Mini-Europe is a tourist attraction in which Europe's landmarks and historical events are reproduced in a miniature, Legoland-style diorama. Partly funded by the European Union and located outside Brussels, it's a shoddy imitation of a place that doesn't exist: Europe as imagined by the EU's fantasists – harmonious, prosperous, free from ideology. For the photographer Lewis Bush, it was the perfect location for a set of satirical postcards, A Model Continent, which puts Mini-Europe – and the real one – in an appropriately grim light.
The miniature park's pretensions to utopia are undercut by how it looks: like a wilting, crumbling non-place. Choosing a bleak December day to take his photos, and eschewing all contextual information in the postcards, Bush depicts a Europe trying to repress its contradictions and failing miserably. For example, the Channel Tunnel is recently more famous for refugees dying in it while trying to escape war than it is for nipping over to Paris for a weekend away. This symbol of racist hypocrisy towards the free movement of people appears as a rotting plastic box of water blooming with algae, a toy train running underneath.
Generally speaking, creating a miniature world filled with tiny people is the sign of a megalomaniac who's lost the plot; a power trying to legitimise itself and flesh out its mythologies. (No surprise the trend was started by Britain, with its creepy "model villages" that became popular as the Empire waned.) As Mini-Europe's corporate sponsors and beleaguered aesthetic show, it reveals everything about Europe it's designed to conceal. Basically, A Model Continent is one of the funniest interventions in the EU debate so far. Even though, as I found out, that wasn't its creator's intention.
VICE: Hi Lewis. How did you find this place?
Lewis Bush: I was travelling around Europe in 2012, working on a project about similar issues – about the way the past hadn't been dealt with adequately by European states; how there was this unresolved historical tension between countries like Germany and Greece during the Eurozone crisis.
I was in Brussels for a few days and basically wanted some light relief from going out and shooting every day, and a friend I was staying with said, "Why don't you go check this place out? It's kind of hilarious." So I went, and found it completely fascinating. It was a perfect metaphor for what I was seeing in parts of Europe like Greece and Spain: this awkward inability to face up to the past.
Why did you produce it as a series of postcards?
When I was designing it I had to make a decision between making it like a proper photography book or a book of postcards you could pull apart. In the end, I quite liked the idea that it would potentially fall apart. I liked the idea of, if you have any very pro-Europe friends, taking a postcard and sending it to them to annoy them.
What were the other tourists there like?
It was pretty deserted when I was there. Probably partly because it was a miserable December day.
And the people who worked there?
There were quite a few people working there. The first thing that happens when you walk in, whether you want it or not, you get rugby tackled by a guy in a giant tortoise outfit, which is the park's mascot. It's this kind of giant orange tortoise – a brilliant image for the EU: what do tortoises do when they encounter danger? They pull their heads inside their shell and don't really react.
Then there's a man waiting with a camera who pops out and takes your picture. So I've got a picture of me at home being hugged by this giant tortoise with a big EU logo on it.
The miniature park is the subject of a lot of inquiry. They tend to say a lot about national anxieties. Did you have these kinds of theoretical insights in mind?
I guess you can separate model parks and theme parks. The model park is, as the name suggests, an ideal. If you've been to places like Beaconsfield [which has the oldest model village in the UK] it's like an idealised image of an English town. It's not like reality. So I think somewhere like Mini-Europe is revealing in that sense. It gives you an insight into what someone imagines Europe could or should be like. Who? I don't know. I would love to meet whose brainchild this was. In that sense it's an interesting simulation of this vision of a perfect Europe, where the White Cliffs of Dover and the Eiffel Tower sit side-by-side in perfect harmony.
During your travels in Europe did you notice the EU's idealist myth – nations coming together and cooperation out of good will – disintegrating?
I went to ten countries and there was a palpable sense of a different level of commitment to the EU in different countries. The country where people seemed most pro-EU [in 2012] was Bulgaria – a relatively new member. There were EU flags everywhere; everyone I talked to said it was fantastic; they had just finished a new subway line in Sofia that had been part-funded by the EU. They had very much bought into the idea at the time.
But then in Greece, it goes without saying, most people when I asked about their feelings toward the EU could barely respond. It was so vitriolic.
It's funny that the historical scenes depicted in the park are all these "End of History" moments – the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lech Walesa's Solidarity rallies in Poland – when people thought liberal democracy and capitalism were going to reign eternal.
That's what my original project around Europe was about: Francis Fukuyama's "end of ideology". In some ways this park speaks to the same ideas; you can see it as a realisation of that world where politics is no longer an issue and everyone believes the same thing. All these national differences levelled down by neoliberal capitalism.
One of the bizarre things in the park is the corporate sponsorship. Quite a few of the models have sponsors inserted into them in strange ways. So you'll have a little truck with a company logo parked next to an ancient monument.
A Coca-Cola van is parked next to the anti-Soviet "Freedom Monument" in Latvia. I guess it represents, accidentally, a different kind of freedom.
You can't tell from the image, but that truck basically perpetually circles the monument. So it's like this hugely significant monument has been reduced to a giant roundabout for corporate advertising. It also talks about the way history is turned into a commodity not just for tourists but citizens too.
What was your favourite exhibit?
I suppose being British I should go for the White Cliffs of Dover, with that red bin and the arrow. I was there at the height of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and the growing atmosphere in the UK was: "Keep everyone out." There were people freaking out about a handful of refugees creeping through the Channel Tunnel like it was some kind of invasion. So seeing the White Cliffs with this arrow around it – i.e. keep going; nothing to see here... I quite liked that.
Did you think of A Model Continent as an intervention in the EU referendum debate?
Well actually no, it was kind of inopportune timing. I shot the project and then about two months later, as I sent it to print, it came out that we were going to have a referendum. Mentally, I thought, 'Oh crap.' Because I'm not a Eurosceptic. I think the EU is essentially a good idea. But like a lot of good ideas it has issues that need to be taken out and discussed. I did worry that by putting this out people would be like, "Oh god, you're a right-wing nut job!"
But you don't have to be a frothing Ukipper to want to leave the EU.
Well, it's true. But in some ways the referendum was unwelcome news. Especially since a lot of people feel strongly either way. And because it comes down to this clear binary in the vote there isn't much space for ambiguous discussions like, "Yes, we should stay, but the European Union has to change." A lot of people don't want to hear that.
I did think about not releasing it until after the referendum. But then I thought, 'What if we leave?!' So, in the end, I thought I'd bite the bullet. Then I realised, 'Hey, at least UKIP will buy loads of copies.' Why not cash-in on the political angst?
Miniature worlds don't seem like a healthy thing to occupy yourself with. Is Europe loosing the plot? Your project seems like an existential criticism – like Europe doesn't even exist.
I think it does exist. There's a real will, still, among a lot of people to make Europe work, which in some ways is impressive considering all the problems; this huge crisis over the Euro. Problems like this will either tear the European Union apart or make it stronger in the long run. My hope is that what comes out of the referendum is that Europe comes together and improves as a result. Hopefully, if nothing else, people in Brussels will go, "Oh my god, we've come this close to disintegrating. We do need to make serious changes and listen to the things people aren't comfortable with."
Buy A Model Continent here.
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