For the 2018 Brighton Photo Biennial, artists from across the continent critically respond to the idea of a New Europe
In the murky complexity of Brexit, whose convoluted politics make it hard for citizens to understand where their future is headed, we turn to art for clarity. Brighton’s 2018 Photo Biennial, A New Europe, draws upon the lives and experiences of 18 artists from across Europe to artistically evaluate how European identities are changing in the face of Brexit. Providing a deeply nuanced exploration of the theme, the festival is currently showing eight free exhibitions across Brighton and Hove that interrogate Britain’s relationship to Europe in the past and present, to help viewers understand Europe’s social and political direction for the future.
Just as they are three of the most lived experiences across Britain right now, uncertainty, complexity, and unity are the biennial's most powerfully evoked emotions. The festival begins by looking back towards the relationship between Britain and France through the lens of building the Channel Tunnel, with a set of carefully curated photo series from the late 1980s. It then delves straight into the minds of those will be impacted by Brexit the most, the youth, with work on show from a group of Brighton-based 15-year-olds who interrogate what Brexit means, as well as a set of exhibitions from young artists, such as Dazed photographer Harley Weir, who displays her 2016 photo series inside the Calais refugee camp. The refugee crisis is another dominant theme of the festival whose overpowering visual presence across the biennial brings much needed human emphasis back to the crisis.
As British identity stands at a sharp crossroad, A New Europe brings humanity back to the politicisation of British identity. To celebrate the launch of the biennial, here are five things you must not miss.
HABITUS: POTENTIAL REALITIES – HEATHER AGYEPONG
London-based photographer and performer Heather Agyepong’s show Habitus: Potential Realities features a set of 12 self-portraits that explore the potential of British values in a new Europe. Using Brighton’s landscapes, such as its pebblestone beach, as her canvas, Apyeyong appears in the portraits as different mythological characters that personify the impacts of Brexit over the two years since the EU referendum. For example, in “Erasure” (2015), Agyepong appears as a figure almost suffocated by her surroundings as she stands small between the pillars of an old Brighton pier, alluding to the impact Brexit has had on its citizens who voted to remain. This image also reflects how the show has been informed by Brighton and Hove, where 73 per cent of young people voted to remain. Studies on the area now show an increased feeling of anxiety within this group since the June 2016 result. Through her work, Agyepong uses the power of self-portraiture to seek empowerment by reimagining what the future of her country might hold.
Habitus: Potential Realities is on until October 28 at Jubilee Library, Jubilee Street, Brighton
L’AUTRE RIVE – ÉMERIC LHUISSET
As politicians and the media continue to stigmatise refugees, the human suffering at the core of the crisis becomes lost and forgotten. In such times where basic human empathy evades mankind, it’s the work of artists like Paris-based multidisciplinary artist, Emeric Lhuisset, that emphasise what's really at the core of human movement: the people. In his biennial show, L’Autre Rive, Lhuisset’s work goes so deep, it immerses viewers in the psyche of a refugee, as his on the ground experiences trace the real danger, plight, and emotional complexity of searching for a better life.
Through a set of images doused in blue, which makes his photography look like drawings done with ballpoint pen, Lhuisset traces the many complex journeys that make up the canon of migration to Europe, by starting on the island Lesvos and ending in Paris. The show’s most striking image is one showing the very short distance between Turkey and Lesvos: a sea of 500km that has sadly claimed the lives of many who have attempted to cross it, after being forced at gunpoint onto leaky rafts in Turkey. The show’s only video takes viewers across the border from Syria to Turkey. As the camera dangles off Lhuisset’s hand, viewers bare witness to the exact moment a person transitions from a civilian to a refugee: the intensity of such a reality exacerbated by the pace of Lhuisset as he runs. “We had to take this two times, as the first time we were shot at,” explains Lhuisset. Through Lhuisset’s work, the discussion turns away from politics and towards progression as we are reminded of the basic human right to search for a better, safer way of living.
L’Autre Rive is on until October 28 at University of Brighton Galleries – Edward Street, 154-155 Edward Street
HOMES – HARLEY WEIR
Dazed photographer Harley Weir’s show, Homes, is a powerful meditation on the significance of space to human life, and the role that the home plays in fostering personal and collective identity. The show hosts Weir’s 2016 body of work that lenses ‘the jungle’ of the Calais’ refugee camps, and the ways in which migrants make homes in the transience of human movement. Every image is littered with the symbolism of transience: from the soft sculptures of makeshift housing to markers that enforce individual identity, like religious icons which are so powerful, they claim territory over the space. The symbolism also signifies the important role migrants play in Britain's national identity, as hinted at with intricacies like photographing Sainsbury’s brand toothpaste and toiletries that bring issues of migration closer to home and reinforce the innocence at the core of the crisis.
The show also displays Weir’s extension of her 2016 series, which features a set of images that show Calais after its destruction in late 2016. The Calais spaces once engulfed by migrants now appear desolate, but there is a lingering spiritualism in the images that emphasise the never-ending cycle of the refugee crisis. It is no wonder then that Weir’s show takes place in the biennial’s most unique location, Fabrica, which is a gallery housed inside a converted church. Being a wall-less gallery, Weir’s images dominate the space as they hang printed on industrial fabric from the ceiling frames of the church. As the fabrics sway in the breeze of the space, the ecclesiastical spirit of Weir’s work is on par with that of the church as the two work together to render the sombre, eerie state of a world in neglect of those without basic access to a place (both physically and socially) to call their own.
Homes is on until October 28 at Fabrice, 40 Duke Street, Brighton
HOMESICK – HRAIR SARKISSIAN
If Harley Weir’s show is characterised by spiritualism, London-based Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian explores notions of home through a lens of destruction. Homesick traces Sarkissian’s roots back to his hometown in Damascus, Syria by working with an architect to create a model of the apartment building where Sarkissian was raised and where his parents still live, which is located in the same area as the Russian embassy. Because of their positioning, civilians in this particular area are constant victims of rebel militia who, when intending to strike the embassy, end up getting innocent Syrians instead. In an 11 minute video, Sarkissian uses a sledgehammer to confront his own fears by tearing down the architectural model of the home he was raised in. This is the artist’s attempt to address his frustrations with not being able to take control of the state of his war-ravaged country, and the lives of his parents who refuse to leave Syria: this is a son’s plea for the safety and welfare of his mother and father.
Homesick is on until 28 October at 23 Dukes Lane, Brighton
UNCERTAIN SUBJECTS PART II – UTA KÖGELSBERGER
Through live action performances, London-based multidisciplinary artist Uta Kögelsberger’s installation Uncertain Subjects: Part II presents a complex, multi-layered exploration of the impact of Brexit on England’s identity. Timed with the October people’s march against Brexit in London, the installation will feature four, two-hour performances where 28 billboards will be continuously pasted on the side of a shipping container in a well-known square in Brighton, one over the other. The billboards feature portraits of people who feel alienated within their own country alongside quotes from the subjects as they reflect on how Brexit has already and will continue to change their lives. As faces get pasted one over the other, the multifaceted nature of the debate is revealed. But on top of this, Kögelsberger’s meticulous layering of imagery overrules Brexit with a bold statement that shows how the identity of Britain is made up of multiple, intricate layers of race, gender, and class
Uncertain Subjects: Part II will run until 28 October at Jubilee Square, Jubilee Street, Brighton
A New Europe will run until October 28. You can find out more here