Imagining ‘A New Europe’ at the Brighton Photo Biennial 2018

Zoe Whitfield

Zoe Whitfield on this year's showcase that focuses on the changing landscape of the EU

03 October 2018 11:46

‘Holland is probably on the top of the list if I am going to move,’ says Tereza Červeňová, referring to a furiously emotive image of clouds taken by the Slovakian photographer of the Dutch coast in March last year, around the time of the country’s general election (its first since the UK voted to opt out of Europe, potentially displacing Europeans currently living in the capital). ‘I mean, what I love about London is that I’m able to make my work and it has been my home for eight years, but yeah, if I go somewhere it will probably be Holland.’

The photographer, who completed an MA at the RCA earlier this year and counts The New Yorker and AnOther magazine as clients, is talking me through June, her latest show and one of the eight exhibitions that make up this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial. For 2018, the Biennial considers the current state of the United Kingdom and its role within the EU under the banner A New Europe. Harley Weir’s Homes series, shot before and during the destruction of The Jungle in Calais, elsewhere features in the month-long showcase, so too does Habitus: Potential Realities, a specially commissioned series of self-portraits by Heather Agyepong that aim to challenge perspectives and reimagine identities.

For her part, Červeňová has curated a show that plays with the abstract and the subtle: a photo of a family huddled together under plastic reads as a face suffocating; a market stall covered in blue tarpaulin looks like a probe into colour palettes, until you notice the two polite bouquets hidden in the corner, and learn it’s Borough Market in the week after the 2017 terrorist attack.

‘Borough Market’, Tereza Červeňová

‘I think that beauty and aesthetics are really important because it draws you in,’ she says of the delicacy of her work. ‘I’ve had a lot of criticism at the RCA, “how can this be about Brexit because these are pretty pictures?” But why can’t it? These are visually pleasing images, but they are loaded with meaning. Some of it is more personal, but some of it is universal.’  Alongside the photographs, a loose timeline notes on the room’s window; dates such as 14th June 2017 – the Grenfell Tower fire – and 16th March 2018 – the Slovakian protest for an early election – which correspond to Tereza’s images.

‘I find with exhibitions the title is the most difficult thing,’ offers Shoair Mavlian, the festival’s curator and director of Photoworks, the Brighton-based organisation responsible for putting on the festival. ‘A New Europe is a phrase that’s been used throughout history and I guess that ambiguity, that it could be something – you could be talking about the past, about the future, it could be positive, it could be negative. That’s something I was really interested in: how to make it as ambiguous as possible so that we reached the widest audience.’

Joining Photoworks from the Tate Modern in February, Mavlian arrived with the theme already elected. ‘I did two exhibitions called In Flux – one in Greece in 2015 and one in Spain in 2017 – and they were both looking more broadly at the current state of flux in Europe, so I had already been researching the topic for a few years,’ she explains. ‘I had a long list of artists [to approach].’

‘St. James’s Park, London; 2nd July, 2016’, Tereza Červeňová

‘The interesting thing when you’re faced with a situation in society that’s changing is that artists always respond to it. I wanted to bring those artists together,’ she says. ‘Artists are always at the forefront of talking about issues in society, and our role as curators is to give artists a place to show work. There’s lots of this work being made, and the festival is an opportunity to give it a public face. We were really interested in providing a place for people to ask questions and start conversations.’

Simultaneously underscoring Photoworks’ origins – as the Cross Channel Photographic Mission that explored, with a French counterpart, the on-the-ground disruption of the introduction of The Channel Tunnel in 1987 – and the idea that migration issues are far from a modern matter (despite what certain publications might allude), an exhibition at the University of Brighton Galleries is composed exclusively of archive imagery.

Here, eight of Christian Courrèges’ Capital Europe portraits sit – four women and four men – shot between 1990 and 1998 of those individuals shaping economics in late 20th century Europe, amongst them politicians, businessmen, economists and trade union leaders. The formal nature of these black and white images, positioned halfway through the gallery, are in opposition to the rest of the exhibition, which is formed primarily of large landscape shots – such as Marilyn Bridges’ Bird’s Eye Views, 1992-1996, in which sites from both world wars are visible, a nod ‘to the layers of history that have marked the ground on which the Cross-Channel network was built.’

From Harley Weir's ‘Homes’

Weir’s more contemporary study of migration – initially published as a book, Homes, to raise funds for the refugees affected – similarly makes the considered decision to engage not with the people in Calais, but the environment they’d built. She explains: ‘It’s my job to take pictures of people very often. For my dissertation I wrote about the ethics of having people within work and how it’s more of a collaboration, so for me, because I came to this place and didn’t know anyone, I didn’t feel comfortable taking photographs of people that hadn’t given me full permission or didn’t know where things were going.’

Displayed in two parts within a former church, with large scale fabric prints and lecterns holding copies of the newly republished book, Weir’s Fabrica show is bold in its execution and indeed, one of the festival’s best attributes – aside from the quality of work and democratic price tag (it’s all free) – is its implementation across the city.

Sharing a space with Červeňová, Paris based artist, Émeric Lhuisset’s work uses unfixed cyanotypes, which means his images of friends who have migrated to Europe – as well as those who didn’t make the journey – will fade throughout the duration of the festival, eventually just leaving blocks of blue. A powerful representation of both the sea and the EU flag, and the associations derived from each.

It’s also Lhuisset’s oddly calming blue image, L’Autre Rive, Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Germany, France, Denmark, Syria, 2010-2018, that will greet visitors to this year’s festival, selected by Mavlian and her team to front the accompanying posters and literature. ‘It was really difficult to describe the festival in one image,’ she considers. ‘And his image is quite minimal, and quite symbolic. It’s a landscape, un-offensive in many ways, but actually really very powerful because of what it represents.’ And ultimately, Shoair’s words could be used to sum up A New Europe, dipping a toe into an ocean-wide conversation.