Visual Analysis of Utopias artwork.
This week, Rosy takes an in-depth look at Simon Roberts’ ‘Between the Acts,’ which features in our Utopias exhibition.
‘Between the Acts’ is a digital print presented as a poster created by British landscape photographer, Simon Roberts for the Brighton Photo Fringe festival 2018, in response to the Brexit vote. The piece is currently on display at the Whitworth as part of our Utopias exhibition. This blog will describe the work, before exploring some of the deeper themes, within the context of some of his other projects. As we unpick some of the ideas behind this piece, this should demonstrate how Roberts uses the visual language of photography as a tool to describe and explore his experience of British identity post-Brexit.
The poster consists of a photograph contained within a white border looking across the Seven Sister cliffs of Dover on a typical cloudy day. Small gatherings of people are dispersed up and down the landscape. The most prominent figure in the photograph is the little girl in a pink coat, who is glancing curiously over the edge of the cliff which drops down towards the English Channel, the natural geographical separation of the UK from the rest of Europe. The photograph was taken the week that Theresa May signed article 50, officialising the Brexit negotiations and triggering the transition for the UK to leave the EU. The work was made in response to Roberts’ attitude towards the Brexit referendum in 2016. Through the position of the little girl looking out towards the English Channel from the precipice of the cliff, Roberts points towards a precarious future. His feeling of uncertainty is reinforced through the composition of the photograph. The photograph is displayed in a portrait format with the bottoms and side constrained by a border so that the view down and over the channel are obscured from view. We cannot see what the girl is looking towards, which enhances this feeling of uncertainty. If the photo had been taken in landscape the composition would have been a lot less striking, by using a portrait composition the cliffs cut sharply across the scene and the borders are a lot more encroaching. The work can be seen as a social commentary, which is in line with Roberts’ work as a photographer. He is best known as the 2010 British Election Artist, commissioned by the House of Commons to cover the General Election. In his practice Roberts captures people as part of the landscape, usually photographed from some distance.
Writer Alexander Vasudevan recognises a political shift in Roberts’ later work. In his essay ‘Occupying the Frame’ Vasudevan writes that Roberts’ earlier panoramas are a natural progression of traditional landscape painting, capturing idyllic British landscapes from an elevated perspective. Vasudevan describes how these compositions have a ‘detached viewpoint’ of his subject, where Roberts position is as a spectator, set away from his subject to observe the scene and watch it play out. In his later work, Vasudevan notices that Roberts becomes more political. Since 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum Roberts has been gathering and reflecting on British identity through a post-Brexit lens. This can be seen in his project Merrie Albion 2007-2017 where he has brought together works of his spanning a ten year period of photographing public gatherings, cultural and social events and festivals across the country. Since this point in Roberts’ career, he has extended the narrative surrounding the Brexit debate. In 2019, Roberts created ‘Between the Acts Part II – The Brexit Lexicon’ a video work, featuring a fake news caster reading out a collection of terms. These are a collection of the most common terms used to describe Brexit in political discussions, and have shaped the discussion, and display the polarisation of political language surrounding the Brexit debate on both sides. This suggests that since 2016 Roberts has become fascinated with the dialogue surrounding Brexit and the ideas which have come to shape notions of British identity.
This question of British identity can be seen in ‘Between the Acts’ (Part I) both through the exploration of the British landscape and through its ties to Virginia Woolf’s post-humorous novel of the same name. ‘Between the Acts’ is a novel set in the late 1930s in the build up to the Second World War. The story is set in a small English village, and jumps between the village inhabitants as they prepare for the local village pageant to celebrate British history. The pageant performance celebrates Britishness through the ages. In the white space which borders the photograph, Roberts quotes directly from Virginia Woolf’s novel Between the Acts,
‘They looked at the view; they looked at what
they knew, to see if what they knew might perhaps be different today. Most
days it was the same.’ – Virginia Woolf (1941)
In this passage, the character Giles gathers several characters together to share his view across the surrounding countryside. The landscape they look out over is compared to description from a guidebook from 1833 to show that the landscape had not been altered since then. The direct link to a novel which is set in prewar England could be seen as an intentional act by Roberts to reinforce the uncertainty surrounding a younger generation’s future. In the same way as the landscape is no different in the novel, the Seven Sister cliffs will always be there.
When Simon Roberts released the poster for the 2018 Photo Fringe Festival, he fly-posted it around several cities in the UK, and in Brighton and Hove. This medium is an important element in the work and differentiates it from a typical photographic print. Presenting a photographic print in this reproducible format seems like and intentional act, fly-posting has a much stronger political, polemic connotation, implying that the work carries a specific message which Roberts wants to disseminate. The Council of Brighton and Hove felt the poster had sinister connotations due to the depiction of the cliffs of Dover, as well as the reference to Virginia Woolf’s post-humorous novel. As a result they removed the poster from locations around the city deeming it to be inappropriate. This moved Roberts to censor the work in response to this action, re-releasing the work with the cliffs censored out, and opening up further debate surrounding censorship. The Seven Sisters cliffs are a site which are seen as profoundly British, a national park which is visited by thousands of people a year. This is a really intriguing way of exploring British identity, post-Brexit, whilst still capturing the uncertainty a lot of people are feeling surrounding their futures.
‘Visitors to the Seven Sisters are warned not to approach the edge because it is unstable. However, when faced with an abyss – whether natural or man-made – it’s difficult to resist staring into it. The aim of presenting this poster in the public space was to create unexpected, thought-provoking contributions to the urban spectacle, turning the street into a platform to challenge ideas and attitudes towards Brexit.’ – Simon Roberts (2018).
In Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ in the final scene of the pageant performance, the performers hold up mirrors to the audience.
‘So did they all—hand glasses, tin cans, scraps of scullery glass, harness room glass, and heavily embossed silver mirrors—all stopped. And the audience saw themselves, not whole by any means, but at any rate sitting still. The hands of the clock had stopped at the present moment. It was now. Ourselves. So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how’ – Virginia Woolf (1941) Between the Acts
In a similar sense Simon Roberts’ work invites viewers to self-reflect. Whether the work is slightly uneasy or sinister, it is effective in opening out a discussion surrounding our future and opens the question out to the viewer. Is the image a bleak reflection of a precarious future? Or is the image outward looking and causing us to aspire to a Utopian ideal?
This work featured in our Utopias exhibition which is currently on display in the gallery.
The exhibition combines work in our collection, maps, posters and literary sources to examine Utopian ideology. The Whitworth Young Contemporaries have also selected works from our collection encouraging us to think about our own ideas of Utopia and what that actually means to us as individuals.
To visit this work in person, visit our Utopias exhibition on until 2021, to book a ticket, click here
Sources / Further Reading
Simon Roberts (2019) website – https://www.simoncroberts.com/
Simon Roberts (2019) Between the Acts – https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/between-the-acts/
Alexander Vasudevan, Occupying the Frame, Merrie Albion monograph, 2017 https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Alex-Vasudevan-Merrie-Albion-essay.pdf
Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts, Oxford, UK ed. Edition (12 Jun. 2008)
Alex Clark, Between the Acts: Virginia Woolf’s last book, BBC Culture, Available at: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20160321-between-the-acts-virginia-woolfs-last-book