Only Human at the National Portrait Gallery brings Britishness into sharp relief at a crucial crossroads in the nation’s relationship with the rest of the world. When the exhibition was conceived, the Brexit vote was yet to happen, but Parr was not going to let such an important moment pass without taking the chance to explore identity and nationhood, which he does most effectively using water as a metaphor.
Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Image: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery
On a sandy beach in Cornwall, swimmers look out to sea, towards foreign shores. But no one is taking the plunge. To one side a red flag indicates danger. This is how so many Britons feel about the world beyond our shores, about the perceived threats that lie across the sea. While examining both sides, Parr is vocal about being a Remainer and so perfectly captures the feeling of jumping into the unknown that comes with leaving the EU. A line of swimmers queue to plunge into dark, icy waters, and, as onlookers, we can’t help but wonder why.
Although politics is a theme throughout this show, this is by no means a wholly serious exhibition. In a room that celebrates dance, Parr captures the very moment music strips away our inhibitions. Hanging above the photographs of Gay Pride celebrations, ballroom dancers and a Sikh family celebrating a wedding, a disco ball turns from the ceiling, casting its glittering light across the room. Look out, too, for the basketball court and artificial turf floors, not to mention the bunting.
Arguably one of the most unusual features of this exhibition is the cafe, designed to resemble a greasy spoon. But this is not a prop. If you are feeling in need of refreshment, there will be cakes, tea and beer on offer, all chosen by Parr himself, who has put his own stamp on everything here.
Not unlike Grayson Perry (a family portrait of the Perrys hangs in a room named Celebrity), Parr is an excellent and mischievous self-promoter. There is a cabinet of 'historical' merchandise, with his name and face printed on cigars, colouring books and coasters, and also a bargain basement gift shop with tea towels and beach balls galore. You can even buy flip-flops with Parr’s image on them.
(Detail) Online Dating Profile Picture, Hey Saturday, London, England, 2016. Image: Courtesy Saskia Nelson, Hey Saturday
There is something very Grayson Perry about the room of fotoesculturas (photo sculptures), too, although Parr does not take himself as seriously. Inspired by a Mexican tradition, he commissioned Bruno Eslava, one of the few to still practice the art, to make carved figures, each incorporating a photographic portrait. There are over a dozen of these miniature Parrs, and it is clear that this photographer takes a great deal of joy in poking fun at himself.
This is an exhibition that celebrates eccentricity, not least the eccentricities of Parr himself. Curator Phillip Prodger and the National Portrait Gallery’s design team have worked closely with the photographer to bring this show to life, to colour the walls, bring out the bunting and design the merchandise. But there is so much more than photography on offer. This exhibition is an experience and will resonate differently with every visitor.
|What||Review: Only Human: Photographs by Martin Parr, National Portrait Gallery|
|Where||National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2H 0HE | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Green Park (underground)|
07 Mar 19 – 27 May 19, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Please click here for more information|