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Boris Johnson and the Backstreet Boys – Berlin’s take on Brexit

25 April 2019

On the evidence of ‘Objects of Wonder: British Sculpture from the Tate Collection 1950s–Present’, showing at the PalaisPopulaire on Unter den Linden until 27 May, Britain’s cultural relationship to the rest of the world looks healthy. Here are Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, their practice drawing energy from and contributing to an international modernist movement. Eileen Agar, born in Buenos Aires, living in the south of France and making sculpture from the flotsam found in fishermen’s nets. Eduardo Paolozzi, a Scottish son of Italian immigrants, making Cyclops (1957), a frail yet heroic figurehead for existentialism in the nuclear age, by lost-wax casting from machine parts and found matter – ‘a metamorphosis of rubbish’, as he put it. Anthony Caro embracing American-style post-war abstraction on a bullishly large scale. David Medalla, born in the Philippines, creating a huge bubble machine for Cloud Canyons No. 3 (1961), a work that changes its shape as it interacts with the surrounding environment. I blow a puff of air towards it; it wobbles, and a slick of bubbles slides down towards its base. Upstairs are the YBAs and their successors; the highlight is perhaps Hew Locke’s Demeter (2010), remaking the postage-stamp image of Elizabeth II in a riot of colour out of cheap, mass-produced plastic objects found in Brixton shops, and probably manufactured in China. Openness, playfulness, outwardness, international sensibility.

I’m in Berlin to work on a novel set here in 2015, when I lived in the city for a year: scouting locations, taking in local colour, revisiting in my imagination the summer when David Cameron won an election with a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership. Across the road from where I’m staying, a billboard paid for by the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, shows Boris Johnson dangling from a zip-wire, a Union Jack in either hand. Kommt zusammen! – Come together! – it urges voters. #EuropaistdieAntwort. This is more or less the Berlin take on Brexit: what we’re doing is clownish, inept, unbelievable, but also compelling and captivating, a useful mirror in which to consider Berlin’s own politics, something to rally around for the ailing SPD.

On Saturday night, I go to the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (motto: Die Kunst dem Volke, ‘Art to the people’) for Brexit (TBC), a performance by Kasia Fudakowski, a London-born artist with a Polish name and a German passport, long resident in Berlin. The event was scheduled for the day after Britain left the EU; now it takes place in the limbo-time of the extension. Everything is still TBC. By the time this piece is published, it probably still will be.

The performance is appropriately provisional. ‘Does anybody else want to do this?’ Fudakowski asks at the outset. It’s not clear whether she means do the performance or leave the EU. But she has to press on: ‘Performance means performance.’ On stage: a barbecue smouldering with dry ice, a paddling pool and a bucket with holes in the bottom. The set for an English garden party carrying on in inclement conditions, awful but cheerful. Fudakowski reads poems she has written about Brexit. A vote is taken; ayes and noes are asked to move to opposite sides of the room, and given inflatable whacking sticks to settle their divisions in a fight. A huge tea tray is wheeled out, and Fudakowski makes everybody a cuppa. An atmosphere of group therapy. Then karaoke: a song by the Backstreet Boys retooled with appropriate lyrics (‘Backstop’s back…’). Could the UK citizens in the audience come up on stage to sing? I keep my head down. Half a dozen others are less bashful. Nobody quite knows the melody for the verses. The mood is larky, high-spirited and sad. The mostly German audience are baffled and sympathetic. Nobody thinks Brexit is a good idea.

I think about Fudakowski’s brackets – (TBC) – and of the words David Jones wrote when he chose In Parenthesis for the title of his poem of the Great War: ‘I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something […] and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis.’ Nobody in Berlin knows what will come after the parenthesis of Brexit, but it seems likely to be something narrower, sadder, more precarious than what we have had in recent decades.

From the May 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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