A giant penis, scored out on a Southampton school playing-field in weedkiller, was (until recently) visible from space; a schoolboy prank perfect for the Caravan Gallery’s mobile exhibition of snapshot Britain, had it been observable from the ground.
For this is one grounded, if sociologically distilled, record of human marks upon the social landscape, whether small acts of resistance or fleeting glimpses of everyday oddness; garden gnomes flashing open their macs in Mevagissey, Hells Angels mingling with grannies at a Fratton fete, a dog peeing against a woman’s leg at a Southsea fair.
Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale have spent six years travelling the UK in their Caravan Gallery, anthropologists of the ordinary, conducting participant observation of the fraying edges of culture as it rubs against society’s margins. “Please don’t be shocked by the price of antiques as you stand in your £150 trainers that are six months away from the bin”, reads one hand-written note tacked up to a Cornish shop-front.
You quickly gain a sense of being a tourist in your own country. Liverpool is not prefigured as 2008’s European Capital of Culture but as the home of dancing musical bears; Cambridge is pictured as a giant knick-knack shelf of brightly packaged loo rolls. The British landscape becomes a curiously awkward mix of the nostalgic and futuristic: national identity symbolically replaced by retail warehouses, car parks, grey spaces in which nothing happens.
But the grey spaces have always co-existed alongside the Union Jack, seaside pier, caravan park, football match kick-out. The British have always picnicked in car parks, stripped off to sunbathe in less-than-picturesque places. These cultural quirks just stand out when brought into sharp relief with the architecture of consumer culture. Social identity becomes exaggerated when under threat; and it’s that impacted Britishness which here rears into view.
This is not purely an exercise in looking; though derivative of Parr or Power, Williams and Teasdale emphasise compassion over mere observation, foreground empathy rather than reportage, comic humour, not irony. They recreate dated snapshots of the bygone and overlooked, visual relics of local pageants and community spirit, addressing what remains of street culture and public spaces.
Williams and Teasdale flag up the individuality and eccentricity, the sheer weirdness that’s an integral part of what makes Britain great, restituting the home-spun, the kooky, the down-at-heel and downright peculiar. Images that are familiar and yet disturbing; funny but melancholic. These are the postcards you’d send if you could find them. Now you know where to look.