Inselaffe, 16th July to 16th October 2016, part of Root 1066
It is a safe bet that at the planning stage, Liz Gilmore, the Jerwood Gallery director did not think, “Aha! We’ll invite that Marcus Harvey for a show. He’s the one who makes works about Britain’s place in a changing, uncertain world, and we’ll launch it three weeks after the EU referendum – even better, three days after Theresa May picks up the keys to Number 10.” But serendipity stepped in to make it look like she had the foresight to do so.
As tumultuous political events have unfolded since the Brexit vote, Marcus Harvey’s new show at the Jerwood comes at the dawning of a new era in British life with a fledgling female icon only days into her premiership. Harvey’s concerns with national, cultural and sexual identity chime with the existential flux brought upon us following the EU referendum and the respective meltdowns in our two main political parties.
The show is called Inselaffe. The word is a pejorative term meaning ‘Island Monkeys’ used by our erstwhile European cousins, the Germans for Britons. It’s as if proud Brit, Harvey has become momentarily German to thumb his nose at his fellow countrymen and women. Has evolution ground to a halt in the UK, just as Brits appear to be behaving, in some quarters, in such a primordial manner? Harvey started planning the show about a year ago. How apt it now seems.
Harvey wrestles with his place and responsibilities in the world as a son, husband, father and artist. ‘I do not set out to make my work political,’ he says, ‘other than that it’s important to me. What are the prospects for my kids, my country? Questions of genders, old hierarchies, fatherhood, that’s all up for grabs in this changing world. I try to find images for those anxieties.’
Harvey is sanguine about Brexit, taking a long view, ‘We’re not going anywhere,’ he says. ‘The boat here is rocking and reeling, but it won’t be the be all and end all. As an artist you spend decades making paintings that don’t work, until you find the means to make them work. In politics you aren’t allowed that creative attitude. Europe might crash and burn, but if it doesn’t work the first time it might work next time. We are still going to be proud.’
Harvey predicts a renaissance of satire. ‘Look at the cartoons of yesteryear and the function of the cartoonist. Britain survives by taking it on the chin and being self-critical, with humour. It’s a key to our survival and buoyancy.’ It would be hard not to smile at ‘The Virgin (Maggie)’, ‘Nelson’ atop a Blue Peter emblem or ‘The Liberal Interventionist (Tony)’, or rock and reel at the seascapes, ‘Untitled (Big Galleon) and ‘Albus’ showing the resilient white cliffs of Dover threatened with a storm approaching.
Harvey feels lucky to be British. ‘You have unconditional love for your country and it’s useful if that country has done things you are proud of, like our achievements in the 20th Century – the dignity and sacrifices made during World War II, the facilitating of some redistribution of wealth and allowing the great unwashed access to potential for bettering themselves.’ Harvey defiantly withholds praise for the Tories with their ‘let’s just sell it’ agenda. ‘The most naïve thing that came out of a politician’s mouth was “There’s no such things as society,”’ a quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher who appears in this show cast in bronze as a reclining nude, emblazoned with porn star breasts and piglets adorning her hips. ‘Maggie – she was infused with a strong sexual musk. She could not have achieved what she did without smolderings of sexuality that veered towards being almost sadistic. There is a little whisper of it in Theresa May.’
Harvey aims to reinvent his visual language to see the familiar in a new way.
'I value the phrase breaking the parodic mould. I use parodies, but with such physical force that they squirt venom out. It’s like how the Ramones did romantic songs, but with lashings of punk energy.'
Harvey’s imagery is emblematic of a heroic and defiant Britishness and manliness, yet it is permeated with humour, fragility, uncertainty and perhaps a little queasiness. Inselaffe is a monumental show steeped with history and energized with forward thinking.