Picturing the anxiety of Brexit Day

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography: Performance. Sign up for an 1854 subscription to receive it at your door. 

Alejandro Acín’s new book chronicles the 24 hours leading up to the UK officially ending its relationship with the EU

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”.

© Alejandro Acín.

The Rest is History touches on the lack of control over our collective consciousness; on a society paralysed, for several years, by the horrible sound of a political jousting game slowly going off the rails – an inescapable dark opera on power and betrayal coming to a conclusion on Brexit Day. But in reference to what has been stored in our communal memories, Acín also seeks to link these contemporary quarrels in the UK with its conscience-stricken antecedents. And so, the images taken at the British Museum add another element of national cramp, suggesting how the country has kept its head in the sand when it comes to its troubled past.

In the wake of the 2016 EU referendum, the prejudice and xenophobia of the Vote Leave campaign dominated narratives. Much less has been said, however, about Leavers’ view of history. In the eye of Acín, this lacuna culminates in how the British Museum was designed by the architect Sir Robert Smirke in 1823 to reflect all the “wondrous objects housed inside”. As Isaac Blease, the author of the accompanying essay to the book, aptly notes, the colossal museum is not only dizzying in the number of items it contains, it is also propped up by “bulky pillars bearing the burden of a nation’s past”. In its grandeur, the British Museum altogether “espouses a sense of infinity yet remains firmly defined by a dominant culture’s ideas”.

For Acín, the museum and what it stands for stimulate a false sentiment of conservatism that he felt connects to how Leave voters perceive national history. From the phrase ‘take back control’ to Ukip’s adoption of the Trump-esque ‘make Britain great again’, the Leave campaign had been saturated with nostalgia; a false reminder of how the British Empire once claimed to be distinct from Europe’s colonial powers in its commitment to bringing the rule of law, enlightened principles, and social progress to the world.

Many people in the UK felt an echo of glory in Brexit, yet the political motive which led to a divided national sentiment between Leavers and Remainers incorporated an unsettling element untold.

© Alejandro Acín.

In 2016, reflecting on the Leave voters who were alarmed to learn that their side had actually won, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek delivered one of his typical bon mots: “The worst surprise is to get what you want.” It is exactly that suppressed disquietude that Acín is addressing in The Rest is History, by cracking the code of the overly familiar reality as delivered by our mainstream media. Confronting the viewer with a ‘horror’ of the known, or what Sigmund Freud once coined as ‘the uncanny’, Acín thus succeeds in his attempt: making a victorious cheerfulness as expressed by a consistent segment of Brits look like a defected daydream about an empire being restored to its glorious yesteryears.

In the lead-up to the referendum, Acín grappled with the role that he could play with his creative practice. “How can I make something that can be seen in later times while still containing that discomfort that surrounded Brexit Day?” Acín critically asked himself. It was only after some time that he found a way forward. In 2016, Acín initiated an international collaborative workshop, The Cage, with good friend and fellow artist, Julián Barón.

“We stress on the importance of having certain creative limitations when tackling a subject as well as embedding a sense of urgency to a produced work, and adopting this strategy of self-restriction has helped me in the process of conceiving this self-produced archive into a publication,” Acín explains.

The Rest is History is not the first artist book to discuss the disassembled media ‘hype’ surrounding Brexit, the UK exiting the EU, but Acín delivers the volume now, three years after the moment of photographing, and there is wisdom in slowing down the creative process. Time inevitably leaves a gap between reality and its representation.

The greatness of Britain, as proclaimed by Ukip’s former leader Nigel Farage and other Brexit cheerleaders, is one example of how such a mechanism of imagination can work, leaving it to artists such as Alejandro Acín to critically question the Brexiteers’ perception of Britain’s past – by creatively bending their widely shared delusions towards a darker version of a triumphant mood.

Forthcoming: The Rest is History by Alejandro Acín is out soon.