Jill Magid, ‘Authority to Remove’ at Tate Modern

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern

Today I happened to be at Tate Modern of the first day of Jill Magid’s exhibition, Authority to Remove.

This is a very minimalist, sparse exhibition with little actually on show, but it is totally fascinating.

Magid was asked by the Dutch secret service in 2005 to develop an exhibition for their new building, as the Dutch government required part of the money to be spent on a new art installation.

She set out interviewing members of the secret service over a period of time, gradually developing art works and documenting the interviews in a manuscript which eventually became a sort of long, fascinating novel of her experiences that she obviously was very proud of and attached to. She became increasingly involved in ‘The Organisation’ to the extent of being vetted and undergoing some training in order to better understand the humanity of the individual people involved.

When her final piece was shown in 2008, agents confiscated some pieces of work after the exhibition had opened, and heavily redacted her manuscript which by then she had hoped to publish as her first novel, called Becoming Tarden.

They told her they wanted the manuscript to be returned to secret service ownership.

‘We want you to think of the book as an object of art. We will redact it and put it inside the vitrine with your notebooks where it will remain, permanently.’

You want me to put it under glass so that it will no longer function as a book but as a sculpture?

‘Yes.’ He blinks his eyes rapidly. ‘It becomes an object of art.’ The Director follows this in a soft, imploring voice. ‘Will you consider that, Jill?’
Epilogue p.187

The redacted manuscript is allowed to go on show only once, as a one-off exhibit.

This is that exhibit.

What you see when you go in is some letters between the artist and the secret service as they negotiate the agreement. There are some neon installations showing phrases that she gathered during her research, such as (I can’t remember them exactly so these are paraphrased) ‘The man on stage with the trumpet is the spider in the web’ or ‘I can burn your face’ (which in secret service parlance means to expose the spy’s secret identity).

There is a single copy of the manuscript. Once you’ve absorbed the full story, it becomes like a magnet. It’s a hefty manuscript, and the white space where paragraphs and words have been redacted give it a poetic aesthetic. A single white page with a few sentences left in the middle; or a page where the words scatter downwards.

As I deal with the Freedom of Information Act in my day job this had an extra element of interest to me. Redaction is fascinating. It obviously makes you wonder what was taken out, so in some sense perhaps you are focusing on the gaps rather than what’s actually there.

You know you’ll never, ever get chance to read the manuscript ever again. But there’s no chance you’ll ever read it here either. It’s really long. There’s only one copy in the exhibition. And you can’t sit down and read it. So you stand, flicking through the pages, catching a phrase here and there, as if to try to absorb something from it. It seemed really well written and probably would have been a really fascinating book.

Inside the exhibition space is a small room filled with large posters on which the artist has inscribed short sentences, all to do with secrets, spies, etc., such as:

Prove the white raven does not exist

…it sends a shiver down the spine.

So – definitely recommended. But then I would always recommend a trip to any of the Tates.

Other exhibitions I popped into today were Scale on Level 3 which includes a giant table and chairs (everyone in the room was smiling) and No Ghost Just a Shell, which was an exploration of a Japanese manga character – but I found that a bit too weird for me and it didn’t really inspire me or convince me.

Here’s a picture of a previous trip to the Tate:


Photo of Tate Turbine Hall from bods used under Creative Commons

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