Jerwood Visual Arts, Jerwood Space, 171 Union Street, Bankside, London SE1 0LN

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: Going, Gone: Webb-Ellis, Richard Whitby

Jerwood Space

3 April - 2 June 2019

Review by Jack Head

‘Going, Gone’ is the latest installment of the Jerwood/FVU Awards, and brings us two newly-commissioned films by winning artists Richard Whitby and Webb-Ellis. This year’s work ‘takes Britain’s declared exit from the European Union as a starting point for reflection on other collective experiences of transition and loss’ and is on show at Jerwood Space. Previous recipients of the awards have gone on to have considerable critical and commercial success, and it is encouraging that Jerwood Arts and FVU are willing to invest in this sort of work, both financially and by giving artists a significant platform to display it.

In his video ‘The Lost Ones’, Richard Whitby takes us to the Premium Service Centre. Here, in a nondescript room, members of the public are questioned on a variety of topics to determine whether or not they should be allowed to remain in the country. But there’s a catch. The participants in this process speak with British accents and most of them are white. We’re not used to seeing this sort of person subjected to this kind of humiliation, and it is all the more jarring for it. It is a great shame that people have to look and sound a particular way in order for us to sympathise with their suffering, and in taking this subject of immigration and turning it on its head, Whitby successfully highlights the cruel senselessness of our usual shoulder-shrugging.

The press release suggests that Whitby’s film has ‘a black-comic energy that mixes acerbic, absurdist humour with moments of genuine pathos’. This is certainly true, though there was no laughter from the audience on the opening night, and I’m not sure why. Asking someone how old Big Ben is as a method of establishing how British they are is surely funny? It’s funny because it’s ridiculous, but it’s also deeply nefarious. These things are not mutually exclusive, though people often make the mistake of assuming that they are. Maybe that’s why nobody laughed.

I couldn’t help but view ‘The Lost Ones’ less as a comment on Brexit Britain than as a comment on the country we have been for years. Sure, now that European doctors have been tickled with the possibility of deportation, the issue of immigration has grabbed our attention. But back in 2012, when many of us were patting each other on the back and sitting down to watch Danny Boyle’s self-congratulatory Olympic opening ceremony, safe in the knowledge that we have the best health system in the world, over 25,000 thousand people were deported, over 34,000 families with children were made homeless, and over 345,000 people had to make use of foodbanks in order to survive. We had nothing to be proud of.

If ‘The Lost Ones’ is an opportunity to look with scorn at our racist nation, then perhaps ‘For The First Baby Born in Space’, a twin-screen film by duo Webb-Ellis, can help us work out how we got there, and where we are going next.

The film takes us to Whitby, Yorkshire and into the lives of the teenagers who live there, have fun there and grow up there. They may also leave one day, either out of choice or because they are forced to. One girl who may well choose to leave describes how she plans to join the army. There is a sense that, for her, the army is an opportunity to experience something new and exciting. Something she wouldn’t find in Whitby, even if she went looking for it.

Whitby is a part of the country that voted 62% in favour of leaving the European Union. The group of teenagers in this film would have been too young to vote in the referendum, and Brexit’s effect on them may well be profound. But Webb-Ellis cleverly illustrate that, even though this group of people have, in many ways, been left behind, they are still full of hope. There is a tacit acknowledgement that it will be these young people, and young people across the country, who are tasked with sorting out the problems we face as a society in the coming years, whether it’s the aftermath of Brexit or the impending climate crisis.

These films are provocative and important. They might even be prescient. But what they certainly demonstrate is the ease with which we are able to stick our heads in the sand, ignore what is plain to see, and wonder incredulously what on earth has happened when everything starts to fall apart. There should be more films like ‘For the First Baby Born in Space’ and ‘The Lost Ones’ but we would do well to make and watch them before the rot has already set in. Otherwise, what is the point?

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