As 200 children descend on the Savoy, Niru Ratnam asks why corporations sponsor works of art
In July, 200 teenagers from east London will head to the Savoy where they will take over the Lancaster Ballroom for the day. There they will be given the freedom to create a large-scale event — food and performances included. In the weeks leading up to it, they will have been prepped by Ruth Ewan, the artist behind the project, on the history of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.
The preparation and the event itself will revolve around the teenagers’ interpretation of that historical moment when Wat Tyler led calls for the redistribution of wealth and was subsequently put to death in Smithfield by London’s mayor for his troubles. Before Tyler’s revolt was quashed, his peasants had stormed west London and burnt the Savoy Palace to the ground — hence Ewan’s choice of the modern-day hotel.
‘Liberties of the Savoy’ is the winner of the four-year-old CREATE Art Award, which is given to works of participatory art, a particularly popular form of contemporary art at the moment (its high priest, Jeremy Deller, has just been chosen to represent Britain at the 2013 Venice Biennale). Participatory art falls somewhere between visual art, street theatre and group performance and this particular work is one of the more edgy examples to emerge because of its potential to be read from a politically inflected viewpoint.
For while it is rooted in the Peasant’s Revolt, it seems clear that the work is also inviting viewers to make links with the events of last summer, when teenagers across London went on their own revolt of the dispossessed. Ewan’s description of her project seems, in part at least, to reference those events: ‘I want the “Liberties of the Savoy” to create a unique situation, albeit for one afternoon, in which the participants are unrestricted in their desire and ambition, where they can temporarily experience liberty of sorts.