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A Bawdy Margaret Thatcher Sculpture Upends British History

YBA Marcus Harvey shows us what he thinks it means to be British in 2016.
Albus, Marcus Harvey, 2009 © Marcus Harvey and Vigo Gallery Portrait of Marcus Harvey © Vigo Gallery. Images courtesy the Jerwood Gallery.

In German, the term "inselaffe" means "Island Monkey." It’s a derogatory slur the Germans used to describe the English, implying that the natural process of evolution effectively missed the United Kingdom. In English artist Marcus Harvey's upcoming solo exhibition of new works, the Young British Artist presents a dismal yet humorous perspective on British history and culture. Naturally, the show's called Inselaffe.


Harvey adopts a tone of tenacious yet warmhearted mockery in his new exhibition of paintings and ceramics at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. Harvey’s ceramic collage portraits of historical figures meld together different symbols and relics, emblematic of what can only be described as British-ness. His sculptures feature everything from old military trinkets and African masks to Monty Python motifs and “joke shop knick knacks,” according to the gallery.

Harvey describes his works as a “fusion of high and low cultural references.” In them, he considers his own version of nationalism, one that is expressed in a particularly antagonistic manner. "Unapologetic" and "unyielding," are oft-used terms; his is a socially conscious form of artistic reflection that is divergent from the standard contemporary English manner. In the short trailer for the exhibition, above, Harvey eloquently articulates how his work creates a different conversation: “Rather than sort of collapsing in a kind of fit of wailing and gnashing of teeth and apologistic PC bull shit and bullocks, I try to pull out, erect, something that's a thing, and that's the most important thing. That the ting is the ting. And that there is a ting.”

Harvey has a history of politically critical and nationally-scandalizing art works. The artist received attention when his portrait of notorious child killer Myra Hindley was featured in the highly controversial Sensations exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997. In 2009, he painted a portrait of Margaret Thatcher in a similar style, affectionately titled, Maggie. Thatcher is once again the subject of Harvey’s artistic eye, only this time she is depicted in the classic odalisque recline, her body constructed from barnacled drift wood and the head of pig. A piece Harvey describes as, “alive and luxuriating in its admission of jingoism and greed.”


Although Harvey’s interests sometimes find their way into graphic and violent subject matter, he says he would like to be able to paint a still life or seascape and still address the same issues. It's through this show that he's working to find a place where he can bring those two interests together. This struggle is most evidently seen paintings including The English Cemetery and Albus; we see a combination of the unrestrained and dramatic qualities of painting, combined with the “surety of photography,” the gallery explains. Large photographs are used a backdrop as a way to contextualize the points Harvey addresses. He seeks to strike a balance between what he describes in the trailer as a “seaside picture post card atmosphere, and something darker, and more defensive.” Marcus Harvey is looking for that sweet spot, and if the work is any indication, he just might've found it.

Inselaffe is on at the Jerwood Gallery from the 16th of July to the 16th of October. Head over to the Jerwood Gallery’s website for more information.


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