Brexit Culture

01 Oct 2019

By Sandy Di Yu

For better or for worse, this time in history will be known for the culture it imbues. While the chaos of Brexit has not come even close to its final chapter, we can get a sense of the direction that culture is heading by investigating what has been on the forefront of artistic interest of the present.

The aftermath of the EU referendum saw a lot of speculation about what would happen to industries in the UK. While analysts covered all corners of economic possibilities, arts and culture received little acknowledgement from the mainstream press. The assumption is often that culture won’t affect the livelihoods of people, at least not in terms of what types of food will be available at the grocers or the price of toilet paper. But culture remains key to societal existence and cannot be dismissed in discussions about why Brexit came to be and how one can address its consequences.

Research has been conducted by the Arts Council about the economic and operational impacts of Brexit, but the content of culture has yet to be formally surveyed. While we can only speculate like everyone else what the full-fledged impact of Brexit on cultural production will be in the coming years, the era since the 2016 referendum has already seen a flurry of events that indicate growing precariousness in our time. Right-wing populism has gained more than a foothold in political discourse. Conspiracies run rampant about celebrity sex traffickers and their ties to the global elite. Anxiety over climate change, although leading to inspiring global movements, is still being met with dismissal by political leaders.

What comes first, the politics or the culture?

Both globally and nationally, alarming events continue to churn, affecting mainstream opinion and instigating new debates. While the UK’s growing unrest and apparent turn towards right-wing populism are evinced by headlines and Twitter threads, it’s difficult to say whether this was cause or effect of the referendum results. What comes first, the politics or the culture? In the discourse around Brexit, they might be one and the same. One feeds into the other continually, proliferating into an inseparable amalgam of tension and unrest.

Regardless of chronology, culture is inevitably affected by politics' outcome, and it is culture that will live on past the policies that change as frequently as the wind. For better or for worse, this time in history will be known for the culture it imbues. While the chaos of Brexit has not come even close to its final chapter, we can get a sense of the direction that culture is heading by investigating what has been on the forefront of artistic interest of the present.

From exhibitions about immigration and the European Union to artists distributing politically charged prints, the narrative of this moment in time is painted by the nihilism, anxiety and bitter hopefulness of the artists and curators whose practices inform the cultural landscape that future researchers and historians will refer back to.

While the UK featured several exhibitions in the past months about how influential Britain has been to artists and creatives from Europe and beyond (Dior at V&A, Kubrick at Design Museum, and Van Gogh at Tate Britain, to name a few of the big ones), the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland flipped this around with an exhibition showing how vital Europe has been to British painting.

The UK also seems particularly interested in its own industrial history, carving a narrative of nostalgia for a pre-globalised Britain. Mike Nelson’s Tate Britain commission took on this subject matter in the context of obsolescence and the effect of social and cultural circumstances in material quality, with huge machinery acquired through liquidation websites from the post-war era in Britain.

In Derby, as a part of Format Festival, British photographer Maurice Broomfield’s exhibition of British industry in the 1950s-60s ached of pride without criticism in his portrayals. The sheer optimism captured in his shots is a stark contrast from the Millennial gloom of current generations.

While this nostalgia might permeate certain parts of the nation, the Arts Council found in 2017 that a huge majority of stakeholders in the arts and culture sector have a negative view on Brexit. Artists who have responded to the unease of a post-referendum Britain include Bex Massey in an exhibition portraying British throwaway culture and current anxieties as well as Turner-Prize-winning Jeremy Deller who created prints that simply say “Farage in Prison”, a politically charged conceptual work with a double purpose of helping to save a London music bar while condemning a right-wing politician.

Image by Robin Tuner via Twitter, @robinturner

Image by Robin Tuner via Twitter @robinturner.

In more recent news, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who recently made the move from Berlin to the UK, has been quoted as saying he looks forward to arguing with Brits about Brexit. Having previously expressed his lack of confidence in Brexit, as is in line with his work on the subject of migration, he says, “I’m not someone who greets the neighbours and pretends everything is fine if it’s not.” This tells us that he is true to his activist title, and that he might not yet be aware of the stereotypically polite British neighbour who would only be too happy to pretend that everything is fine even if it’s not.

Speaking of artists floating between Berlin and the UK, Turner-Prize-winning photographic artist Wolfgang Tillmans takes to Instagram frequently to express his thoughts on Brexit and other global political events. “Dear Friends,” he wrote in a post urging the public to sign the petition to revoke Article 50, “as draining as it is, please don’t give in to Brexit-fatigue.” His words are often pro-Europe and anti-borders, a sentiment that is shared with many movers in the art field.

Additionally, amid all this chaos, Britain is inevitably having an identity crisis. Exhibitions spanning the years since 2016 have explored what “Britishness” means, and a satisfactory answer has yet to be found. In 2017, Camberwell Space Projects featured an exhibition that was the result of a residency exploring the concept of Britishness and the artist as reporter.

And of course, Martin Parr’s solo show at the National Portrait Gallery featured photographs that explore “Britishness” against the context of photographs of individuals from around the world.

Along with however the rest of the country may see themselves, North: Fashioning Identity at the Civic in Barnsley gives an insightful look into the cultural and visual cues that pertain to the North of England, considering both truth and myth.

Other recently past exhibitions that have engaged with this endless subject matter include Take Back Control at Guts Gallery, which invites viewers to re-experience the fervour that surrounded the moment during which the referendum results were announced in 2016. The first event from Waltham Forest’s London Borough of Culture, I Wanna Be Me I Wanna Be (E) U, also referred to Brexit and other topical issues in a performative and interactive fashion show. The theme for this year’s Jerwood Arts and Video Umbrella Awards used Brexit as a starting point for collective experiences of transition and loss.

As for exhibitions still happening that engage with the topic of Brexit, London based artist Adébayo Bolaji depicts the struggles and anxieties about Brexit among other topics in his solo exhibition at Serena Morten while John Walter presents his show Brexit Gothic at dkuk, a term coined by the artist as a potential way to address our current era. Baby It’s Cold Outside at Seen Fifteen sees the sales of the screen-printed posters made during the 2016 referendum chaos, with £25 of each sale being donated to the charity Refugee Action.

And in a radical reversal of the status quo, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) will be presenting Spectral-White: The Appearance of Colonial-Era Europeans which questions colonial-era collecting and positions colonisers as the barbaric, exotic intruders to indigenous lands. As the reversal of migration, a topic heavy in the debates about Brexit, colonialism is indispensable from how national populism has manifested, and holds both Britain and Europe culpable for several of its horrors.

To get a snapshot of what Brexit Culture looks like, we've also created a Pinterest mood board that illustrates some of the sentiments felt throughout arts and culture.

We can be sure to see even more artists, curators and creatives in Britain and beyond responding to the current state of affairs following the Brexit vote. When what will happen is finally decided upon, whether it be October 31st of this year or before (or maybe even after), the conversation will surely switch from one about anxiety to something quite different.

Will it be jubilation or indignation? What culture will come of this politics, and what policies will arise from this culture? We wait with bated breath as deals and parliaments switch on and off like light bulbs. Until then, the exhibitions and works that are being produced will continue to be informed by the atmosphere of this time, just as it will, in turn, inform the art historians of the future.

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About the writer:

Sandy Di Yu, London-based writer, art theorist and artist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, or visit her website.

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