Published  31/01/2019

Phil Collins – interview: the artist who brought a statue of Engels from Ukraine to Manchester

Phil Collins – interview: the artist who brought a statue of Engels from Ukraine to Manchester

The artist talks about his latest exhibition, Ceremony, which documents the statue’s journey, and explains why Engels has such relevance in contemporary Britain

Phil Collins, Ceremony, 2018. Installation view, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 2019. Photograph: Sally Jubb. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions.


Phil Collins (b1970) is a British-born artist and film-maker based in Berlin and Wuppertal, Germany. Since the late 1990s his practice has explored the interfaces of art, politics and media. He has worked collaboratively with a wide range of people in Palestine, Kosovo and Baghdad, as well as teachers of Marxism-Leninism from the former German Democratic Republic. He has also worked with pensioners, children, a symphonic orchestra in Glasgow and, most recently, activists and former prisoners in the US. In 2017, Collins transported a statue of Friedrich Engels from the village of Mala Pereshchepina in Eastern Ukraine to Manchester. The sculpture was inaugurated as part of the Manchester International Festival to celebrate the fact that, in the mid-1880s, Engels lived and worked in the city for more than 20 years.

Ceremony (2018), the film that documents the statue’s journey from Ukraine and its arrival in Manchester, is showing at the Cooper Gallery, Dundee, where a panel discussion on the opening night and a series of discursive programmes have enabled a discussion of art and politics. Collins’ recent films (he was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 2006) have repeatedly addressed communist and post-communist history. marxism today (prologue) (2010) and use! value! exchange! (2010) focus on what became of the teachers of Marxist theory in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Phil Collins, Ceremony, 2018. Installation view, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 2019. Photograph: Sally Jubb. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions.

An artist’s interpretation of the contribution of Engels (1820-95) to British history and the relevance of his views to today’s uncertain times provide a new position from which to interrogate the significance of his life and work. Engels was a German philosopher, communist, social scientist and businessman who wrote and published prolifically. His father owned textile factories in Salford near Manchester and in Barmen, Germany, and he sent Engels to work in the Salford factory in the hope of steering him away from radical politics. In 1845, Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England, based on personal observations on the life of workers he witnessed in Manchester. In 1848, he co-wrote The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx. Later, Engels supported Marx financially to research and write Das Kapital. After Marx’s death, Engels edited the second and third volumes. Another major work by Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, was published in 1884. He died in London, at the age of 74.

Engels is used by Collins to address the fact that today, in a period of absolute prosperity, it seems impossible for the ruling classes and the policy-makers to comprehend the stress and misery of people suffering the ramifications of an overstretched benefits system, and the implied punishment in the manner in which immigrants and refugees are treated. Engels’ key text, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Collins asserts, is a suitable reflection of the country’s problems today.

Janet McKenzie: In The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels used the phrase “social murder” to describe the conditions in which the proletariat were forced to live. You have found Engels’ 19th-century study pertinent to the case of Grenfell Tower, the block of flats in London where a fire in 2017 resulted in the deaths of 72 people.

Phil Collins: Engels analysed the nature of capital as the ultimate abstraction, governed primarily by the pursuit of profit, with no regard for human life. Grenfell was a manifestation of this, a case in which state-sanctioned deregulation and corporate greed led to atrocious consequences. At the time, a parallel was drawn with Engels’ notion of “social murder”, and I thought that was a salient and urgent comparison between the time when Engels was writing and our present moment.

Phil Collins, Ceremony, 2018. Installation view, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 2019. Photograph: Sally Jubb. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions.

JMcK: How did Engels capture your imagination?

PC: I grew up near Manchester and was a student there in the late 80s and early 90s. I was interested in the fact that though Engels had lived there for more than 20 years, this didn’t play an obvious role in the city’s heritage. Although he made a huge contribution to the life of the city, there was no statue in the centre of Manchester to honour this history. In Salford, he ran Ermen and Engels, his dad’s factory, which made sewing threads. He started off as a clerk and became the director of the mill, and he fed his first-hand insights into the internal mechanisms and practical knowledge of the factory system to Marx. His contribution to the formation of communist theory and socialism was intrinsically tied to his life and experiences in Manchester. At Chetham’s Library, the desk used by Engels and Marx as they worked on the first draft of The Communist Manifesto still sits in a latticed window, and the books they used are allocated their own shelf. But a lot of the other 19th-century architectural landmarks have been demolished.

Engels was an interesting figure because he was unorthodox and, particularly, because he moved between different worlds. On the one hand, he was what you might consider typically bourgeois; he lived comfortably, loved fox-hunting and rode out with the Cheshire hunt. On the other hand, he was at the forefront of progressive movements in economics, politics and philosophy, gave generously to various revolutionary causes, and supported the education of workers. Mary Burns, his long-time partner, was a working-class mill-worker. They didn’t marry – they were both early feminists – and he wrote about women’s liberation, sexual liberation and the oppressive nature of the family as a social unit. After Mary’s death he shifted his affections to her sister, Lizzie Burns. Although he abhorred the institution of marriage, at her request, he married Lizzie on her deathbed.

Phil Collins, Ceremony, 2018. Installation view, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 2019. Photograph: Sally Jubb. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions.

JMcK: Mary Burns was Irish?

PC: Yes, Mancunian Irish. In many ways, Mary Burns was Engels’ passport to the backstreets of Manchester, where he was able to observe the way in which the poor lived. He wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England aged just 24, and it focused largely on two slum areas of the city, Angel Meadow and Little Ireland. Engels had a life-long passionate and contradictory relationship with the Irish. From the prejudicial slander prevalent in the age in The Condition of the Working Class in England, this shifted to the image of the valiant revolutionary, “Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy.”

JMcK: Marx said that it was only if men and women marched together that they would bring about social change in societal structures. Conditions in Ireland were terrible during the time that Mary Burns and Engels were together, which would have fuelled their radical politics. The current exhibition Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, in Derry, addresses the same period of sociopolitical conditions due to the Famine causing astounding numbers of Irish to migrate to England before going on to America or Australia.

PC: I was at college in Belfast for five years in the late 90s and to be there at that time was one of the most formative experiences for me. What was very clear was how the spectacularisation of the past had come to function within the global economy and circulation of images, especially regarding their articulation of conflict. The city was quite often described in terms quite antithetical to its everyday realities, where uncertainty, generosity, femininity and vulnerability spoke more self-evidently than the characterisation of a fraught, unyielding body – so beloved by the Manchester Evening News – as an emblem of the political situation. And so this history of British colonialism persists, with its ruthlessness and savagery, its delusions of exceptionalism and its casual amnesia towards Irish history played out in the imperial one-handed chess game of Brexit.

Phil Collins, Ceremony, 2018. Installation view, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 2019. Photograph: Sally Jubb. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions.

JMcK: The exhibition at Cooper Gallery, Dundee, comprises the 70-minute film Ceremony and three paintings printed on plastic. Can you explain that configuration?

PC: The paintings are scenes that I asked a friend, Ivana Kličković, to paint: an industrial landscape of 19th-century Manchester, socialist-era monuments, a Soviet spaceship, scenes from the Russian Revolution, the Hulme Crescents [a vast housing complex built in 1972 and demolished 20 years later], a fighter jet over the bombed-out oil fields in Iraq – iconic moments important for the story of Engels and his work, as well as for its renewed relevance in the light of present-day problems. 

They were used as backdrops in a large-scale event, which was organised for the inauguration of the statue in Manchester. This functioned partly as a live film set, partly as a staged performance and partly as a social space in which different anti-austerity activists and community groups could engage with a wide audience, share knowledge and offer information on what they do. Documentation of these various aspects of Engels’ homecoming is part of the film and, during filming, the billboard-sized backdrops were held up behind local kids who, alongside Susanne Sachsse, a German actress from Berlin, read from the preface to the first edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England, structured as a direct address to workers of Great Britain. In the rest of the film, Maxine Peake is the voice of Engels, which threads through, connects and comments on what’s happening on the screen, as she reads from this same seminal work.

For the gallery installation, the painted scenes are presented as billboards, in formation around the projection screen itself, which, in combination with the raked seating, is a reference to a mass rally or a socialist parade, and thus, hopefully, conveys something of the original event.

JMcK: Your research on Engels and Marxism is expanded on in Ceremony and given a contemporary relevance by working with people who, for many years now, have suffered from austerity in Britain. An obvious departure from Engels’ important work, where his working class remains largely silent, is that you have given your characters a voice.

PC: Over the year that I went back to Manchester for the project, I worked closely with local organisations and individuals to understand what might be contemporary applications of Engels’ work. If he was writing today, what and who would he be writing about? These exchanges and relations were crucial for me, in terms of individual stories which appear in the film, with scenes from everyday lives of some of the people I met, as well as in terms of participation of this wider network of collaborators in the statue’s inauguration.

Phil Collins, Ceremony, 2018. Installation view, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 2019. Photograph: Sally Jubb. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions.

We negotiated with Manchester city council to permanently install the statue in Tony Wilson Place, outside the Home arts centre. It is a “privately owned public plaza”, surrounded by office blocks, Pizza Express and Starbucks. This recognisable glass-and-steel landscape of corporate capitalism, familiar from any British city, provided an apt framework for the statue, physically and symbolically. The site is around the corner from where the slums of Little Ireland used to be, the subject of some of Engels’ most memorable writing. Symbolically, as well, it connects back to his position as someone who worked within the system to attack the system. Engels is a contradictory figure, which is what I find relevant to our times. He wasn’t a purist, but at the same time mercantile and idealistic; conservative in some of his views and extremely progressive in others. Such contradictions speak to the nature of contemporary capitalism, which, no matter how much you oppose, you still end up participating in, so there is no anterior position from which to blamelessly and non-self-critically criticise it. The same goes for Engels’ work, often subject to crude ideological simplifications from both the right and the left.

In a wider sense, the figure of Engels was, for me, also important as a prism through which to rearticulate understanding of places such as Manchester, which represents the birth of capitalism and the factory system, but is also a site of counter-movements and resistance – from the Chartists and the 1842 general strike, to the suffragettes and the Vegetarian Society. It’s these histories and the radical heart of the city that could not be found among its memorials, statues and street names. The sculpture of Engels as a new public monument subtly shifts that balance.

JMcK: You have created relevance to the conditions of the poor in Britain today through the film that documents the journey from Ukraine to Manchester. Different narratives exist side by side and they are ordinary people, not actors but real people.

PC: The contributors come from the places where I went for research or simply to spend time: homeless centres and work clubs, community groups and youth centres, schools and factories. Most of the protagonists in the film are women and, in some ways, Ceremony also questions the manner in which societal tensions are manifested in the private sphere, within home and families. I feel this is important as, in the postwar depictions, Marx and Engels are stern, patriarchal figures, their work often dogmatised and their statues foreboding and severe. The statue I found in a village in Eastern Ukraine was cut in half and unceremoniously dumped in an agricultural compound, so there was not much monumental or masculine about it. Even in its physical appearance there is an element of vulnerability, which I am drawn to, and hope that these kinds of reversals and complexities, in how we might perceive Engels and his work, come through in the film.

Phil Collins: Ceremony is at the Cooper Gallery, Dundee, until 16 February 2019.

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