Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrels. – Mark Twain
Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for country. – John F. Kennedy.
2016 has been a turbulent year globally, especially for Britain and America and their pursuit of isolationist policies. Ever since the 1970s when the National Front 'appropriated' the Union Jack, Far Right movements and political parties have followed suit. Katy Dye's performance of Flag looked at all these things and more, though most of what the audience learnt wasn't what they were told directly, but how they responded to certain requests...
As the audience took to their seats, they were played a speech by Theresa May, talking to the 'party faithful' about her vision for post-referendum Britain and which was evocative of the speeches Margaret Thatcher made in the 1980s. Dye in tandem painted food dye crosses on home-made cupcakes with incomplete Union Jacks on top of them. Later she went on to get dressed in a replica of the Union Jack dress that 'Ginger Spice' wore in the late 1990s, shortly before Labour was back in power and 'Cool Britannia' was used to describe the popular music scene. Interestingly, this was also the first time since the 1960s that the Union Jack and 'being British' was, on the whole, embraced by popular culture without cynicism or suspicion. When Geri Halliwell first suggested having a Union Jack dress, her stylist's immediate reaction was to think it was 'racist', but Halliwell won her over. Sadly events in the early 21st century put short shrift to this positive cultural mindset.
There's nothing to say performance artists shouldn't talk directly to the audience, but more often than not recordings of their voice or relevant footage are used instead. With this in mind, I was surprised by not only Dye's direct communication with the audience, but the 'fact' that her speech appeared to be a heartfelt 'thumbs-up' to being proud of one's country, in spite of everything that's happened this year. One could sense the 'surprise' across the audience, but I half-suspected this was a verbal 'line drawn in the sand' – chosen to produce a response from the audience and challenge its preconceptions.
This 'challenging' of the audience was 'stepped up' when Dye later appeared on stage, dressed in a homemade version of Britannia's attire, as you would see her on a 50 pence piece. Going around members of the audience, Dye asked them to kiss her hand as a symbolic gesture of submission to the State. It was interesting to observe that some people did this after hesitation, but nobody moved to kiss her feet or other parts of the body on offer. It would seem there was a limit to 'subservience', whether it was 'make-believe' or not...
If the notion of patriotism being a positive thing was suggested early on, the flip side also had its fair share of time. The use of dye to adorn the table cloth that the cupcakes sat on went from being something that resembled a flag to something that was splattered with 'blood'. Moreover, the footage of Dye 'pouring water' on a ground-laden flag still had the power to 'shock'.
Today's Britain is deeply divided, as is the opinion of the Union Jack. Normally, during the Olympics the waving of the British Flag is one of the few times that it feels acceptable to use – a symbol of inclusivity, not division. Who can deny the magic of the 2012 when Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah (two 'people of colour') won many medals and were proud to wear the flag? The Olympics this year, which fell a few months after the referendum, felt like a disingenuous affair with so-called 'Great' Britain taking part in the world's most prestigious sporting event, but wanting to pull out of Europe. As hinted at by Dye's cupcakes, Britain wants to 'have its cake and eat it'...
Those in the know can tell the difference between patriotism and nationalism, though sadly many do not. It's a sad fact that in today's world the most commonly held opinions are considered hard facts. If we take the Swastika, it was an Eastern religious symbol that for thousands of years represented peace and continuity. Now in the public consciousness, it is inextricably linked to Germany in the Second World War and Far Right organisations today. In post-Brexit Britain, what will tomorrow's generations make of the Union Jack...?
© Michael Davis 2016
Flag ran at Rich Mix, London on 25th November 2016.