In light of Margaret Thatcher’s recent death and both the stage-managed pantomime of the quasi-state funeral and the media’s endless picking-through of Thatcherism and its legacy, Lisa Barnard’s photographic project Chateau Despair takes on a new weight. In the photo-essay, Barnard documents 32 Smith Square – the site that for almost fifty years was the Conservative Party’s Central Office. Barnard started examining the building – unoccupied since the Tories left in 2004 (by which time it was not so affectionately referred to by its inhabitants as ‘Chateau Despair’) – in August 2009. Since then she has produced over 5 films’ worth of images picturing its strange, decrepit corporate blue spaces, stained carpets and cracked plasterboard. Her forensic photographs – which share something in common with the cataloging of an archaeologist’s finds – reveal a surreal wasteland of diplomatic gifts, dishevelled election posters, rosettes and un-blown balloons. But it is the multiple portraits of Margaret Thatcher, unearthed in an old cupboard, which violently punctuate the other images. Barnard produced these pictures by re-photographing a selection of official Tory portraits, now old and now weathered, and cropping out the various international dignitaries with whom Thatcher had originally posed. Consequently, each image is almost identical – Thatcher’s multiple pinched lips all smile unnaturally in unison. Barnard revels in the photographs’ corrupted state; an ode to the impermanence and instability of colour photosensitive materials. Left in a cupboard for years, they have deteriorated at different rates – the yellow, magenta and cyan dyes have reacted to time, humidity and damp, resembling the psychedelic chemical colour swirls of oil slicks. Their chemical tones match the artificial dyed chestnut of Thatcher’s regimented bouffant hair. Like the remnants of Thatcher’s ideological vision in a post-privatised coalition Britain, the portraits’ aged and slightly bleached surfaces are a diluted and distorted version of their previous form – but no less abhorrent for it. This stiff, purposeful smile and carefully choreographed image jars with the shabby, redundant landscape around her. Her nacreous skin appears brittle, as shell-like and luminescent as the signature pearls clipped to her ears and strung around her throat. A yuppie’s Queen Elizabeth, styled by the TV producer Gordon Reece (by 1978 director of publicity at CCO), scripted by the playwright Ronald Miller (the once Hollywood movie man who coined Thatcher’s famous line ‘The lady’s not for turning’), and marketed by Saatchi ad men.
Chateau Despair is both a photo-essay and a serial portrait of Thatcher and British politics in the 1980s. Barnard’s images clinically present the woman responsible for changing Britain forever, and tell the story from behind the scenes of the rubbishing of the society Thatcher perversely claimed no longer existed. The portraits aggressively reassert Thatcher’s legacy – a presence which lurks everywhere behind the detritus of Smith Square, and reanimates its ghosts. Thatcher’s electoral campaign was, after all, plotted in these offices, and they provided the backdrop to her televised victory celebrations. Yet her iconic image exceeds this architectural setting; now synonymous with the twisted moralities of the free market, the capricious and brutal exploits of buccaneer capitalism, privatization and debtor economies. Barnard’s project offers an archeology of the period of Thatcher’s reign from 1979 to 1990, and an autopsy of the backstage arena – the wasteland of election campaigns and media strategies which helped direct and shape Thatcherism as the Tories aggressively dismantled the labour movement, disempowered the trade unions, withdrew public funding, and violently fashioned a new Britain defined by the monetarist free market ideology of banking, individualism, privatization, nationalism, Victorian moralism and authoritarian populism.