I returned to London last week from my New York home to vote “remain”. My London apartment is in the centre of the City of London, and in typical English style the voting location is a shabby Church of England church. When I arrived around midday I was greeted by an sweet old lady and a nerdy looking young man who handed me my ballot paper. The church was also hosting a second hand book sale and selling homemade cakes. I joked as I left the building that this was probably against EU regulations as the smell of old Fredrick Forsyth paperbacks and homemade fruitcake might push voters towards Brexit. The election officers just stared at me.
As I placed my cross on the paper I felt a wave of emotion that I was doing my part to ensure a continuation of European fellowship, continuity and peace. I dismissed my strong feelings as dumb sentimentality and returned to my apartment confident that Britain would vote “remain” for philosophical and historical reasons, and not economic or nationalistic ones. It turns out that along with the entire “elite” British art world I was wrong. A great many working class British people don’t like the European Union and at the heart of their suspicions is a misunderstanding of Germany’s role in Europe and complete ignorance of its contemporary culture.
In 2007 I was invited to represent Germany at the 2009 53rd Venice Biennale. I would spend the next two years working closely with curator Nicolaus Schafhausen to navigate what was intended to be a reflection of the new Europe we had both matured in. Both of us had been in our mid- twenties when the Berlin Wall fell and we had subsequently operated freely throughout the new Europe as the Union expanded and borders fell. For Schafhausen it was now to be seen as “normal” for a fellow European to represent Germany. As an artist “representing” Germany, I repeatedly told journalists and critics that I expected to be treated the same way as a German artist. I expected robust criticism and reluctantly received it from some quarters, notably this newspaper.
One my first interviews about Venice was in 2008 in Munich with a journalist from a local newspaper. His first question completely threw me. “What makes you the best?”, he asked with a smile. I was baffled, as I didn’t think this was why artists were selected for exhibitions. The Germany I had exhibited in for the previous fifteen years had always challenged the notion of hierarchies and dumb ideas about quality. On the contrary, to work in German “culture” meant to be overtly critical of the status quo. It meant a struggle against simple minded and easy notions of what an artwork should be and how it should be understood. Yet throughout the next two years I faced similar questions from journalists. “When you win the Golden Lion for Germany, how will you feel?” was a typical enquiry. What was going on? Art is not a competition. Art is a critical process where all standard notions of value, including who and what constitutes a “German Artist” should be open to question. The German culture I was steeped in was intellectually rebellious, sometimes melancholic and always skeptical. Talk in Germany was always about new modes of art and life. Art was a tool to stir trouble or agitate given structures.
Representing Germany however, appeared to bring another layer of German culture to the surface - the very one that my colleagues and close friends all over the country had obviously known about and been battling for years. My response was to shrug and smile, theirs had been to build in a resistance to nationalist conceptions of artistic practice into their work from the outset. It is this founding principle of artistic existence that drives critical culture. It appeared that my German friends always started from the perspective that there is a deep resistance to their practice whereas my British colleagues had assumed good will and indifference in equal measure.
When the British Ambassador to Rome arrived at the German Pavilion in 2009 to visit my exhibition he seemed merely amused and baffled by my presence there. It took a number of curators and aides to get through to him that it might be completely normal for a British artist to show in the German Pavilion. Still confused he said, “Goodness, maybe we should show a German in the British pavilion one day, imagine that!” The failure of British cultural figures to push the vote towards remain makes us all appear complicit with a tired out of touch elite which has seemed so softly supportive, aloof, yet frequently indiscrete. Leading up to June 23rd, It appears that there were no decent arguments that could be expressed beyond generalized statements of solidarity with refugees, a belief in Europe as a pseudo-utopian project and a rejection of xenophobia of all kinds. German-born Wolfgang Tillmans was heroic. He could see what was going on and threw everything at the impending catastrophe. A lot of social media was used. A typical tweet or Instagram post in the run up included, “We EU”, “What is lost is lost forever”, or “We are the European family”. In retrospect, however well intentioned these slogans may have been, they seem weak in the face of an entrenched suspicion of bureaucratic Federalism and a distrust warm statements of togetherness emanating from a metropolitan elite. In the days leading up the vote the most visible British artists unleashed their best shots. The day before the vote, Artnet.com gushed, “Damien Hirst uses his signature butterflies against Brexit vote.” The petition signed by prominent cultural figures expressed things a little more strongly. But here the arguments tended to be economic rather than philosophical. The petition letter explained, “From the smallest gallery to the biggest blockbuster, many of us have worked on projects that would never have happened without vital EU funding or by collaborating across borders.”
Such statements of fact fell flat on the 23rd June. EU funding of art projects was exactly the kind of argument to push the disenfranchised working classes of Britain ever closer towards Brexit. It is only now that the deed has been done, and Britain has turned its back, that we feel the real passion of the artists. Anish Kapoor is “Heartbroken” (the Guardian, June 24) and feels “shame, shame at the xenophobia of this country”. Ryan Gander told Artnet.com that “I am ashamed to be British.” Such passion seemed missing prior to the vote. The optimistic, collectivist pleas from those who make their life and work across the entire EU and beyond needed to be tougher and more dialectical.
This is where my relationship with Germany began and how it continues. I spent the last few months arguing the hell out of Brexit. I worked every angle. Even on the evening of the 23rd I argued with Tobias Rehberger, gently teasing him on his support for the European status quo. I tried the arguments of the old British left against Europe in search of some decent solutions. These positions are well known in Britain and were precisely outlined – in order to be countered – in the Guardian newspaper by Paul Mason on May 16th.
“The leftwing case for Brexit is strategic and clear. The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the leftwing government of Greece.”
Over and over again I rehashed all these arguments with any serious colleague prepared to listen. Prior to June 23rd I never got a decent argument in return. No real dialogue and generally instant dismissal. No one I spoke to could give a response better than “Better together”, “I like Tuscany.” or “In Berlin you can still get a cheap apartment.” The cultural elite in Britain failed to address the real stresses of Europe and counter them with good arguments. This is the failure and shame that will be remembered every June 23rd from now on. The cultural mainstream gave the wrong solution to questions they were not prepared to ask. Now it is their job to address the implications of this vote in the cultural sphere throughout Europe and beyond. We can offer experience of our own failure to speak out and engage from the perspective of humiliation and defeat.
*Image of Liam Gillick’s German Pavilion installation via PBS