Varvara & Mar: Chameleon
by Steph Wong Ken
A large white flag is suspended from the gallery wall, embedded with LEDs connected to a motion sensor, which responds to the movement of visitors, layering the colours, shapes and designs of the flags of different countries on top of one another at random. Entitled Camaleón, the multimedia work is the centrepiece of Chameleon (2016) by Varvara & Mar at The New Gallery. By titling the show with the anglicized version of its central work, Varvara & Mar immediately begin by pointing at the themes of language, identity and belonging that underpin the show as a whole. The flag’s size and technicoloured light draw attention from the street and fill the space, cycling through the symbols we are so used to seeing displayed in government buildings, hanging in stadiums and dangling from railings at bars. Here, the flags continually morph to create the ultimate national mashup, a free-for-all where countries blend together in ways they may never on the world stage. Shown partially complete and partially overlapping, the ephemeral flags are both arbitrary and decorative, stripped of the power they hold displayed on their own.
The piece, which is one of four large-scale works that compose the show, incorporates all of Varvara & Mar’s preferred media: light, technology, kinetics, visitor interaction and textiles. As artists with (self-identified) complicated citizenships, the duo has created a show that reflects their own unease with fixed identity, examining the fraught relationship between belonging and nationhood. When you don’t feel like you belong to one country, where does that leave you? Chameleon operates in this grey space, with Varvara & Mar manipulating the colours, shapes and symbols of nationalism to question our attachments to them. What is a nation, after all, without its flag, and why do so many citizens continue to hold the flag so sacred?
If Camaleón guides the show with its playful and seemingly innocuous light display, One Flag Every Day (2018) makes a more pointed jab at the dominance of certain nations over others. Created with software that generates new flags by merging the designs of the countries most referred to on Google News, each flag is a hybrid of top-down, tiered power. Mounted on small sticks and lined up in rows, the flags reflect the mainstream media cycle. It comes as no surprise, then, that stars and stripes show up most frequently while the emblems of developing nations are missing from the display, their significant news events apparently ignored or passed over. The effect is a perversity of symbols that create a new, unsettling context for emblems so often pledged allegiance with patriotic devotion.
As artists living and working in Europe, Varvara & Mar would be remiss not to include a piece about Brexit in a show on nationhood and identity. Who is the Next? (2016) is a device that cycles through the abbreviated two-letter combinations of all European countries next to a bright red EXIT sign, implying that the countries could leave (or be expelled from) the European Union at any moment, and at random. As the letters rotate from country to country, the panels clacking like a Rolodex, new borders—which would drastically affect the lives of millions of citizens—are briefly created. By presenting every possible answer to who’s next, the piece creates a sense of anxiety toward border lines and the stability of a once-unified Europe. Underlying this critique of Brexit is the question of whether a unified approach to nationhood is even possible with the rise of extreme nationalism and the danger and violence it can harbour. Depending on which citizen you ask, and what the state decides, the borders between countries can be incredibly powerful, or meaningless.
The cynical high point of the show is the final piece, Democracy (2017), an installation of 20 gold cats—maneki-neko, Japanese lucky charms traditionally positioned in a special place in a household—holding police batons in their paws, standing at attention in front of a megaphone. Varvara & Mar reimagine the charms as identical soldiers that represent no longer the prospect of luck, but conformity. In yet another interactive flourish, when a visitor says the word “democracy” (or a translation of it in a different language), the cats swing their batons in unison. Though there is instant pleasure in their response, the juxtaposition of the word “democracy” with the reaction to move together in mechanical agreement suggests a hollow, dangerously superficial understanding of the word. In addition to highlighting a citizenry’s potential for violence, both physical and ideological, the work, in isolating the word “democracy,” also cautions against the institutional framing of the term— often, as mere lip service.
Taken as a whole, the show raises startling questions about the sacredness of national identity, and suggests there are deeper threats behind a blind embrace of nationalism. Though the term “chameleon” can imply changeability, it can also mean a creature living by itself, forced to blend in as part of its natural instinct, as a way to survive. With the works in Chameleon, Vavara & Mar urge us to look more closely at that instinct to blend in to survive, and consider what we risk losing when we do.