As Britain’s Self-Loathing Olympics head towards their Closing Ceremony, the country’s favourite documenter of our endlessly conflicted national identity lands at the NPG. This is not a coincidence. Since the referendum result in 2016, photographer Martin Parr has been pointing his lens at various aspects of the nation to investigate, in his word, ‘Brexitness’. That’s the background to this show, but the result is more of a latter-career retrospective. Along with the Brexit images, there are celeb portraits, weird self-portraits, portraits of groups of people doing stuff (bog-snorkelling, Indian dancing) that Parr made for the BBC, a merch shop and a caff where you can have a cuppa and a piece of battenberg cake. One room has a disco ball and a pub carpet in it. Another has astroturf on the floor. To be honest, it’s all a bit of a mess, but then so is the UK right now, so maybe it’s fitting.
Parr has always been a keen observer of the contradictions of being a person and how those contradictions are magnified and distorted by also being a person of a certain age, gender, race or class, then magnified and distorted out of all recognition by the idea of nationhood. So Brexit is very much business as usual for him. There are St George’s flags, people watching the royal wedding, florid toffs at the test match, tattoos, Carnival mas-paraders and plucky pensioners. The cumulative effect is a kind of Parr-land (which wouldn’t be a bad shout for Margate or Herne Bay or somewhere), populated by sort-of pantomime stereotypes who are also actual, real people. It’s a good trick. Parr is one of those photographers who makes you see things like he does. Suddenly things look ‘very Martin Parr’: glum or gaudy or a bit shoddy or apparently trapped in time. If this show lost some of its gimmicks, it would have a clear message about how the seeds of Brexit have been germinating all around us, all of our lives. But I suspect the daft gimmicks have a purpose, as a metaphor for distraction and complication. Parr probes at the contradictions of Brexit. People don’t always want a clear message: they want to be entertained and to be allowed to believe what they want to believe, however silly or crass or counter-intuitive. To be human.