Art and Brexit: SLEEK #59

I heard that the autumn 2018 issue of SLEEK was doing Brexit. I’m a big fan of this Berlin-based arts magazine and, like any sane person, I'm anxious about where we’re headed with Brexit, so I wondered how this would mesh.  

As it happens the examination is fairly low-key, more meditative than panicked. Issue #59 (the number always boldly incorporated in the masthead) is themed EUROPE: A Bordered State. The magazine has commissioned Martin Parr to photograph the director of London's Serpentine Gallery, Hans Ulrich Obrist, at the gallery. I like both men, although they do seem to have been popping up all over the place during the last twelve months.

Parr has chronicled British culture for decades. His work can divide opinion but is broadly loved by the public for framing a recognisable Britishness which these days gets labelled as kitsch because it appears to wield many lazy props of the genre – ice cream vans, bad food, deckchairs, sun bathers, the overweight – yet does, underneath, deliver informative observations on class, identity and community. And here, on a hot London summer’s day (‘London’s last summer in the European Union’) at the Serpentine, the human backdrop is largely the same. He captures Obrist outside and among them, unmissable in a bright seersucker shirt. Moreover, Obrist is the standout mover in the global arts community right now – innovative curator, serial interviewer, public art apologist and ideas man, although he doesn’t really offer any ideas about life after Brexit. ‘My answer to the Brexit question is… No one knows what’s going to happen, right? It’s completely unclear.’

This kicks off the ‘Bordered State’ section, followed by statements from five artists and writers addressing the impact of Brexit on their creative work, or more directly, can there still be art after Brexit? The statements are perhaps too brief to adequately take this on and if you’ve lived in the UK since 2015, you will have heard most of these sentiments before. But the strands they reveal are examined in more depth in longer articles elsewhere in the magazine.

Nick Laird focuses on the mindset of his native Northern Ireland to articulate the crushing of a dream. Having waited all his life for Northern Ireland to become more like the rest of the world, the poet and novelist found that the rest of the world became Northern Ireland. That is, divided and sectarian,‘them and us, black and white’. Twin artists Jane and Louise Wilson also locate their fears in the idea of a border or divide. Aged 51, they were born and raised in Newcastle. They believe that economic inequality will make the north of England an island within the island of Great Britain. Novelist and 2018 Booker Prize nominee Sophie Macintosh identifies as Welsh and European. She is understanding of the disenfranchised in Wales who voted for separation but believes borders will impact on freedom and inclusivity. Her belief that art will help us ‘figure out and come to terms with whatever the future holds’ seems naïve without more explanation than there is room for. UK-based German photographer Isabelle Graef (aged 41) calls Brexit ‘voluntary self-mutilation’. She too is nervous about the implementation of borders and similarly offers the view that ‘good art can develop as a reaction to this’, that somehow art will sort things out. The only call to action is supplied by artist, filmmaker and magazine editor Diana Chire who is more concrete: young artists will not be able to afford to study or pay for studio space, so that in future art-making will be the preserve of the very wealthy. Chire (31), a Londoner born in Egypt to Ethiopian parents, is keenly activist and egalitarian. She believes that social and political chaos is a crucial time to create art: ‘We need to embrace this revolutionary moment!’

Sculptor/installation artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset are also within The Bordered State to provide the view from the wider EU although, ahead of their London Whitechapel show, their observations about the decline of funding, the death of inclusiveness, and a perceived loss of ‘European values’ also seem fairly vague.

Writer/editor Ben Eastham ponders our perverse connectivity in the age of social media and heightened surveillance, moving onto examine the notions of national identity to conclude that ‘what passes for a national culture has always been defined by the amalgamation of traditions, ideas and ways of thinking.’ I wholeheartedly agree – our culture is a mongrel thing.

Elsewhere the issue looks at how creatives are tackling the complexities of the European identity in their work. Chris Kraus, novelist and recent biographer of Kathy Acker, continues her observation on the dissolution of art capitals ('non-viable places for anyone who is not already entrenched or arriving with personal wealth'). Istanbul’s dissident artists discuss surviving and even thriving in their country's harsh political climate. There’s an interview with writer and porn industry entrepreneur Stoya. Wunderkid Glenn Martens of Y/Project provides an entertaining rundown of his ascent from skateboarder to streetwear designer du jour, while Liz Johnson Artur’s contemporary images of London’s black communities celebrate the contribution of the Windrush generation. Richie Shazam and Garrett Nelson supply a SLEEK-commissioned queer fashion performance.

There’s a lot more packed in, as we’ve come to expect from this magazine, and it’s refreshing to have writer and provocateur Gary Indiana popup with The Last Word: ‘Now it [the art world] really is the parking lot for capital; people buy work without even seeing it...’

If you haven’t visited its pages before, do try out SLEEK. It’s a superbly designed magazine (I think its redesign a couple of years back is influential on many new magazines that have followed) that blends the difficult art/culture/fashion mix better than most.

Daniel McCabe

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