Festival / Brighton Photo Biennial 2018: A New Europe
2 ¼ years after the referendum, we’re little nearer knowing what Brexit will involve, so it’s timely that the Brighton Photo Biennial should explore the uncertainties, anxieties and divisions which the process continues to cause. The eight projects brought together by the new director of Photoworks, Shoair Mavlian, make for a stimulating exploration of these themes. Three factors comes to the fore: the position of younger generations, the experience of those who have migrated, and the evidence that – although Brexit is typically presented as a radical break – it may well be part of longer term patterns which are not so new after all.
Surveys of teenagers have shown that 70% would have voted remain, if they’d had the vote, whereas the 70% of over-65s voting favoured leaving. Three presentations deal directly with this contrast. Photography Club, co-ordinated by Photoworks, asked 13 to 16-year-olds to take photographs showing what Brexit meant to them. Their responses indicate an unfocused anxiety which might be summarised as the fear that any central concern of their lives – even the rather un-European institution of curry – might be lost to them.
Actor-artist Heather Agyepong talked to local 16 to 24-year-olds to find out what virtues they thought a modern Britannia ought to represent, then staged herself strikingly as a black Britannia on Brighton beach to embody them. Recent graduate Tereza Červeňová evokes parallel generational divisions – but related to pre-and post-communist eras in her native country of Slovakia. She links images captured across Europe since the referendum with the political upheavals occurring on the dates they were taken. The personal and political are connected with a fragility emphasised by unique means of display, with the photographs unframed but mounted on top-of-picture blocks so that they waft in any current of air.
That sense of recurrence is also evident in a presentation associated with a history of Photoworks itself, which began with a French counterpart as the Cross Channel Photographic Mission. An early project explored the landscape and communities in Britain and France as related to the construction of the Channel Tunnel between 1987 and 1996, another key event in the development of British relations with Europe. The Biennial includes a wide selection from ten photographers commissioned to depict France. Five document the places, with aspects of the past such as archaeological sites bringing home the continuity of change, and five focus more on the people involved. The former, for example, include Josef Koudelka’s panoramic coastscapes and Marilyn Bridges’ analytic accounts of structures taken from a helicopter; the latter see Bruce Gilden document the tunnel’s miners, and Phillippe Lesage take portraits of influential players – some are still involved, e.g. we see Jean-Claude Juncker, circa 1990.
That emphasis on the Tunnel connects satisfyingly to Donovan Wylie’s ‘Lighthouse’, positioned in the Fishing Quarter Gallery, which looks out over the Channel. He’s had the tremendous idea of photographing lighthouses in various countries from the territory of another. Wylie has completed only one shot, but it’s the thematic one of a French lighthouse as seen from 23 miles away in England. Wylie plans to continue with a tour around Britain with views such as Scotland from England, so that the outward beginning is – in the manner of Brexit – due to turn inward.
The ongoing nature of social divisions is neatly emphasised by a presentation of Bill Brandt’s seminal photobook ‘The English at Home’ through wall-based reproductions of its layouts. Arriving from Germany in his ’30s, Brandt had access to high society through his family’s role as bankers, and contrasted that with the working class – in succeeding spreads in the early part of the book, giving way to directly opposed images within a two page spread later on. Appropriately enough, his captions were in both British and French. Robin Maddock exhibits far more pictures in his 20 year survey of photographing across England: if the effect is undermined by the absence of any coherent style, perhaps that is the point he is making about how the political elites impose a commonality which indicates their lack of understanding of what people really feel.
Aikaterini Gegisian’s ‘Prelude – brotherhood’ repurposes historic material by counter-posing public information films about the little-known ‘Brotherhood Week’ programme from the early 1950s USA with a contemporary song calling attention to racism. The Brotherhood ideal – constructed to usurp communist equivalents – is thus undermined directly, while the absence of active women in the footage indicates another limitation of the concept.
The lived experience of migrants – also nothing new, of course – is powerfully evoked by four projects which avoid the over-familiar tropes of photojournalism and emphasise the way life goes on, rather than privileging the trauma. Harley Weir makes the most of Fabrica’s location in a former church by printing her photographs of homes in the Calais refugee jungle on large sheets hanging from the rafters, so evoking the tarpaulin from which the dwellings were largely constructed. Rather than portray the people – which she fears can easily enter exploitative territory, however honourable the intentions – Weir concentrates on dignifying the surprising beauty of what they built. She also includes, at smaller scale displayed on tables, images of sites after the destruction, in 2016, of the homes we see. It is sobering, though, to note that the camps have now largely returned, with 3000 current inhabitants.
For Uta Kögelsberger‘s ‘Uncertain Subjects’ she has a professional billboarder post and over-post portraits onto a shipping container. The 28 subjects are people from the artist’s circle who have moved to the UK from abroad – quotes from whom indicate their anxieties at the prospect of Brexit: ‘It feels like my identity as a European is under attack’ or ‘I don’t want my children grow up in an inward looking country’… The doubts they feel are visually encapsulated in the surreal montages and racial mixes which occur as one face, each made up of four posted sheets, gives way to another.
Finally, and perhaps most powerfully of the new works on view, are two contributions by Syrian-born artists. Émeric Lhuisset presents the experiences of friends who have migrated. His photographs emphasise the mundane rather than the dramatic – but those day to day lives will disappear, as he has used cyanotypes chemically treated so that they will turn to sea-like blue monochromes by the end of the eight week run of the Biennial. Hrair Sarkissian moved to London eight years ago, but his parents – who refuse to leave the business they run – still live in Damascus in an apartment frequently threatened by the fall-out of war. Sarkissian channels his anger at their situation into a two screen presentation: one shows him wielding a pickaxe as he demolishes a 2 metre high model of the building in which his parents live, the other documents, through 650 photograph slideshow, the stages of that process. The model took three months to build and a vigorous seven hours to destroy, here elided to 11 minutes. The conjunctions of film and still, and separation of action and effect, distance our involvement sufficiently to reinforce how an objective situation lies behind a personally vested response. Much of the Biennial’s content operates in a parallel way.
The Brighton Photo Biennial also has an extensive fringe spread over 40 venues, but even if you see just the core there is plenty of strong work. Moreover, though artists are overwhelmingly remainers, there’s no polemic here for either Brexit option. All that the curators have made clear – through a well-judged blend of established and fresh names – is that thought is required.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Paul Carey-Kent
All images at right are shared courtesy of Photoworks, showing for Brighton Photo Biennial 2018: A New Europe (28 September – 28 October 2018)