BRIGHTON, UK — It is a Saturday evening. Irish photographer Donovan Wylie wants to understand the people of England. He stands on the South Coast, on the White Cliffs of Dover, and waits for the sunset. Within 20 minutes the sight he had hoped for appears. Twenty-one short miles away, a pinprick of orange light signals the proximity of continental Europe.
It is the lighthouse at Cap Gris Nez, a beacon that, owing to cloud conditions and passing ferries, takes the best part of a week to photograph. And, as evidenced by the ghostly sight of this foreign coast, glowing on a backlit image in the fishing quarter of a beach in Brighton, it’s a vision which poses a number of questions for us here on this island: is the potential of a united Europe still a ray of hope, or is that particular beacon dying out? And in 12 months’ time will we really need visas to make that short journey?
Since the days when the packet boat to Dieppe would depart from this beach, Brighton has always had an affinity with its cross-channel neighbors. Now the city is hosting 10 shows addressing its relationship with Europe, the European Union, and the migrants whose spectre has historically instilled fear in many residents of middle England.
Given that the meaning of Brexit changes daily on these shores, the 2018 Brighton Photo Biennial (subtitle “A New Europe”) is ideally positioned to intervene in discussions, both online and live, that are shaping England’s future.
The UK’s largest photography festival, it is organized by art charity Photoworks (formerly known as the Cross Channel Photographic Mission). New Director Shoair Mavlian has gone back to the organization’s founding principle, namely the fostering of ties between Sussex and Northern France, and got to grips with Brexit. The result is a refreshingly partisan examination of what it means to be English, as well as a celebration of our closeness to Europe and an expression of sympathy for migrants.
Among the most notable migrants to ply their trade in the UK was Bill Brandt. In the 1930s, the German-born photographer attempted to capture the spirit of the nation with a photobook entitled The English at Home. Today’s going rate for this commercial failure is about £300 on your favorite online auction site. Perhaps, this value reflects the enduring inequality of life in London and beyond.
Brandt was a keen observer of class and his work, on display at the University of Brighton, recalls a pre-global, pre-Common Market era to which some of the 52 percent of Leave voters would have us return. This evident monoculture, espoused by market tabloids and government ministers alike, is certainly a problem. Brandt addresses it by ably juxtaposing rich with poor, posh with common, portraying a familiar slice of social history.
The postwar fragmentation of our cultural life in the UK, as a result of immigration and social mobility, has inspired Robin Maddock. Maddock is a contemporary British photographer who shares Brandt’s sociological ambition. His artistic vision of Britain in the 21st century is comprised of a kaleidoscope of images, made with a variety of cameras and films, framed and unframed, glazed and augmented with collage. Maddock’s show, which boasts more works than any other in the Biennial, occupies a former tattoo parlor on bohemian Sydney Street. His photographs of council estates and shopping centers seem to communicate a need in England for the sophistication that is often associated with Europe. (Indeed, Maddock is planning to move to France.)
Slovakian Tereza Červeňová’s attempt to capture the state of the nation, or the continent, is more oblique. Her quotidian photographs, titled only with their location and date, impede our desire for fulsome stories. Yet, thanks to historic dates and newsworthy locations, her works resonate with events such as the Brexit referendum, the Grenfell fire, and the London Bridge attack. Of all the artwork in the festival, Červeňová’s pieces cast the coolest eye upon history.
Brandt, Maddock, and Červeňová all portray a broken Britain, to borrow a political soundbite. Aikaterini Gegisian’s short film, on the other hand, bears witness to an attempt to build a nation. Third Person (Plural): Prelude – Brotherhood (2018) mixes period propaganda with a folksy song about prejudice. The artist draws inspiration from politicians’ attempts to counter the egalitarian zeal of communism with an ideal of American fraternity, touching on the principles of the European project and the neighborly narrative that bonds the 28 member countries of the EU.
Another exhibition at the University of Brighton takes us back to a more optimistic time: 1987 to 1994, when xenophobia was at a low ebb and the Conservative government could steward the construction of a tunnel between England and France. Photographers in Kent and Pas-de-Calais were tasked with recording the new infrastructure. They photographed the social architects who masterminded the cross-channel link, the construction workers who redrew the map, and the changing landscape around Calais. Nine photographers are represented here; their work provides a fairly literal rendering of a moment in history which now appears as halcyon time.
Between 2015 and 2016, the Calais Jungle, a refugee camp around Calais, France, housed more than 6,000 would-be travelers to the UK. None appear in the abstracted, painterly snapshots made by Harley Weir, but their homes, possessions, and places of worship are in colorful evidence. Weir’s report on the eve of the camp’s demolition is printed on linen and hung, like so many tarpaulins, from the arches of Fabrica gallery in the center of town. The installation gives this doomed shanty town an unlikely beauty.
The demolition theme continues in nearby Dukes Lane with Hrair Sarkissian’s installation, Homesick (2014). A film shows the artist’s seven-hour act of destroying a model of his family home in Syria with a sledgehammer while a slideshow shows the slowly crumbling apartment block. Sarkissian breaks out in a sweat from his physical exertion, but the performance is clearly emotionally exhausting as well. Although he now lives in the London borough of Hackney, the video and slideshow confirm that the experience of a migrant never comes cheap.
This truism is underscored in the festival’s most affecting show. Émeric Lhuisset is a French photographer who has documented the lives of a network of refugees from the Middle East who have settled in Europe. His show would read like a straightforward bit of reportage, were it not for the material twist he has given this body of photos. Each photograph is printed on unfixed cyanotype, which gives it a blueish tint that will fade into a blue haze as the Biennial progresses. In this way, his displaced friends and acquaintances will be absorbed into the color of the EU flag — and, indeed, his final image depicts a female migrant looking up at the flag’s golden stars.
Lhuisset’s show pays tribute to a friend, and refugee, who died when his boat capsized in the Mediterranean. This stark fact roots the Biennial in a fatal political reality. You don’t have to advocate remaining in the EU to appreciate the coherence and the humanity of the exhibitions. By providing perspective on immigration, working class Brits, the war in Syria, the geography of the English Channel, and the politicians who crossed it, this year’s festival is a praiseworthy and comprehensive commentary on the ongoing debate about Brexit.
Brighton Photo Biennial 2018: A New Europe runs at selected venues around the city until October 28 2018.