All of my visits to Tate Modern have been a hit or miss. There’s a very inorganic feel to it as an institution. Maybe it’s the multitude of different works crammed together in the same space, or their past associations to BP…nonetheless it’s an unpleasant experience. Due to the fact that I had family visiting and they wanted to go and see their latest exhibitions, I obediently tagged along. That same day, March 23rd, happened to be one of the most important days in the three-year ordeal known as Brexit: the ‘Put It to The People’ protest. From early morning, people were flooding into London, ready to march and make their voices heard. Everyone seemed excited and anxious to see what the outcome would be. An air of hope lingered all across Central London (something one doesn’t witness very often). The majority of the marchers a wore neon yellow sticker, which read “BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT: IT’S NOT A DONE DEAL”. I thought it was brilliantly humorous and not too provocative at the same time. However, some people seemed to think otherwise.
‘Bollocks to Brexit’ Sticker (Image: bollockstobrexit.com)
After having attended the march, and as I was walking through the Pierre Bonnard exhibition, sticker stuck to my shirt, a member of staff approached me asking me to remove it. I was, of course, taken aback by this and asked to know the reason why. She quietly explained that some people were “unsettled” by the fact that I was wearing it (in a modern art gallery no less, where drawings of genitals and the use of profanity are commonplace). It’s ironic that the people who complained about my sticker were disturbed by something that was intended in good humour. You would expect someone to complain about, for example, the toddlers who were crying their eyes out in an otherwise quiet gallery space. What I personally find ‘unsettling’ is the fact that the entire Brexit campaign has been a pompous and clear expression of xenophobia and discrimination. If a second referendum is to take place, voting is unfortunately not an option for EU citizens, thus to many people Saturday’s march and the stickers were some of the few outlets for expressing frustration. As I kept trying to make sense of the situation, the Tate employee was explaining that it’s “management policy” and that if I wanted to remain in the building I had to take the sticker off immediately. I refused to abide by this and carried on walking through the exhibition, where I noticed that I was not the only person wearing one.
Whatever the reason may be as to why I was deemed as a threat to their lovely Saturday afternoon, I was shocked at the fact that of all places and art galleries, this happened at Tate Modern. Unfortunately, people’s minds and political opinions cannot be changed with a sticker. The people who were made uncomfortable over something as silly as a sticker may have felt more in place joining Nigel Farage’s (out-numbered) ‘Leave’ demonstration outside a pub in Nottinghamshire. Whatever the case, they found themselves wandering around the Tate. Call me utopian, but the point that I’m trying to make is that within a modern art museum, a person wearing a sticker should not be treated as a persona non grata. In many ways this event reflects how people feel coming to the UK during the Brexit climate. I find it funny that I even have to highlight that the whole dispute was caused over a sticker.
'No Brexit Please' seen on Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 1993 (Image: Mark Godfrey, Instagram)
There is a recurring pattern of coincidence in this story I’m trying to tell: on March 23rd, Mark Godfrey, senior curator at Tate Modern, posted an image to his Instagram (@markgodfrey1973) which made me giggle. On the same day that a member of staff threatened to escort me out of the building for wearing an anti-Brexit sticker, he posted Rudolf Stingel’s Untitled (1993), which read “NO BREXIT PLEASE”. This is an artwork which is made up of a wall covered in orange carpeting and invites visitors to inscribe whatever they want on its surface. Godfrey, unaware of the treatment a person who also pleads “NO BREXIT PLEASE” received in his gallery, proudly posted this image. Maybe, this was intended to show the ideals that Tate Modern welcomes and promotes; their visitors’ diverse political views and stances. In a way, he is putting up the façade of a tolerant and free space, only to conceal the inherent dependence that institutions such as this have on visitors like the ones who wanted my sticker gone. He may be anti-Brexit himself, but maybe the people purchasing pricey annual memberships for his museum are not. To make matters even more ironic, the Tate Modern has recently made conscious strides towards making their collection more diverse and include artists from the entire globe’s expanse (it’s highly debatable whether they have achieved this or not). A Uniqlo Tate Late is to be hosted there on March 29th, coincidentally the same date Brexit was meant to go through, where one of the events is a series of artists’ talks titled ‘Art Beyond Brexit’. In the gallery, there’s even a whole section dedicated specifically to artworks that express feelings of political dissent. “BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT” can therefore be easily imagined fancifully printed in neon letterings à-la Tracy Emin or stencilled à-la Christopher Wool, so that people could take pictures of it and mindlessly post it to their Instagram stories. The Tate even profit off of selling all of the Guerrilla Girls’ artworks in the form of tea towels, postcards, mugs, posters, tote bags… you name it! How is it then that a museum that owns works such as the Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989) and sells merchandise with such powerful socio-political statements plastered all over them showed such intolerance over a STICKER?
Despite my fury at what happened, I’d now like to take a step back and view things from a more objective angle. Let’s suppose that the people who complained about the anti-Brexit sticker were not disturbed by the message but by the language used. I will say: “bollocks” is not the most polite of words. However, it has come to my attention that this touchiness about all things anti-Brexit has seeped into other artistic establishments as well. The Times newspaper reported on Tuesday, March 26th, that opera star Anna Patalong was forced to change out of her yellow gown which was decorated with yellow stars and a blue sash. She was made to do so after it caused distress to certain audience members attending a matinee performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Benedict Nelson (Patalong’s husband) sent out a series of tweets expressing his anger. In one of them he mentions that a man was also denied entrance at the Royal Opera House for wearing a pro-EU t-shirt. One would expect such responses to be elicited at the sight of an ISIS flag (or perhaps one of Theresa May’s ghastly statement necklaces). How then, can I remain objective when people take offence at an EU flag? It seems to me that establishments that promote the arts, once free from such constraints on freedom of expression, are now poisoned by the presence of such disgustingly pretentious people. What does that tell us about the state of the arts today? If one can’t feel welcomed in an art gallery or an opera house, where else is there to run to?