What could be more typically English than Jan Siberechts' neat image of a tamed English Arcadia? The image, currently on display at the Tate Britain's Migrations exhibition, is one of polite mowed lawns; chimney smoke gently drifting up into the fresh early morning air; a church steeple in the distance and a grubby vegetable plot in the foreground. It is, of course, an imported view we are seeing. But Siberechts was doing what many artists have done since - captured England and the English with a better eye and a more nuanced and subtle approach than they ever could themselves. A similar point can be made of the eighteenth-century artist, Benjamin West: the typically British imperial identity we are all so familiar with is created, not by natives born to the metropolis, but of provincials wrought from the edges of Empire.
It tends to be at this point - the collective pat on the back for being so damned open and accommodating throughout history - that we stop. Britain, so this narrative runs, has always been an open and porous nation, keen on free trade, democracy and merit over nationality. It's easy to forget, however, that inviting a Dutch painter to an English court meant less in a century when concepts like 'Protestant' made more sense than any nascent ideas about nationality.
As a result it is often difficult to connect works like Siberechts' quiet countryside with many of the pulsating fluctuating modern pieces on display. The Black Audio Film Collective's powerful Handsworth Songs highlights the often disruptive and uneasy forces unleashed by mass migration in the modern age. Here migration is not a simple a side point to the main theme; it is the theme itself, something to be dwelt on, rather than brushed aside. Indeed there is a clear break in this exhibition from what was once a gentle churn of artists, traders and artisans in distinct cultural and economic regions to the much quicker pace of globalisation and migration Britain has experienced since the mid-20th century. There is clear shift from a world able to cream off and redistribute skilled foreign talent to a world of fluid and fluctuating borders and mass migrations. Britain ceases to choose and begins to be chosen.
For artists like Avinash Chandra, who left India in the 1950s, Britain offered an environment for him to freely express himself. Chandra did not abandon his deep rooted ideas, however, and moved to Britain to find a more accommodating environment in which to express his sentiments. Indeed, despite fluctuations in space or time, the exhbition reveals the remarkable solidity of many intellectual, religious and cultural themes. Jacob Kramer's Jews at Prayer, for example, and William Rothenstein's Jews Mourning in a Synagogue are both rooted to an almost identical image; David Bomberg's shockingly modern Vision of Ezekiel is tied to Old Testament themes he would have soaked up as a child.
As you would hope with any exhibition dealing with migration, there is no clear narrative here: there are lots of little confused and overlapping journeys. Almost by definition, the theme holds together loosely. While this makes it difficult for the lazy writer looking for an easy hook, it turns the exhibition into a great mess of styles and themes. Placing strident and aggressive narratives like Keith Piper's Go West Young Man in the same exhibition as James Tissot's flirty gentile images of Victorian travel is a stretch, but interesting and stimulating nonetheless.
And the exhibition does conclude on an interesting note. The hypnotic Static by Steve McQueen. Here we see the Statue of Liberty from perspective of a circling helicopter. This gives the problems and opportunities of migration a stark urgency: the issues around migration are 'live' from the scene and the apparently primed for uncertain development.
Migrations is showing at the Tate Britain until 12 August 2012
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