20 September 2018 – 31 March 2019
LondonPatrick Heide Contemporary Art and Batha Contemporary
Feb 28th 2019 – April 18th 2019
LondonThe Crypt Gallery
March 14th – 24th 2019
LondonNational Portrait Gallery
7 March - 27 May 2019
In January of 1973, Great Britain joined the European Union after its third petition for membership. The event inspired an array of celebrations entitled “Fanfare for Europe.” One was the exhibition Sweet Feast at Whitechapel Gallery. For this event, Whitechapel Gallery put an assortment of sugary creations from each European nation on display—chocolates, marzipan, and confectionary from across the continent. On the final day of the exhibition, the visitors were invited to sample the sweets. The result: children overpowered the security guard and ravaged the entire display.
This year, Ulla von Brandenburg took over the same gallery space with an artistic response to those children’s actions 46 years prior. Her exhibition, also titled Sweet Feast, consisted of a filmed reenactment, screened in a viewing area made from day-care crashmats arranged to resemble a colorful geometric mountain range. In the film, a group of children sing school songs with lyrics such as “Let’s protect the planet” and “It’s your world too.” Hand-outs are available containing an edited selection of news articles from 1973 about the children’s destruction of European confectionary. Some were humorous reports of the exhibition’s “sticky end,” while others were concerned with the possibility of the children having also devoured rat poison from the floor.
Von Brandenburg’s work can be seen to reiterate the neo-liberal position of the gallery-going, international middle class. Voiced by the child actors, “Let’s protect the planet” and “It’s your world too,” the message preaches universal inclusivity—a moralizing dismissal of Leave voters.
Two other art exhibitions in London have explicit focus on Brexit, Should I Stay or Should I Go? at Patrick Heide and Batha Contemporary, both are a disappointment. At the small commercial Patrick Heide, Michael Landy’s wall stickers in the gallery’s stairwell show simple diagrams of a drowning figure, a pissing man, and an idealized landscape which contrasts with the dreary view of London out the window above it. Their haphazard positioning at the base of the wall reiterates bleak British humor, like an awkward laugh. Johannes von Stumm’s sculpture Four Rectangles (2015) is more abstract. Made of limestone, bronze, and steel blocks balanced atop a glass base (according to the press release) this arrangement is supposed to represent the “equilibrium” to which Europe seeks to return.
Susan Stockwell’s Jerusalem-Br-Exit (2018) is a knitted map of Britain pinned to the wall with Scotland intact and its southern neighbor hanging loose—now deflated, melancholic, and limp, no longer the “green and pleasant land” from the William Blake poem to which the title refers. Here too the work offers little more than a mere symbolic illustration or critique.
Michał Iwanowski’s Go Home, Polish (2018) series consists of photos taken from the artist’s journey by foot, from Bristol to Poland, to track the path of this xenophobic slur. Similarly, the photos have a pensive and dejected quality, but the work’s concept is simplistic and says little about the intricacy of Brexit. Varvara Shavrova’s dark printed blankets, which visitors can wrap around themselves in order to simulate a migrant’s feelings of “loss of identity and desire for comfort,” are, at best, unfortunate and, at worst, offensive. These works, as well as von Brandenburg’s, lack depth in speaking to what this vote has meant for those that voted, both for and against it.
The exhibition Take Back Control, at The Crypt Gallery, is no less thin. It takes place in a small dilapidated basement venue with muddy cobbled floors under St. Pancras church. Its title is drawn from a major cross-party “Leave” campaign slogan. Its curatorial stance is more direct and politically legible than Heide’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? Jeremy Deller is the only artist of reputation included. His large print of the words “Strong and Stable My Arse” printed in classic black font on plain white was found posted on walls all over London in 2017, after Teresa May overused the “strong and stable” mantra during the run-up to her snap election. In the gallery setting, Deller’s blunt address does little but satirize. Across the exhibition, many works contain satirical caricatures of May or crumbling allegorical figures of Britannia. The result is a little monotonous and lacking in nuance.
The strength of this exhibition is its direct address of the UK media. In the center of the space is a display of newspapers from the last three years, available to browse through across a few trestle tables. The British media, particularly the right-wing press, have played an integral part in the referendum and successive political events. A frontpage headline of The Sunday People from June 26th, 2016, three days after the Brexit vote, reads “500,000 MIGRANTS HEADING TO BRITAIN.” Above it the Cambridge university alumni and actor, Tom Hiddleston, reclines in white underwear, promising more photos revealed on page 32. Meanwhile, a Metro from before the vote is covered in a full-page Vote Leave campaign advert: “TAKE BACK CONTROL: Vote to Leave the EU on Thursday.” Overleaf, on the frontpage, “An MP can be replaced …a mother can’t be” refers to the killing of MP Jo Cox who was repeatedly stabbed and shot days before the vote, by a man who shouted, “Britain first” outside her constituency meeting in West Yorkshire. The juxtaposition of Cox’s tragic assassination with the nationalistic “Take Back Control” campaign is unnerving.
One work, #RaisedLens (2019), by Zish Alexander manages to speak to today’s increasing entanglement between media and politics. Placards, with their slogans omitted, are printed with grainy photos of cameras, smartphones, and selfie-sticks reaching above a crowd. These eerie portraits of digital technologies signal their individual consumers whose identities remain out of frame. The placard’s usual associations with political collectivity is lost. These nullified and lonely objects lean gently against the walls.
Why are these exhibitions such a disappointment? With Sweet Feast and Take Back Control, the artist’s responses are overshadowed by the original event. In the former, the children’s actions of 1973 and the humorous newspaper clippings collected by von Brandenburg, are more interesting, strange and compelling than the artist’s re-enactment. Meanwhile, in the latter, while Alexander’s #RaisedLens, offers a poignant reflection, the most arresting objects are the newspapers themselves. Across these galleries, all we have are artworks which lack depth and nuance. There is also an absence of strong curatorial stance. The result: cynicism and artistic paralysis.
How different is Martin Parr’s retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, Only Human. Though not entirely a Brexit orientated exhibition, the final rooms are devoted to the topic and no doubt Parr’s long-term interest in Britishness meets its ultimate subject. For Parr, the idea of Britishness is a fiction, a cultural identity myth much like the American dream. A major UK photographer, Parr captures Britain with ethnographic wit, his lens oscillating between empathy and ambivalence. A Kenyan in black bowtie serves beer to British tourists; a man holds a giant leek (a winning vegetable at an English country show); two Muslim women wearing the hijab smile behind the counter at their fish and chip shop. A sullen “queue” forms at an isolated ice-cream truck on a beach in Wales—the camera is distant, telescoping in from above, its lens documenting the confused nation.
Many of the photographs are arranged in corresponding pairs, groups, or constellations. A photograph at Henley Royal Regatta, a famous boating race, of middle aged white people dressed in double-breasted blazers, pashminas, and fascinators, are seen politely sheltered under umbrellas. Through this lens, the traditions of “The Establishment” are portrayed as equally bizarre as the flag-waving communities of a neglected working class. For both, Patriotism is present, just in different ways. Hung directly beneath the Henley attendants, a black family cowers from the rain under a broken Heartbrand umbrella on a grey beach in the less wealthy Essex.
Through Parr’s eyes politics become an abstract force, some distant power that, perplexes, divides, and unites Britain. One photo of a British citizenship ceremony in Bristol shows us a woman clutching her new certificate of Britishness. To her left the mayor wears a large hat of black plumes. Mayoral traditional red and black garb is completed with a large white ruffled cravat and gold chain. Together they stand in an ornate room. A Union Jack laid flat across the polished wood desk in front of them dominates the frame. Further to the right, just out of focus, a woman in a hijab awaits her turn. We view the scene over a man’s shoulder who in turn captures it on an iPad. At the center, the new British citizen regards the scene with a forced smile.