Like most other people in London, I was aware of the anti-war protester Brian Haw in Parliament Square but it was a while before I crossed the road to talk to him. About a year ago, I started photographing Brian’s placards and signs but did not intend to do anything with this material at the time. Initially, I was impressed and moved by what he was saying and by what is a powerful document of the US and UK’s policy in Iraq. I was taken aback by the sheer variety of the material he had assembled.
As I got to know him better, Brian seemed like the last protester left in this country. He is an amazingly resourceful and resilient man. What he has done is extraordinary. He has been in Parliament Square five and a half years, ever since he started his campaign about the continuing sanctions on Iraq in June 2001.
I went to see Brian the day before the police removed virtually the entirety of his display in May 2006 [as a result of the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act] and it seemed like a particularly important moment in time. Brian was there for four years before this absurd law was passed, and it is unclear whether this act has the power to ban already existing protests.
State Britain is a public service of sorts; it makes visible something that had suddenly been made invisible, especially since the 2005 Act seems specifically designed to rid the government of its guilty conscience across the road.
A space and platform then became available when the Tate approached me about making a piece for its Duveen Galleries. By that time, I had hundreds of photos documenting Haw’s demonstration and set about, with a team of makers, replicating every single image, all the materials he had used and the accompanying paraphernalia in Parliament Square.
The fact that it’s an incredibly faithful replica provides its own fascination and introduces a similar deliberation, a kind of forensic scrutiny. That a museum is the place to preserve and display artefacts of historical significance makes a very direct appeal. It’s not a ready-made and it’s not a history painting and frankly I’ve never made anything like this before so I don’t have a definition.
I made the serendipitous discovery that if you draw a circle with Parliament Square as the centre, the edge of the exclusion zone [the 2005 Act prohibits unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square] runs through the middle of Tate Britain. So a taped line runs through the centre of State Britain and extends throughout the other galleries.
I like the emotional aspect of the work and the fact that it looks like it’s been through its own kind of conflict. We live in a democracy and we need to consider our complicity with this government’s foreign policy.
I’m not sure how the installation will develop. People have already begun to leave items in front of the work. Someone has tucked flowers in to one of the placards but I don’t want to encourage a Princess Diana-like hysteria.
I share Brian’s view on this disastrous illegal war. Prime Minister Blair is fond of using the language of faith; his retort to people who accuse him of lying is to say that he “believed” that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—but it’s not about metaphysics, it’s about physics. The truth is they weren’t there. Let’s not confuse the two. Blair lied.
o State Britain is in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain
until 27 August
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The art of protest'