On 31 January 2020 at 23:00 GMT, the United Kingdom formally withdrew from the European Union. The mainstream media framed it as Brexit Day. On that day, Spanish-born artist Alejandro Acín visited the British Museum in London to take close-ups of the building’s enormous facades – emulating classical Greek architecture – and of artefacts in its vast collection. He then moved on to Parliament Square, where a crowd of Leave voters, galvanised by the rightwing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), was celebrating their victory. Now, three years later, Acín presents these images in his new book, The Rest is History, published by ICVL Studio.
Understatements are assumed to be part of the British cultural attitude to life, so let’s just say that, in recent years, the Brits have been ‘a bit off’. Yet, that reality cannot always be sharply distilled, let alone authentically photographed. Many of our documented stories omit elements that fly under the radar – the unrecorded and perhaps even unrecordable tissue of our social corpus. If more conservative photojournalistic approaches fail to capture that sentiment, alternative methods come to the table.
Brexit has been reported extensively, but for Acín, the ‘angst’ that lingered under the surface was missing in the maelstrom. The challenge for him was to disclose the anxiety echoing from the impassive matter-of-fact narrative that the audience had been bombarded with between 2016 and 2020.
As co-founder of IC Visual Lab (ICVL), an independent cultural organisation based in Bristol, Acín promotes new territories for visual documentation of the now by capturing contemporary political events from alternative angles and with a wider scope. “I like to understand photographs as historical consequences rather than historical records, living surfaces where historical tensions are at play,” he says.
For his perception of Brexit Day, he decided beforehand that all pictures should be shot indiscriminately and in black-and-white as “there seemed to be no space for greys in this matter”. The camera was primed to the highest possible ISO, reducing the opaque images to their minimum expression.
Most of the photographs depict eerie details of what we commonly see in a broader context. The lack of a wider perspective on these scenes creates a claustrophobic atmosphere and gives little grip, which is possibly the best reconstruction of the essence of that fateful day. Specific times are the only element added to the book to provide the visuals with a historical reference. This intentionally leaves what Acín describes as “a cacophony of petrified gestures and emotions”.