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Books The art of Brexit

CHRIS MOSS pores over a stimulating and stirring collage of ideas and imagery generated by the 2016 referendum

Leave to Remain: A Snapshot of Brexit
Noni Stacey, Lund Humphries, £35

WHAT are we to do with Brexit? 

Whether you were for or against the ultimate decision, you can rest assured you were hoodwinked. The pro arguments were false, the anti case was non-existent. The cheats and liars who ushered the docile nation towards the exit are universally discredited. Yet here we are – with memories, confusions, anxieties and, let’s face it, a species of political fatigue mingled with melancholy. Being had is hard to bear. 

Leave to Remain re-energises the subject if not the old debates. It does so partly because its central media – art and photography – have not been frayed, spewed and abused to generate meaninglessness in the way words have been. 

Editor Noni Stacey, a visiting tutor at eminent art schools and a picture researcher on Fleet Street, is staunchly anti-Brexit, and her text is an engaging summary of the history of the UK’s relationship with Europe, the EEC, the EU and with “others” more generally – the Brexit bandwagon was always, in part, an orgiastic outpouring of racism and xenophobia.

The images featured are purposefully diverse. The cover is by Led by Donkeys, a pressure group that has flourished in the so-called “post-truth” morass of mature digital media. Much of their output is satirical, often based around ad-busting billboards. But this image, of a single gold star on a blue background, is a still from the video they projected on to the Dover cliffs on January 31, 2020. The message, reprinted here, is the unashamedly sentimental: “This is our star, look after it for us.”

The rest of the contents are somewhat meatier. To give just a sampling: a 1971 photograph of a pursed-lipped National Front campaigner hectoring a black man in London; an oil painting by Rosa Marsden that reworks the oft-reprinted 1987 photograph of the Bullingdon Club, but replaces the original faces of the subjects (which included Cameron and Johnson) to get around copyright law; 1975 and 2016 referendum posters; a still from Cornelia Parker’s 2022 video FLAG – about a Cardiff factory that makes Union Jacks, which shows the manufacturing process in reverse; a Make Britain Great Again cap, shot by Mark Duffy, Tacita Dean’s chalk-on-blackboard impression of crumbling chalk cliffs; and Magda Archer’s brilliantly colourful “celebratory” propaganda for post-Brexit Britain and for an Anti-Brexit Dance Off. 

Stacey analyses the role of film, art, patriotic symbols and storytelling and tells us about the background to the creation of these works and their creators. But, actually, it’s worth reading this book without her words first time round. Many pieces generate their power in the deciphering, whether they articulate their arguments through allegory – as in the output of social media favourite Cold War Steve – or using more poignant, subtle effects, as with Layla Curtis’s 1999 lithographs that sever England and Scotland.

The reversal or reconfiguring of Brexit seems assured. When this might happen is less certain. As Stacey suggests, the isolated UK is failing to protect basic freedoms and the long Tory decade has almost broken the country’s will as well as its economy and public services. 

In the meantime, Leave to Remain is a stimulating and stirring collage of ideas and imagery that together constitute a discourse infinitely more enlightening than anything the political class offered to voters in 2015-6.

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