The title My Life in Politics makes the latest monograph by photographer Tim Davis sound rather like a biographical tribute to an elder grandee of contemporary Weltpolitik. But anyone familiar with Davis’s 2004 exhibition of the same name, at New York’s Bohen Foundation, will realise instinctively it is anything but.
Far from presenting a glossy career portrait of Bill Clinton or Colin Powell, Davis offers us a scabrous visual critique of all that is most hollow about 21st century political discourse – from a row of television screens showing repeated images of a sloganeering George W Bush through bored-looking telephone canvassers tapping lazily on their keyboards to empty-eyed protesters queuing at an HSBC cash-point.
Indeed, emptiness is the overriding quality shared by these photos. The plastic smile of Madonna of the Right, captured in profile to show off the stars and stripes threaded through her hair, shares the same shallow reverence for style over substance as the “trust me” portraits of right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh on remaindered copies of his books. In places, the theme is explored more literally – with empty shots of the Oval Office and bland anterooms of provincial meeting halls. In One People One Nation One Taco One Destiny, this unbelievable “motto” spans the length of a cheap-looking mural in an empty diner, depicting highlights of the life of Martin Luther King.
Elsewhere, Davis’s equation of politics with cheap advertising is turned on its head. In Marvin Prattt for Mayor, an airbrushed poster promoting the eponymous Mr Pratt is juxtaposed with an ungrammatical sign proclaiming, “Grannys Burgers 89c”. Politics as celebrity, meanwhile, is explored in Seven Entertainers, in which cardboard cutouts of the Clintons and JFK line up alongside Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr Evil. In the accompanying note, Davis observes dryly that Xena: Warrior Princess, who stands, sword in hand, to the left of the former president, “looks like Bill Clinton’s mom”.
No one is safe from Davis’s savage iconoclasm. While there are plentiful references in both the pictures themselves and the accompanying essays to the misdemeanours of the present White House incumbent – and his recent military misadventures – ordinary people are held equally culpable for the debasement of political principle and serious debate. Nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in Flag-Wavers, in which bronzed twentysomethings who could be hitchhikers or protesters enthusiastically swing the US flag beneath two roadside billboards bearing the shredded remnants of previous political campaigns. Empty rhetoric indeed.