearson; Anouska Samms; Matthew Shaw; Lizz Skelly; Will Summers; Tim Smith Stonemasonry; Rob Tufnell; Woody’s Antiques.