Take Back Control
Group exhibition curated by Bryden and Ellie Pennick
The Crypt Gallery, Euston Rd, Kings Cross
London NW1 2BA
14 – 24 March 2019
The Crypt under St Pancras Church, an appropriately gloomy yet incredibly photogenic spot, hosts a look back on the role British newspapers played in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign and its aftermath and it probes the response of artists to Brexit. Art in galleries sometimes soars in a beautiful synchronicity between content and location and political group show Take Back Control has this, though perhaps not always in the expected sort of way.
The Brexit referendum in 2016 engaged and enraged the population with a far greater level of passion that politics usually does. Brexit’s process and progress since then has made it un-deniably obvious that political promises were made that could not be kept; claims were made that had no connection to fact or reality and the quantity of disruptive information which has surfaced since then makes many question “Was that known to them? Was shit hidden from us? Did they lie? Or did they actually not know something they should have figured?” This is neatly captured by Ben Bird in Europa, in which as you progress further and further into the text of “The Rape Of Europa” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, more and more letters get dropped leading to progressively increasing confusion in the message.
If you lack the necessary ego and savage power lust to become a politician but still want to be able to proclaim your affiliations and exert influence on public thinking, become a street artist. However, if you want to seriously manipulate public opinion, buy a newspaper. Not in the “A Guardian, 2 pints of milk and a packet of Rizlas king size please” sense no, the way to do this is to become a media mogul. Any semblance of even-handedness during the referendum was abandoned in favour of psycho-leave or rabid-remain. Nuance evaporated, editorials were polarised and debate reduced to shouty absolute truths.
The day after the referendum result was announced the Daily Mirror, having previously wished for reconciliation across the leave/remain divide went with an editorial “clueless face”. Nearly 3 years later it feels that we aren’t even that confident.
Divine judgement has literally rained down on the Crypt Gallery leading to a biblical flood, a consequence of which is the floor is coated in a bluey grey mud. As we wade through a slimy mess we hope is just clay but fear might be something more connected to the state of the original contents of this charnel house, so we find on the floor an apt metaphor for the slippery toxicity of the headlines in the newspapers of the time.
Artists of course would never be such shameless liars and Quiet British Accent do us the favour of confirming that their “BUGGER BREXIT” is actually “Quiet Balanced Advice” (QBA – geddit?). Several protest march placards are juxtaposed alongside photographs showing those placards marched in actual “keeping things real” angry protest through central London. Roll on the “Put It To The People” march on Saturday.
Graffoto had the pleasure of meeting Quiet British Accent for the first time in the muddy crypt where we struck up a Quagmire Based Association. They explained that Edward V appears in their Bugger Brexit poster because he recovered from a serious illness by convalescing in the seaside town of Bognor. Later relapsed and his physician advised the King return to Bognor upon which the royal fuse blew, “Bugger Bognor” he exploded. The Quiet British Accent placard is a paraphrasing of that regal riposte.
Dr d has been using the newspaper stand poster as a device for years and in this show he paraphrases the D-Ream ditty that became the battle song for those heady days in 1997 when a Labour led government was formed, this first appeared on the streets earlier this year and damn, hasn’t Dr d the political clairvoyant been proven right again.
Unsurprisingly Theresa May draws a lot of ire from the artists, which is kind of ironic as she was a Remainer in the 2016 campaign. Heath Kane’s Second Class features Elizabeth on a stamp with what is revealed here to actually be Theresa May, she formerly of the remain camp but now leading Britain out of the EU, a grimace of horror as she realises she has blown the Tory majority superimposed onto the Queen’s face. This also appeared pasted illegally on the streets of Britain courtesy of Flying Leaps who have slipped a number of their artist partners into this exhibition.
Joshua Evan isolates the unhelpful and quite self-evident soundbite of a politician who really put the “less” into meaningless by progressively slowing down a looped recording of Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit” to the point where, in arriving at the logical endpoint of journalist John Grace’s caricature of her as The Maybot, her circuits are finally overloaded.
Joshua Evan “Brexit Means….”
On the subject of The Maybot, would I be the only one who looks at gets flashbacks from Paul Deltic’s Theresa May portrait to the nightmare memory of her doing the Robot across the conference platform last year? Try un-seeing that image in your mind now.
Joe Holbrook’s UKIP print on what is stated categorically to be British steel at face value may look like a leaver manifesto logo but the title alludes to something else, “Eye shadow cannot fix scrotum like features” kind revisits the old adage that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear and embossed under the surface of the UKIP insignia is a National Front logo, translucent but pimped with glitter to smother its unpalatability. That old UKIP logo will always bring to mind comedian Russell Brand’s slapdown of Nigel Farage as “a Poundland Enoch Powell”, which is pretty much the same connection Holbrook makes.
Some of the artists focussed on the impact of this political rupturing of the country on. If you have to guess which way Sally Jones’ Bruised Britannia leans politically, you have to divine her intention from a blinded and battered Britannia. To a Leaver this may represent the nation as it waits to cast off the shackles of the non-democratic EU, or to a Remainer it could represent Britain no longer looking outward, its standing in the international community irreparably damaged, perhaps. The artist’s note indicates it is actually about the tensions and division created within Britain and the future uncertainty about the consequences, which is politically is neither one way nor the other. Britannia’s trauma plays out against a George Orwell quote “in times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”, back to newspaper culpability again.
A particular challenge in the art of protest is ensuring clarity and some Brexit inspired art is mired in ambiguity. For example, the Brexit Ball Gag sculpture by Simeon Oliver is described in the gallery wall note as touching on how surrendering control, the act of allowing someone to fit a ball bag could be construed as actually retaining power and control through the gift of consent, whilst the obvious literal interpretation would be that an individual, or let’s say metaphorically the whole country, loses its voice when the EU gag is fitted. Vote now.
When Banksy revealed his Brexit piece de resistance in Dover in 2017 (covered here), that also suffered from ambiguity but there was an almost unanimous presumption that Banksy meant it to be an anti “Leave” gesture.
Sean Wheelan contributed a hand painted fire blanket symbolising how in this debate neither side is capable of listening to the other and dialogue, be it online or in the press has been reduced to an exchange of insults; “wrong wrong wrong” ad infinitum (or at least until he ran out of space). Anticipating the way that farce turned to comedy this week in Westminster, the artist has embedded multiple spelling mistakes in the writing, perhaps an echo of the careless approach to precision and detail in the urgent exchange, the Brexit Brevity, of angry tweets and posts.
A degree of mission creep sneaks into the show with some specimens of art known to have originated during the 2017 snap general election rather than the Brexit referendum, though you may argue that poll was more almost entirely nothing other than a failed exercise in increasing Theresa May’s majority so her party could railroad anything through parliament to win its preferred Brexit. One we saw in a few locations on the streets was the superb “Strong and Stable My Arse” from Jeremy Deller which mocked the rather lame attempt by Theresa May to invoke a cult of personality in 2017, look how well that went!
That Jeremy Deller artwork appeared on the streets alongside KennardPhillipps’s “Study For A Head 7” where peeling back the face reveals big business is the true master. Again this is more a big political truism that it is Brexit specific.
Leave art is under-represented in the exhibition or maybe Leave art is accurately given some kind of proportional representation as artists appear to be more inclined towards Remain. Based on what is visible on the streets of London this is true of street artists, as highlighted in the blizzard of pro remain Brexit related street art found recently. The only artworks in Take Back Control which appeared to these eyes to be categorically favouring Leave rather than merely sitting on the fence or hard to work out, were a quartet of prints by Jan Bowman. A Remainer would pick the metaphors apart very easily – slaying the EU serpent leads to increasing tolerance, really? Flies in the face of the increase in racist attacks reported since the referendum.
It’s not that the art is bad, Jan Bowman’s art is perfectly fine though perhaps the way the allegorical virtues of an independent Britain and Europe can be construed as flatulence emitting from the horses’ arses is probably an unintentional metaphor, it’s just that the political arguments in the art are flawed in a way that characterised a lot of the case for Leave.
The apparently simple democratic process of giving the public a choice then acting upon their choice has raised question about the very mechanism by which a few are granted power which they then wield supposedly on behalf of whichever minority is largest and we all abide. In fairness to the Leave side of the debate, this was a rare example of a poll being won by an actual majority. Do the elected ones serve self-interest, party or population once elected? Does public preference remain static or does it change as more information is revealed? Would that majority still be a majority today? Is the referendum asking the right question? If you take Emma Goldman’s quote “If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal”, which Banksy parodied with his central London wall “If graffiti changed it they would make it illegal” and mash it up with the idea of a ballot box with a shredder and where have we seen a shredder in action recently, you’d get David Dunnice’s democracy trashing clear plastic ballot box. No matter how simple or clear or regulated the vote is, it’s not so much the vote being rigged as what follows.
Many of us remember promises of “the easiest trade negotiations in history” and “the day after the referendum we will hold all the cards in negotiations” yet the process of getting to simply agreeing how to leave has provided complex, labyrinthine and full of dark corners and blocked route, much like the crypt actually.
There is an irony in looking at an exhibition that questions media integrity and bias and writing about it here from such a partisan perspective. Any die hard Leaver is quite entitled to dismiss this blog post as a bitter rant of a defeated metropolitan dwelling London centric loser and they’d be right but actually you can’t deny the central tenets of the exhibition. It was a shit referendum and it has got shittier and it’s the newspapers and the politicians.
This group exhibition contains great art, absolutely of the moment, politically engaged, mentally stimulating as well as staged in an incredible location. I nearly missed it as I just happened to be in the area last week with a nagging voice in my head saying that there was something on at the crypt, a hasty search of emails and social media drew a blank so I really just poked my nose in there on spec. At the end you leave wondering if there is any hope now for a political process which will be independent, truthful, free from foreign interference but perhaps Zish Alexander is on to something when he highlights the empowerment of the individual sharing their video and photo captures but wait a minute, that means using facebook and Instagram and …aren’t they just as biased, manipulative and distorted as the old world newspaper media?
All photos: Dave Stuart