This show in a calm space – the parish hall of St Saviour’s – with soft light from high windows and honest, clean-swept floorboards is in a good place for an ethical purpose. A double row of portraits, professionally lit, a little like passport photographs but with black backgrounds and allowing the sitters to smile (the objective is not mere identification) is just above eye level. Just below are three lines of cards: a black row, a white row and a grey one, each carrying a few sentences about identity, national or otherwise. Of course you immediately try to match the cards with the portraits – but it’s not possible. There is much more here than first seems. Some comments are of people very much tied up in nationality, others write about universal humanity – again we are so programmed to make categories, even if we cannot link words to faces (dress would have been a give-away): but the colours of the cards are another gently mocking distraction and have no relation to any shades of opinion.
The artist Monika Fischbein explained that the participants were approached at random (possibly on the street, if this was understood correctly) and that having agreed to have their photo taken, they completed a survey of ambiguous questions about how their national identity affects their lives and impacts their overall sense of self. She said many people traced it back to such things as their name and their childhood – language and memory being some of identity’s most basic foundations. The intention is to take a ‘slice’ (she used this word rather than the more superficial ‘sample’) in different cities, and perhaps later should the project be extended, in other countries in Europe, to compare – though this risks falling into the same trap.
Again the first impression of another worthy attempt to monitor signs of the worsening times is wrong. This is an artwork, more truthful than all the pseudo-scientific polls determined by algorithms that isolate quantifiable causes and points out culprits. It separates out the webs binding society that have become in places so tangled through adopting a form – the unassigned cards, the portraits ranged across the wall like members of a parliament or generals in a famous war; that so is clear and rational, but on a subject that reveals both the darkest of impulses and the finest of hopes for peaceful coexistence.