Do you know England? I asked the museum guide. He shook his head in the negative. Look at the walls, I responded. He rested his chin on his knuckle and stared for a moment. It’s beautiful, he said. I laughed at his kindness, it’s honest, I told him.
I had just emerged from the indecisiveness of early afternoon Bogotá, where the spice of the sun was carrying out its daily confrontation with the rumble of the rain. In the cool, calm of the Museo de Arte Miguel Urrutia (MAMU), with its high stone walls bringing something of the antiquity temple to the senses, I headed towards British, Magnum photographer, Martin Parr’s latest exhibition, Souvenir.
In the five months that I have lived in Colombia, as a British expat, I have not been short of trinkets to ‘remind’ me of home. Usually tea related (think coasters, pots), and usually adorned with a watercolor Big Ben, double-decker bus or worse, a beefeater, I wonder how many other expats have glimpsed the like in a Colombian home and sighed, recognizing the image of, but not feeling the reality of home. The mythology of nationhood that we can find irrespective of nation is what Parr seeks to tackle head-on, and I can quite frankly say, within those museum walls in the heart of La Candelaria, I’ve never felt so at home.
Featuring eleven of his projects, the viewer is immediately greeted with a mouthful of the infamous British irony. Plastered, floor to ceiling at the exhibition entrance and featured in spurts throughout is the floral, sickly-sweet pink pastel wallpaper (think Grandma’s 1980’s living room crossed with Cath Kidston’s tea towels) and a garish Victorian photo cut out, the sort you might find at a seaside resort arcade.
On the same theme, and by far the most truthful of the projects is Parr’s ‘The Last Resort,’ which focuses on New Brighton, a seaside town near Liverpool, in the northwest of England. While the mythology may conjure images similar to the famous white cliffs and to the civilization of the British afternoon at the seaside, Parr’s reality presents us with anything other than politeness. From the topless sunbather spread out on the concrete of the pier as the suited man strolls home from a day at work, a testament to the British instinct to ‘strip off’ at the first signs of sun, to the rolled-up trouser paddling in the dingy, trash-floating blue of the harbor water, the images immediately took me back. The polystyrene tray of fish and chips and wooden three-pronged fork, the nuclear green of the mint-choc-chip ice-cream and above all, the soggy wafer cone, which if you were lucky, still had a bite of crunch at the end. This was the England of my childhood.
Alongside the garish, laced throughout Parr’s work is the subtlety of British cultural values. From the family unit enduring the military operation of a day at the beach to the elderly suited couple in the traditional seaside café, where the interior suggests higher class but there is still chip grease on the table, as the exhibition’s content author, Thomas Weski writes, “this is how we live…and what we value.”
A trip to Britain may be a costly affair, but Parr’s exhibition makes us question what the true price of tourism is in perpetuating a false image of a country’s identity. If you want a real souvenir of Britain, head to the MAMU. After all, that journey, like a good old day at the British seaside, is completely free.
Calle 11 No.4-21 – Until June 10.