In which I attempt to explain why "Myra" is a good thing

A controversy has exploded following the handover of the Olympics into British hands. Not because Boris sold out and had neat hair but because of That painting included for a fragment of a second during the Representation of British Culture film; Marcus Harvey’s Myra.

I was checking the headlines on Sky News this morning while they were reading out the texts and emails sent in regarding the outrage and was astonished to find that nobody at Sky News felt that, in the interests of fair play, they should have a message expressing support for the decision to include it; maybe there just weren’t any. I am going to remedy that.

Let me pin my colours to the mast, I see nothing wrong in the existence of the painting nor in its snapshot inclusion in the film of British Culture. It is one of the most notorious and powerful works of art shown at the most culturally significant British Art exhibition in decades. An unprecedented 300,000 people passed through the doors of the RA to see Sensation in 1997. I was one of them. Illegally, I might add.

This, by the way, is being written off the top of my own head. I haven’t gone out and checked what the people who get paid to write about this malarkey think or what the artist intended, everything here is just my own opinion. An opinion is an opinion. I’m not claiming to be right. I’m just telling you what I personally think.

The portrait of the Moors murderer Myra Hindley, based on the police mugshot of her from the 60s and painted with a child’s handprint (the four year old daughter of a friend of Harvey’s), caused outrage, along with most of the rest of the exhibition. After the painting was attacked with ink and eggs, guards were posted for its protection and the public’s bags searched on the way in.
Relatives of the victims, some of whose remains have never been found, accused the artist of glamorising Hindley, claiming that such a portrait glorified her and the crimes she committed.

There are no right or wrong answers as far as Art is concerned. It has been demonstrated for the last hundred years that anything at all can be art; an Alfa Romeo can be Art if you give it the right precedent.
While an artist may have a particular meaning in mind when creating a piece, this does not mean it is the only way it will be received. All Art is subject to reinterpretation. I once caused consternation by suggesting a famous Van Gogh, in which he had painted the rain coming down, looked as though he had got narked at the change in weather and stomped off home for a mug of absinthe instead.
Forget Truth. It no longer has a place here.

So, if Myra is not about glamorising or condoning the actions of a murderer, what is it about? Is it even a portrait at all? I don’t personally think so.
The image is created using tiny handprints. Think about that. The image of this person is only created by the handprints. It is a loop.
We know who she is because of what she has done to these children, only because of that. If she had not done these things, we would remain unaware of her existence.
She is created in our social consciousness because of her actions toward these children. She is created in our visual consciousness by the actions of these children. They create her who destroyed them.
She is imprisoned in this single image. That is all we know of her, even 40 years later.

Should it have been included in the film then? Yes.
As I mentioned, Sensation was hugely important for British art and British culture as a whole. It remains a symbol of the social shift we experienced and put British art back on the world stage. It was the culmination of the Saatchi decade and the foundation of the stupid Cool Britannia movement that probably helped us get the Olympics in the first place.

Why though, that particular painting? Well, it isn’t that particular painting. I am personally convinced that the only reason that piece is the one being shown is due to the footage they have of the exhibition.

Upon entering Sensation, one was greeted with Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” in a dimly lit hexagonal room. On the walls surrounding, Mark Wallinger’s “Race, Class, Sex” suite of paintings. While Hirst’s shark is arguably a better and more recognisable choice for a piece of Brit Art, there is not going to be any footage of it in that exhibition which is as suitable to be quick edited into a short film of our achievements as Harvey’s work. The same of Emin’s tent. Or of Whiteread’s Ghost.

So much of the effect of that painting lay in the genius of the gallery layout. As you may notice from the film (of which, I should probably mention I have only seen a clip. If Hirst is in there I’m going to look an eijit. As usual), it was framed by a succession of doorways in the furthest room. What you do not see from the film is that the work furthest from it was Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Tragic Anatomies, an installation of mutated and genderless child mannequins.
Turning around from that to find Myra Hindley’s baleful gaze regarding you at such distance and the realisation that the only direction you have to move in is towards her... anybody who feels that the work was designed to celebrate or beautify clearly never experienced that.

I’m sorry that people feel so against this and it is a shame that we are protesting about it instead of praising things like that topiary skyline of London (that was wonderfully naff, more please!). The inclusion of that painting in the film is there as a representation of an exhibition and a movement. At the end of the day, we should all be grateful we live in a time and a place where we can discuss and protest about such things; so many don’t.

Just remember: Art is about dialogue, not knee jerk reactions. Apart from the times when it is. Obviously.

What they said about it at the time:
“Moors murderer Myra Hindley’s police photograph is reworked by Harvey in Myra (1995); the artist questions the iconic status given to the image and its attendant fascination and repulsion by the media and public alike.”
From the Sensation gallery guide.

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