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June 20, 2007

The Caravan Gallery insist on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary: Is Britain Great? - The Caravan Gallery

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Is Britain Great?
by The Caravan Gallery
Portsmouth: Aspex, 2006
Paperback, £12

Following on from Tate Britain's exhibition, How We Are, it seems that everybody is photographing England. Digital cameras have democratised the process even further than the Leica. Anyone with a mobile phone can snap a scene or make a film on their way to work and the shops. News stories of shocking events are often accompanied by the filmic representations of passers-by. We are all now photographers. Youtube shows we are film-makers intent on observing ourselves. Martin Parr started us off [www.martinparr.com].

Parr's photographs are currently engaged in a tour of the Far East in a series of retrospective exhibitions. In the past decade he has taken on a stature comparable to Martin Amis's in the Eighties as the spokesman for English popular culture. His subjects are "ordinary" Britons in pursuit of ordinary, everyday pastimes, and yet his photographs seem exaggerated and grotesque. There is a cruel voyeurism in his motifs' strangeness, the garish colours, the distorted perspectives.

His raison d'etre seems to be to challenge our notions of ourselves. Like any artist, he is subversive, merely than just recording. Perhaps this is the difference between everyman and woman out and about with their digital camera and the artist at work. His notorious study of the middle classes at play revealed a cross-section of society almost fetishistic in its pursuit of leisure, consumption and communication. One of his books, One Day Trip, contains 25 colour images of British Duty-Free shoppers in France. You can imagine the scenes of gluttony his camera feasts on, and the French hypermarchés' attempts to seduce us with cut-price cheeses and booze.

There is something resplendent in the way we Brits appease our appetites. The Caravan Gallery [www.thecaravangallery.co.uk] observes the British working classes, in particular, at play, at the shops, at home, on their hols and on the streets. They tour the seaside resorts and urban landscapes north and south of the country turning the camera away from the main event. Their subversion gains currency, not in satirizing their subjects (that would be too easy), but in revealing the landscape surrounding the tourist brochure's depiction of what Britain is. If you think of the Cotswolds, the tourist guide wants you to think of perfect, verdant villages. The Caravan Gallery shows you mud, brazen girls, plastic garden furniture left stranded by a roadside. Their gaze also rests on the symbols - the cream tea, the seaside break, the garden gnome - that tell us who we are. Their quizzical gaze tests the validity of each "quintessentially" British subject.

Like Mass Observation, these two photographers who tour Great Britain in a caravan provide a subjective view which shows us what they themselves are looking for: outbreaks of individuality in a homogenised world, the voice of the street railing against bureaucratic jargon.

I wonder if any other nation in Europe is so intent, at such a lowly level, on observing itself so minutely. Mayhew, Defoe, the poetic triumvirate who made up Mass Observation, Iain Sinclair, as well as the fascinated outsiders - Pevsner, W. G. Sebald - have all conducted studies of the everyday life of the British Isles, its topography, its people and its mythologies. This, in itself, tells us something about Britishness: that we are bizarre, endlessly watchable, deeply lovable and equally deeply entrenched in a quest for individuation against the odds. This makes for images that show us to be: (i) indomitable; (ii) eccentric; (iii) ribald; and (iv), at times, squalid.

So the book that the Caravan Gallery has produced is in a long line of enquires into Britishness. As any book interrogating the British character should be, Is Britain Great? is very funny. It shows us the scenes that are excluded from media representations of how we are supposed to live. The glossy world depicted in the Sunday supplement and lifestyle magazines, and promoted by the Boden catalogue and Sainsbury superstore is not how the vast majority of us live. We are not a stylish people. We do not eat well. But there is something electric about our presence.

Our attitudes to sex imply a discomfort that would not be found on the Mediterranean, hence our need to protect ourselves with humour. In one photograph entitled simply Newquay, four well-built young women on a hens' night out are garishly displaying their bodies. White bikinis, white stilettos, horns on their heads and forked tails complete the picture. They kick up their legs for the cameras and laugh uproariously. I cannot imagine young Frenchwomen disporting themselves in such a raunchy send-up of themselves. What can only be a crowd of football supporters in Liverpool shows a crowd egging on a young man intent on mooning. The camera catches him with his pants down. Mooning is the classic British pastime of young British men. Like the young women's attention-seeking outfits, there is some latent aggression dressed up as comedy in this display of sexuality.

The images of elderly and middle-aged Britain show rows and rows of high streets, new-builds, delapidated terraces, white heads bobbing along, shop signs speaking to them. What's on sale is significant, too, as Cambridge indicates. It shows a shop window, the shelves of which are neatly arranged with Andrex toilet rolls. Touchingly, the shop keeper has attempted an aesthetic harmony in his or her display. The top shelf of loo rolls is bookended by two empty Chupa Chyps containers. They can have no retailing purpose so we must assume they are there for decoration. The two middle shelves display Andrex in, in turns, pink, blue and yellow packaging. The "artist" has attempted colour-coded symmetry in his placing of the rolls. But where needs must (he is short of yellow packets) he has had to insert some boxes of Persil. There is also the consideration that, like toilet rolls, washing powder is an essential purchase for the shop's customers. The bottom shelf shows one packet each of McVitie's Hobnobs, McVitie's Jaffa Cakes, Jacob's Original Cheddar Biscuits, Brannigans (from McCoy) Roast Beef and Mustard crisps, Crawford's Bourbon Creams and Cadbury's Twirls. These, one assumes, are popular requests from this artistically inclined shopkeepers' customers. This single photograph is full of stories, aspirations, the stuff of life, and dreams of a better life. The biscuits and the toilet roll give a good hint as to the biological make-up of an ordinary British shop-keeper. But they are just the appurtenances of a very human endeavour.

The two photographers who make up the Caravan Gallery insist on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, perhaps because they feel overwhelmed by the ordinary, the mundane, and so they need to focus on it, particularise it, find something in it that can speak to them and us. It is easy for the inquisitive, artistic spirit to feel trapped by daily detritus. And it isn't just the mundanity of life that the artistic spirit rebels against, it's the soul-destroying dictates of bureaucracy: being told what we should be looking at. The Caravan Gallery gives a subversive view of Britain, one in which drabnesss and stuffed animals feature strongly. If greatness is measurable in achievements, distinction and pre-eminence, then there isn't much on offer here. If one defines greatness as being beyond the ordinary then there is at least evidence of that very human endeavour to make something of oneself.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.


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