Wallop our EU punchbag! Artists talk us through their Brexit creations | Art and design


‘You have not experienced fascism like we have’

Bernard-Henri Lévy, French philosopher

I am 70 now and there is nothing in my life I regret. I’ve done a lot of things, I’ve written a lot of things and I’m comfortable with everything. Except for one thing: this rise of Brexit, this rise of populism, this possible collapse of the EU. This is something my generation is responsible for and something, if it happens, future generations will never forgive us for. And rightly so.

That is why on the day before the European elections – in which I will vote for Macron and, were I British, I would vote for the Liberal Democrats since they are the only party fighting to remain – I will be in Britain to give a special performance of my one-man play, Last Exit Before Brexit.

Its message? Please, please don’t go. Brexit will be a disaster for the UK. You will collapse – from Great Britain to Little England – and all of Europe will suffer. I don’t think France and Germany, and I say this as a Frenchman, understand the extent of their need for the UK. The ideas of British liberalism are at the heart of the European ideal. That is not appreciated enough.

Bernard-Henri Lévy performs Last Exit Before Brexit.

‘This theatre of shadows is a tragedy’ … Bernard-Henri Lévy performs Last Exit Before Brexit.

You doubt that Britain is part of the European family and its ideals? In 1948, the year I was born, my parents encouraged me to listen to the radio when Churchill gave his Zurich speech [in which he said: “We must re-create the European family in a regional structure called the United States of Europe.”] My parents said this was the voice of absolute good. And that’s what Britain has meant to me. If everywhere else became fascist, if everywhere else turned its back on liberalism, Britain would stand firm.

For me your parliament was the greatest parliament in the world, the first and best democracy. For me it is a sacred space. To see it reduced to this theatre of shadows is a tragedy. I do not know what Jeremy Corbyn stands for, except failing to deal with anti-Semitism in his own party. And Theresa May? She says she remains firm, but she does not know what courage and bravery are – they involve acting in the consciousness of history. It is like Orwell’s Animal Farm: if you turn down the volume on the TV and look from one to the other, they are the same.

One thing I will talk about in my play is the Irish Question. Achieving peace in Ireland has been the greatest achievement of the EU. This is not Airbus, Arte or Erasmus we’re talking about – it’s peace in Ireland. And that is now under threat. Ireland is not a detail, it is a member of the European family. A hard border again is intolerable. And if there is Brexit then Scotland will leave. No doubt about that. The UK will become a broken family surrounded by hard borders.

I’ll make you this bet. Nigel Farage will know soon enough what kind of world he desires. It will be one of unemployment for you, of insularity, a little England, a corpse. I’ll make another bet. You have never experienced fascism like the rest of Europe has. When I was younger, I thought England would be the last place in the world to collapse into fascism. It was the country of Churchill, not Mosley. The Italians invented fascism nearly 100 year ago, the Spanish lived under it for many years, France and Germany were destroyed by it. Now? You may well experience it.

‘Artists have to unite to fight this nightmare’

Marina Abramovi?, Yugoslav-born artist, currently holds a Dutch passport

Marina Abramovic? with a Laos child.

Marina Abramovic? with a Laos child. Photograph: Marina Abramovic?

Camus said: “If there is any man who has no right to solitude, it is the artist. Art cannot be a monologue.” I like this. I don’t care for the idea of a solipsistic artist alone in nature, or depressed and drinking himself to death. This doesn’t work in the 21st century. We have to take responsibility. We have to be together. And we have to fight against this nightmare of Brexit. You really have a problem Britain, my God!

You may not have heard of La Monte Verità [The Hill of Truth]. But for me that is the model of how artists should be. It was an alternative colony in Switzerland in the early 20th century where artists and intellectuals – Rudolph Steiner, Carl Jung, Paul Klee, Isadora Duncan and Bauhaus members – formed a utopian community without nationalities or borders. They had conferences discussing dance as art, and women’s rights. They tried to find a new meaning to life communally. In the early 20th century, they created a model of what Europe might be: a place without borders.

You ask if I am a member of an elite art world because I love the idea of such utopias? You worry that the populists like Trump and Farage will say they are the true voices of the people, opposing elitists like me? That makes me laugh. I am 73 years old and I have had a 50-year career, but I started off as an underground artist. Only after my show The Artist Is Present, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010, did I suddenly become seen as a jetsetter. But I’ve never been a jetsetter. I am an artist who believes in changing the world.

I have chosen a piece to be auctioned for the United Artists of Europe initiative. It is a photograph of a little girl from Laos sitting on my lap holding a gun. I was working with children in Laos aged four to 10. They had experienced the kinds of disaster most of Europe in my lifetime has not – with the exception of my former homeland, Yugoslavia. There were unexploded bombs in their forests. All the children knew about guns.

This seven-year-old girl knew what a gun was and how to use it. This was part of an installation I did called 8 Lessons on Emptiness with a Happy End. I gave the children these Chinese weapons and, at the end, they burned them. Will there be a happy end for Europe? I’m not optimistic.

‘Brexit backers can take out their anger on our punchbag’

Elmgreen & Dragset, artists; Michael Elmgreen was born in Denmark, Ingar Dragset in Norway; they now live in Berlin

Please punch … Anger Management by Elmgreen & Dragset.

Please punch … Anger Management by Elmgreen & Dragset. Photograph: Courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro

Why is there an EU flag on our Anger Management punchbag? Because it would be ideal if Brexit backers could take out some of their anger on something other than a whole nation. They should each have a punchbag and go crazy on it at home. Then afterwards, they might be more balanced and nuanced in political debates.

MPs have for a long time blamed the EU for domestic problems caused by their own decision-making or, rather, lack of decision-making. So it was no wonder the referendum turned out as it did. It was a campaign based on lies influenced by years of this scapegoating.

Right now, one of the Tory government’s arguments for backing Brexit is that they want more deregulation, which means being able to import chemical-infested food from the US and getting rid of regulations that protect human rights and labour conditions.

Everyone should have a role in the Brexit debate. You as a citizen – artist or not – have an obligation to be engaged because the outcome will shape generations to come. We think artworks have a role in the Brexit debate because they speak in a different language, one that can hit you where a politician’s words or a newspaper article cannot.

Our punchbag sculpture uses humour to speak about something that is actually tragic. But the motif on the punchbag could be anything you fear in a simplistic way. It is there to help you take out your frustrations – in a healthier way than attacking other people. It should sit in the lobby of Westminster.

‘I like cities and people, not nationalities and borders’

Ron Arad, British-Israeli architect, artist and designer

Absence … the sitter-less seat by Ron Arad.

Absence … the sitter-less seat by Ron Arad. Photograph: Courtesy the artist

I was born in Tel Aviv, but I live and work in Europe. I don’t like nationalities. I like cities and people. I don’t like borders – and Brexit is all about borders. I teach at the Royal College of Art in London and I love it when my students return from working in Europe all fired up with new ideas. This won’t happen if they find it more difficult to travel.

For architects, freedom to travel is important. I’m about to go to Toronto for the launch of Safe Hands, a 31-metre tall cylindrical tower. I got an idea of what Brexit might be like when I was told that I couldn’t use Europeans to make it. I really moaned because I wanted to work with people I trusted. It was fine in the end because I found this little place in Toronto, run by a man and his dog, who made the stainless steel tower. It looks like it’s going to fall on you but it won’t. That’s why I called it Safe Hands. No, it’s not an ironic reference to Theresa May.

For this auction, I chose to donate a chair. It’s not just a chair but a sculpture, a negative impression of an invisible sitter, an everyman. The sitter could be Twiggy or Pavarotti. It’s named after my friend Antony Gormley, but spelled differently: Rod Gomli. When no one’s sitting on it, it just tilts up and points at the sky. I’ll miss it when it’s gone. But it will free some space in the studio, a negative of its presence.

The United Artists for Europe projectwill exhibit works by various figures at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 21-23 May; the pieces will be auctioned at Maison Assouline on 3 June, in aid of pro-Europe cultural causes. More details: artistsforeurope.org.

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