Rule Britannia?

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The Tate Britain recently opened a new show called ‘Migrations’, a title which immediately evokes general images of travelling, and specifically of travelling to a safe destination.  However, the show instead uses ‘migration’ as a lens onto the British through art.  It suggests that what we consider as Britain and British’ today is actually the conglomeration of different cultures.

Without plagiarising Hugh Grant’s ‘Be Afraid’ speech in ‘Love Actually’ there are a very many number of ideologies which we associate with being British. From Royal Wedding-mania, to the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ craze which has swept the country, to baking with Mary Berry; we all have a clear idea of what is quintessentially British.

However, the Tate Britain sets out to challenge these ideologies. Many of us would agree that the beautiful countryside is definitively ‘British’.  If we look into our history we find Constable agreeing with us, and if we look into the TV viewing schedule then ‘Countryfile’ agrees with us too.  However, this notion of the countryside and the beautiful landscape has been assimilated into our history from the Netherlands.  The landscape tradition was in fact developed in the Netherlands, and the name of the genre is taken from the Flemish ‘landschap’.

Revelations such as this occur throughout the show, and their effect upon our notion of what is British is given visual representation in ‘Cloud Canyons’ by David Medalla, an artist who first created bubble machines in 1963.  This stands at the heart of the exhibition and unleashes a profusion of foam, which extends slowly yet ever changing.  This foam continuously reforms, just like our notion of what is British.

Whilst the Tate Britain makes its point effectively and efficiently, I cannot help but find the very premise of the exhibition lacking.  This is because the experience of the exhibition could seem almost like a performance.  As viewers we are like participants, and we come to the pre-arranged conclusion.  We are able to marvel at how diverse the influences upon Britain are, but we do not give any real thought to this diversity, or its consequences.

A far better consideration of this diversity was given at last summer’s Folkestone Triennial, a developing British tradition in its own right.  The theme of the triennial was ‘A Million Miles From Home’.  Many of the works included gave thought to the ideas of home and geography, both literal and spiritual.  A particularly striking work was by the Danish arist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.  This work was created in a small cinema on the sea front and played videos of migrants, who were given names and stories which are often neglected by the media. They were trying to make the final stretch of their journeys, which often started in Afghanistan and Iran, by traveling from Calais to Britain.  The poignantly titled ‘Promised Land’ was made even more effective when, upon leaving the exhibition, you could see across the beach and across the sea to Calais; so near and yet so far.

‘Migrations’ observes the unstable identity of the British, but seems to only shine a torch upon an issue which needs flood-lights.  Neither we, the British public, nor the illegal migrants seem to have a real understanding of what it is to be British, and it is this lack of stability which causes the exhibition to fall somewhat flat.  If art is only to be aesthetic then thankfully the Pre-Raphaelites are never too far away in the Tate Britain.  However, if it is to be political then much more work needs to be done.  After all, HMS Britannia is now just a tourist trap in Edinburgh.

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