Tom Lubbock: Collages that cut to the quick

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The Independent's Tom Lubbock also made his name as an artist, and his work is now going on show. Turner Prize-winner Mark Wallinger pays tribute.

Every Saturday between 1999 and 2004,
The Independent revealed a new Tom Lubbock collage. It was impossible to anticipate each week whether he might run with the topical, the newsworthy or something more personal, philosophical; modern mores up against the eternal verities, art everywhere. It was an open brief and, given such leave, he addressed the world in many different registers – sardonic, caustic, erudite and celebratory, with instinct, intelligence and wit.

Each week an exquisitely crafted collage, annotated with a simple graphic text and the precise date, built a unique commentary on the age, foreshadowing much we recognise today. (I count myself very fortunate to have Tom Lubbock as a friend. We go back many years, through which I have enjoyed the benefit of his encouragement, his honesty and the originality of his thought. Plus he is extremely funny.)

Shrine. The titles are a tease, a provocation, a deepening or a sharpening of the work. Here is the devotional similarity of both function and form. Without the certainties of faith our daily genuflections are to the ATM; see how the hole in the wall rewards our faith with its cash return. Thank you for our daily bread.

Taking the long view, the satirist points out the consistency of human nature; that progress is illusory. He finds his purchase and tone of voice in a dialogue with the past. The vortex of limbs in Andy Capp Inferno, its collision of high and low culture, charges us to keep Asbos in perspective

Looking back, we can see a popular government with a nominally radical agenda has already begun the sell-out of its people to Murdoch, America and big business. This is before Mr Terror arrives to spoil the party. A month after September 11, Tom produced After Holman Hunt, with the Afghan as the scapegoat, identifying the genealogy of folly, proving, 3,000 years later, that there is never a convenient villain when you need one. The subsequent loss of sympathy and moral authority the American empire then briefly enjoyed has been squandered irrevocably.

"If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied", wrote Rudyard Kipling in "My Boy Jack".

Once an ideological project dies or is revealed as baseless, governments legislate through their own fears and prejudice, projecting their weaknesses onto the people they purport to represent and who, left alone without their guidance or boundaries, would become feral and broken. Test Case imagines a local-government billboard campaign: "Become Homosexual". The absurdity of the Section 28 legislation is unpicked by addressing that weasel word, "promoting", nailing the evasions and bigotry at the heart of this Act, introduced by the Tories in 1988 and not repealed by New Labour until November 2003.

In 2005 the Government introduced prohibitions to freedom of speech around Parliament. The law anticipates further restrictions for appetites that are frowned upon. Anything intoxicating is likely banned. Tom identifies early on the meddling nature of New Labour's new puritans. Something ought to be done or be seen to be done, and by all, or any means, and with the unlikeliest of bedfellows. You might end up lending a toothbrush to a Bush, a banker, or a water-boarder. New Labour's instinct was to prohibit at home and turn a blind eye abroad, simultaneously evasive and invasive.

Gargoyle, exemplary in Tom's use of reversal, is an image of a pair of security cameras, which, rather than being passive receiving devices, have become the ugly face of our proscriptive, suspicious, busybody society. They betray the everyday with their ceaseless recording evidence. "Caught on CCTV" is the obverse of "famous on reality TV". We are, everywhere, available for scrutiny. Tony Blair would have had us tagged from birth like some dog-registration scheme. Born guilty unless proven innocent, all very Christian. "If you've done nothing wrong you've got nothing to hide," is the refrain from a thousand radio phone-in shows. Everyone has a voice and ignorance is no bar. In Feral Peril, Tom imagines how the Daily Mail might misrepresent Romulus and Remus suckled by a she-wolf as the ultimate dysfunctional one-parent family. Cicero has a line about those who know no history being condemned to remain as children.

Scratch. The heads-down behaviour engendered by an infantilised culture. The lonely business of scratch-cards, the itch is greed, the lottery a tax on our stupidity. i-Want.

Who is My Neighbour. From the point of view of the seated occupant of a public lavatory cubicle, we see, under the partition, the shoe worn by the man defecating in the cubicle next door. How much we know we can guess, how much more we want to know is doubtful. The public and the private are Janus-faced at the threshold of personal liberty. One moves from private complaint to public constraint, from ideas to acts. Crisis Talks exerts a profound shock like a punch in the face. Here 7/7 is prefigured, the official signage of civic society set to speaking in tongues, infected by the irruption of pure evil.

The passing seasons and their ritual observances are honoured by Tom, sometimes coloured by undercurrents of the news, sometimes with a chary kind of wonder at their stubborn endurance. It's That Man Again. Spooky Christ-in-a-box at Easter, or the expectant repeated eyes evoking a more innocent 1950s Christmas in Advent. The economy of the observation and the joy in the making are all part of the impact – a rare sensibility that finds purchase in acute personal detail. Pancake Day is another ritual. Entitled Mardi Gras, we are a long way from carnival. Against the background of the sort of drab kitchen we all recognise Tom conjures an image of flight. Batter is transfigured!

Fancy a pint at The Human Genome? Beyond the pub sign is the complacent air of an English summer. We are sleepwalkers. Experts advise, bureaucrats disseminate, the government sets up an ethics committee, and we live in a world left almost intact, almost the same as before, actually radically changed but indifferent to our inadequate grasp of its laws and functions. We can betray each other wholly or bit by bit, hardly noticing how we got here or where we thought we were going. Don't mess with this place. Don't take it for granted, don't think it hasn't changed or it won't change.

"Under the spreading chestnut tree I sold you and you sold me," wrote George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The spare-part nightmare described in the pub sign has much in common with Tom's methodology, in which the traces of the original photographic sources push and pull against their wilful misuse. It is a fictive space with a mutant grasp on reality and Tom exploits this capacity they have for rapidly shifting focus within the same picture. Collage allows a promiscuity of source material and a sense of the indignities the original has been through hangs over much of the work. In others the lush pages of Elle achieve a rich chiaroscuro, a persuasive depth in New Year vanitas. The work moves from the real, observed domestic world at our fingertips to the wider world outside where things are harder to keep in order. Home is a refuge from and antidote to the madness outside, the place we are ourselves.

Sometimes it is simply personal.Wed. Till death us do part; a whole life together imagined in a churchyard. Confetti scattered over the gravestones. The stone fidelity invoked by the word and the place, the fact that we can read all this in an instant. "What will survive of us is love," wrote Philip Larkin in "An Arundel Tomb".



Tom Lubbock: Collages from 'The Independent' 1999-2004, Victoria Miro Gallery, London N1, 10-21 December (020-7336 8109; www.victoria-miro.com)

Tom Lubbock

Tom Lubbock has been chief art critic of 'The Independent' since 1997, and has worked in newspapers, as critic and illustrator, for 25 years. He wrote the weekly Great Works column in the 'Independent' Arts & Books magazine, and was shortlisted for the British Press Awards' Critic of the Year. In September 2008 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and has been writing a memoir reflecting on the progress of his life and illness.

Win a Tom Lubbock print

The Independent is offering the first ten readers who email offers@independent.co.uk a limited edition print, 'Political', to celebrate Tom Lubbock's first solo exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery.

Based on a collage-work created by Tom for The Independent in 2002, 'Political' is a wry critique on geography, power and international relations that remains as relevant as ever today.

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