Artist wants viewers to engage with his exhibition, states Sylvia Vetta

Stuart Brisley’s career has spanned six decades in which his art has engaged with the major political upheavals of post-war Britain. The artist questions seemingly permanent institutions such as the monarchy.

That the preview date was the same as the results day of the Scottish referendum was coincidental, but seeing the Scots wrestle with the state of their nation adds to this exhibition’s power. And power and hierarchy and its effects are what concerns Stuart. Even his first name is apt. Stuart puts himself at the heart of the political, social and cultural territory he aims to explore and lives his art in an unflinching and determined manner.

For this exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, the artist has created a new work called State of Denmark. With its echoes of the troubled Prince Hamlet, another prince, Prince George, is trapped within the institution of monarchy. You may not agree with Brisley’s republicanism, but the artist wants you to engage with it. There are white canvasses on which you are invited to share your thoughts. The installation will change over the following weeks as canvasses written on by visitors are attached to the work. Brisley has been hailed as the godfather of performance art but this emeritus Professor at the Slade’s practice extends to painting: Next door (the missing subject) (2010) is beautifully painted. It includes sculpture: The Poly Wheel (1970), constructed with the help of the factory workers at the Hille furniture factory, was made from 212 stacking Robin Day chairs. The result is elegant but raw with its likeness to prison bars.

Brisley involved himself in community projects. In 1976, he was artist-in- resident at Peterlee a Fifties-built town in the North East. The community workshops he set up gave local people the opportunity to articulate their collective memory, but his uncompromising approach led to tension with the Peterlee Development Corporation. Viewed from 2014, the work was prescient of what was to come in the pit closures and miner’s strike.

Brisley says: “All work needs content. Without content there is no work.”

His engagement with landscape through a political prism has been compared to Beckett and Pinter. He has certainly engaged with the vision of artist and poet, William Blake, as Brisley turned his raw and unflinching gaze upon our green and pleasant land.

The nature of his work is controversial but thought-provoking and authentic because he is totally engaged with his subject. In 10 days (Christmas 1973) he didn’t act being hungry — he didn’t eat for ten days. You can watch the video in the basement and see three meals a day being served by a waiter in a black tie but which Brisley leaves uneaten. He observes the effects of the fast on his mind and body. In the final days he felt hysteria, particularly the need to escape.

I looked at Leonardo’s notebooks in the V&A and it seems to me that Brisley’s acute eye has much in common with the renaissance artist’s dissection and observation of the function of the human body. The difference is that Brisley uses his art to dissect the body of our society. Some visitors will be uncomfortable with his work but it will be hard to leave untouch-ed by its thought provoking content. Before The Mast (2013) was inspired by the French Revolution and how it swept away the religion-centred organisation of time. This performance art also lasted ten days. His actions were planned but unrehearsed and respond to the audience who come and go.

Laurence Brockliss, the Professor of Early-Modern French History (Oxford), has written about the French revolutionary calendar for this show.

There is a useful resource room where visitors who wish can go deeper into his work or you can visit

The fine exhibition guide will help you engage with this work.

State of Denmark
Modern Art Oxford
Until November 16