CASE STUDY
Mimsy / Isis Threaten Sylvania
15 May 2019
BY JULIA FARRINGTON

Name of Art Work: Isis Threaten Sylvania
Artist/s: Mimsy
Date: August – September 2015
Venue: The Mall Galleries as part of Passion for Freedom’s September exhibition of artworks exploring ideas of Freedom
Brief description of the artwork/project: ‘Isis Threaten Sylvania’ is a satirical series of light box tableaux, using the children’s toys ‘Sylvanian Families’. The toys are featured at picnics, on the beach and at school, threatened by more of the toy animals dressed up as members of Isis in the background. They had previously been exhibited without incident at ART15 global art fair. Passion for Freedom, who, since 2009, have mounted an annual competition and exhibition celebrating freedom of expression, hired the Mall Gallery for the exhibition.

Isis Threaten Sylvania, Mimsy
Isis Threaten Sylvania, Mimsy

Why was it challenged?

Stoned, Tasleem Mulhall
Stoned, Tasleem Mulhall

The police identify “serious concerns” regarding the “potentially inflammatory content” of Mimsy’s work and outline a number of security measures that need to be taken. The curators asked for more information about these concerns, especially if they relate to any threat to Mimsy herself.  No more information was given by the police. In a meeting with Passion for Freedom, gallery management tells the curators Passion for Freedom that Mimsy’s work is not real art; also that Tasleem Mulhall’sStoned’ is one of several works being reviewed by the gallery to establish whether or not it is appropriate.

Mall Galleries specify that the additional police security will carry costs to be charged to the artist and would amount to £6000 per day – or £36000 for the week.  Passion for Freedom are also reminded that, contractually,  whether or not they want to pay for the police to provide security, the Mall Galleries has the right to withdraw from the contract if they feel artworks are inappropriate.

What action was taken?

Passion for Freedom decide that, as they cannot afford the additional costs, they will not include Isis Threaten Sylvania in their exhibition. The curators issued the following statement to the gallery: “Taking into consideration the fact that if MIMSY’s artwork is going to be exhibited at Mall galleries, Passion for Freedom will be billed £6000 per day for providing security to all staff and public throughout the opening time (£36000 per week) and the paragraph 4.a. in our contract (the right of the gallery to request an artwork/s to be removed if necessary) unfortunately we are unable to show this artwork.”  The gallery still requests that there is some additional security, the costs of which are charged to Passion for Freedom. The removal of the artwork receives some criticism in the media.  

What happened next?

Mimsy and Passion for Freedom organisers print 5000 copies of cards with an image of Mimsy’s work and an explanation of the situation. They call this: “Entartete Kunst” which means “Degenerate Art”, and refers to the Nazi treatment of art that was not in the service of the Nazi propaganda machine. They distribute these to the guests leaving the gallery. They also place an advert in Standpoint Magazine, informing the public what had happened.  Neither the police nor the gallery took any further action. One year later Channel 4 holds a pop-up exhibition of ISIS Threaten Sylvannia hosted by Trevor Phillips at Gillett Square in Dalston. There were no incidents.

Refections

In an interview with Agnieszka Kolek, in the lead up to Passion for Freedom’s 2018 show, Julia Farrington asked how the experiences of 2015 impacted on how her approach to this year’s exhibition.

The commitment and the conviction are still there. But we are not clear where we stand, because there is no clear definition of what is appropriate or what is inflammatory. It is a shifting ground. In the past, we created the space to fully exhibit work that had been censored elsewhere by a curator or a gallery owner. Now we are in the situation where the state, through the arm of the police, imposes this pre-emptive self-censorship on you. Since the censorship incident, we cannot guarantee artists that they will be able to exhibit/perform during a festival talking about freedom. Over the years there has been a number of artists who requested to be exhibited under pseudonyms (as often their lives are threatened in the UK or back in their home countries). Can we guarantee that the police will not arrest them? Until now, we could guarantee it to them. Since 2015 we are not sure that is the case. My approach is not to have any preconceived idea of how it will go with the police this time. We will still try to be open and have a dialogue in the belief that the police are still there to protect us and it is still a democratic country. I will be honest – we are also treating it as a kind of testing ground. Let’s see if this is still a democratic country or is it just on paper?

The artistic community in the United States and Australia is shocked by the police’s censorious attitude to arts in London. There are groups of people who decided to open Passion for Freedom branch offices in New York and Sydney to ensure that British censorship is being exposed. And in case freedom is completely extinguished in the UK they can continue the important work to give artists the platform to exhibit their works and debate important issues in our societies. And if we discover that there is even less freedom than in 2015, we are considering moving this exhibition to Poland because there is more freedom there. This is on the cards, we are already discussing it.

Passion for Freedom took place at Royal Opera Arcade Gallery & La Galleria Pall Mall, London October 2018.

Miriam Elia aka ‘Mimsy’

Claire Armistead of the Guardian had been writing about the ‘lady bird thing’ [the ‘Peter and Jane go to the Gallery’ written with her brother Ezra, which earned them a legal letter from Penguin “for breach of copyright”]. She asked me if I was doing anything else. So I told her how my piece ‘ISIS threaten Sylvannia’ had been removed from the ‘Passion from Freedom’ exhibition – I showed her the police letters and images of the Sylvannia piece.  She wanted to write about it and asked if she could and if she should use my name. I was a bit scared actually. I didn’t make it with any idea that it would impact in anyway, and I knew what had happened to Agnieszka [survivor of the terrorist attack in Copenhagen]. I was planning a family at the time, so I said ‘let’s just keep quiet about it – I’ll call myself Mim or something’. But it’s a good job that I did, because it went viral, and all the newspapers were talking about it, the BBC was talking about it and it was on Russian news. I thought it was hilarious. But what you think is funny, someone else will kill you for it, doesn’t mean you’re not going to do it.   Nobody knew it was me except perhaps my mum and a handful of people. It was only because I had a connection with someone in the media that it came out at all – this sort of thing is probably happening a lot and you just get on with it.

But at the same time I felt the work hadn’t really been finished. I am not happy with a piece of work that only exists virtually or in the news. I made a book out of it and it into an artwork.  People were sharing it they didn’t know it was me. Then there was this Channel 4 thing. They showed it in a pop up gallery. Trevor Philips was really behind it and he asked people who came in to the gallery if they thought this was offensive and everyone said they thought it was really funny.

It’s odd that the police can get involved isn’t it? It means that the people who are threatening you are winning. [The police] are cowards, they should be standing up for the people taking the mickey, and they say no no no but you’re triggering them. That was what was scary, the idea that now you have no protection.  If you want to do this then on your own head be it. That’s a really bad sign.

You’re not allowed to cause offence.  It’s so demented. I think offence is part of freedom, not killing people, or inciting people to violence but taking the piss out of each other is normal.

I am anti-identity politics.My latest book is ‘Piggy Goes to University’. This pig that is guilt tripped into thinking that he is the reason that everything is wrong in the world and that’s the basis of his moral compass – pig privilege it’s a huge send up of identity politics.  This pig is motivated by this need for a completely kind world, where no one offends anyone. It’s basically animal farm but brought up to date in the university campus, he ends up assaulting everybody and shutting everybody down, bullying people basically, based on what they look like. Identity politics is an ideology, it’s like a religion, it doesn’t make sense. It’s totalitarian and it’s time they come under attack as in satire, not censorship. It’s a huge power.

I was in the Synogogue for Yom Kippur and the Rabbi said that this was the opportunity for apologising for your sins – so if you have hurt someone, or offended them this is the chance to say sorry.  So I put my hand up and said it says in the prayer book to apologise for killing someone, or stealing. My job is to be a satirist. Am I meant to apologise for satirising stuff – we go to the gallery might offend conceptual artists and they might cry – grow up!! The message is stop making satire or any kind of parody – politics is going into religion into everything. He couldn’t answer- and everyone was shocked at what I said.  England is so good for its history of satire and poking fun at things, to lose this just for all this ideological pap.

Julia Farrington

Julia Farrington is an associate arts producer at Index on Censorship
Julia Farrington

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