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Will Kwan, Flame Test, 2010

Frances Loeffler | 2010 Liverpool Biennial: Exhibition Guide. Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art, 2010, 68-69.

In modern history, the national flag has been the focus of intensely conflicted feelings around national and cultural belonging. The flying of flags at sporting and political events is still the foremost sanctioned symbol of nationalistic pride. Perhaps, however, it's not just the official gestures promoting a nation, but also the unofficial acts of confrontation that more deeply define a country's multivalent identity. Today, both patriotic gestures and acts of political provocation alike have become highly mediated events, endlessly circulated through the channels of the international media and press journalism. How do these gestures affect us and how do they resonate in today's world, when our most raw sensations of belonging or dissent exhibit themselves endlessly for the camera's gaze?

Often involving intensive processes of sociological research, Will Kwan's work brings to the fore the cultural subtexts underlying seemingly neutral everyday objects, systems and devices, such as clocks, maps, flags, language and institutional buildings. Kwan's Flame Test is an installation of thirty-six raised flags. Circling the exterior perimeter of a prominent building in Liverpool's city centre, at first sight the flags resemble the colourfully festive decorations of a national celebration or parade. A closer look, however, reveals each flag to be in flames. In place of nationalist insignia, these banners display photographic documentation of flag-burning incidents taken from the archives of the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and other journalistic agencies. Details from the original scene are just visible in the tightly cropped margins of the prints, serving as a reminder of the multiple frames through which we perceive such highly charged political acts.

The title of the work, Flame Test, refers to a testing procedure used in chemistry experiments and indicates the unpredictable character of both political acts and their transmission through media channels. Flame Test foregrounds fractured and agonistic evocations of national identity, and reminds us of how the media spectacle reconfigures our most potent symbolic acts of protest, resistance and dissent.

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