Collecting Europe On the streets, the confidence is fading
London was always open to the world, but today, more and more of the British are closing themselves off. It’s as if dreams of a borderless Europe and diversity are only possible in museums.
Oops! In between exquisite fourteenth century objets d’art, a young woman is lying on the carpet. The sight doesn’t quite fit in here among the tidy glass cases and museum guards of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The woman is wearing sneakers and tracksuit trousers, has stretched out her arms and legs and is staring intently at the ceiling of the grand Victorian building.
Snippets from old Bollywood films flicker over Jasleen Kaur’s head there in an endless loop. Some of them are videos from her father’s collection and the carpet came from his shop. Personal items from Kaur’s parental home are her contribution to Collecting Europe, an exhibition whose subject matter did not really speak to her at first. Although Europe’s present and future are being discussed no end right now, the everyday life of a Scot of Indian origin living in London might go beyond the boundaries of the concept of Europe.
“I am Indian, Punjabi, Scot and Sikh,” says Kaur. Her great-grandfather came to Glasgow with plenty of the colonial past in his baggage. He attempted to adapt with a paddy cap and polished accent, but never felt at home. Today, Kaur’s parents celebrate their Indian heritage but are still not a matter-of-fact part of Scottish life. The artist herself feels at home in Glasgow where she spent her youth as well as London where she works.
Europe with no good curries
But she does not have much of a relationship to political Europe. This Europe has shaped a world image that Kaur finds problematic: the image of the ever-powerful West and the postcolonial stragglers. In the V&A, Kaur is therefore deliberately playing with perspectives on the common past. She shows Indians dancing in front of alpine scenery and under Big Ben, and the glorified representation of a Europe that so many people yearn for. And in the end, she turns the tables: the Bollywood perspective makes Europe an exotic backdrop.
A few rooms further on, the Taiwanese artist Tu-Wei Cheng rolled Eiffel Tower key chains and English custard moulds in clay and takes pleasure when visitors discover his cultural clichés. One floor up, Raqs Media Collective shudder at a “faraging, lepenning and erdoganing” nightmare, a political bubble full of “brexit holes” and “grexit perforations” and Europe with no good curries.
Secret knock to the Jewish Orthodox bakery
I attempt to find my way through clay plates, wall tapestries and Europe, but can hardly remember. It seems as if every corner and showcase has been shifted since the days I worked at the V&A as a student. On the streets, much remains the same: Indian alongside Chinese alongside Lebanese, red busses, crowded undergrounds and people who greet me at the supermarket till as “sweetheart.”
And yet...The London I lived in in the late 1990s seemed more confident. Back then, I sat on the bus for the first time next to other black people, next to Muslims, Jews and cockneys. For the first time, in spite of my German accent, no one asked me where I came from. The neighbours never thought they were too good to play pool with us at the pub. They told us about the secret knock to the Jewish Orthodox bakery and chatted at the newsstand about Hanif Kureishi’s latest book. Our student privileges had little to do with their everyday lives and yet they got along with us and each other. For in between Enoch Powell, anti-terror alliances and the Brexit, there were times when it seemed possible. Even then, the world was confusing, but perhaps not as many people insisted on always giving the blame to others.
While anti-Trump demonstrators pour past me with their banners in Finsbury Park, I wonder what will be left of this London in future. This London, which is now swimming against the populist trend with Sadiq Khan, in which isolationist reflexes and slogans against “the others” are getting louder.
Shortly after the Brexit referendum, Jasleen Kaur was accosted in London because of her skin colour. “I come from a pretty white Scottish working class neighbourhood,” she says, while laughing Indians are dancing on the Tower Bridge. “Nothing like this ever happened to me there.” A member of the staff of the Goethe-Institut, which is organising the V&S exhibition, has also usually experienced the British as friendly until recently when someone barked at her that she was riding her bike on the wrong side of the street and that she, with her German accent, ought to piss off.
Anecdotes like these may not provide a reliable picture of mood, but we cannot ignore the fact that people of all different origins now feel uncomfortable in many places in Europe. Behind the security barriers at the museum, the children of Indian performers and Italian filmmakers are running about to issue European passports for their cuddly toys. Artists dream of a metro line between Calcutta and Cologne with a stopover in Kabul and a virtual Europe without borders. Playful, naive reveries? Perhaps. But in such visions lies no less than the desire for alternatives to isolationism. Work like Kaur’s in particular demonstrates how little the ever-narrower definitions of belonging are actually taking hold.
Prayers and whiskey
She would like to show her parents the installation, but they are rarely found in their daughter’s art world. They were reluctant to attend her graduation at the Royal College of Art, but they liked the mobile Indian teacart their daughter had set up to hand out beverages according to her grandmother’s recipe. “I know my parents don’t feel comfortable in the classic art gallery setting,” says Kaur. Nevertheless, she wants to reach them with her work. Her art is very much characterised by the relationship between her parental home and her geographical home; her love of Scottish cèilidh dancing and Indian raqs songs, the fact that she prays three times a day yet stops by the pub for a whiskey.
Kaur is familiar with the carpet from her latest installation from her childhood. She often sat on it in the temple. It is what they call an Axminster model: produced in England with Turkish designs. “We spent hours on it, praying and eating. They’re incredibly practical: the turmeric from our curry blends in so perfectly with its colourful patterns.”
Well, if that’s not a picture of modern Europe, I don’t know what is.
By Elisabeth Wellershaus
The article was published on 22 February by ZEIT Online.