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Flying the Flag

In advance of his Flag of Convenience photo exhibition, David Dunnico tells us about flag-waving, patriotic postcards and his travels in search of subject matter.

4 Dunnico Flags Big House Big Flag
David Dunnico

Colourful and innocent on the face of it, yet layered with several strata of human-made symbolism, flags are all around us, from political rallies and sporting fixtures to front gardens and on the moon.

These pieces of cloth are the basis for an exhibition of David Dunnico’s photography at Stockport Art Gallery, Flag of Convenience.

In advance of the exhibition, David spoke to us about flag-waving, patriotic postcards and his travels in search of subject matter.

How did you arrive at the theme for your latest exhibition?

I’ve written and made videos about the Stars and Stripes, particularly how it’s inspired artists from Jasper Johns to Barbara Kruger and been used forever by American politicians to patriotically gag criticism.

I watched British politicians like Gordon Brown try to do something similar with his ‘British Day’ and Armed Forces Day. Neither of which saved New Labour from the electoral fallout after Tony Blair followed George W Bush into Iraq and the death of Cool Britannia.

Ironically, waving flags and making a song and dance about where your mother happened to be living when she had you, seems a fairly ‘un-British’ thing to do.

I can’t take any credit for the apparent prescience of the subject matter – Brexit wasn’t a twinkle in David Cameron’s eye when I was photographing Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France.

Where has your research for the exhibition taken you?

You can’t take photographs sat at home, and you don’t see the Union Jack flown everywhere, all the time, like the Stars and Stripes is in America, so you have to go and find them.

Actually, I did end up spending time at home on eBay buying patriotic propaganda postcards. Some of these are in the exhibition to put my own photographs in a social and historical context.

I also went from Orange Order Parades in Southport to Gay Pride Parades in Manchester, and to sporting events, including my first ever football match (England v Scotland at Wembley). But if you want to learn about flags and nationalism in Britain, you go to Northern Ireland. Incidentally, Belfast City Hall, the focus for arguments about what flag flies over it, is almost exactly the same as Stockport Town Hall. Going to Northern Ireland also makes you understand the implications of Brexit – talking of which, I spent my honeymoon in Pontefract looking for Nigel Farage’s ‘Gammon-ball run’ bus. Thankfully, I’d finished shooting by the time Tommy Robinson arrived in Manchester.

How would you explain the attraction of the flag in its various forms?

One of the most interesting things about national flags is how a piece of coloured cloth can be made to mean so much, much of it contradictory and most of it made up and projected onto it by whoever’s trying to hide underneath it.

The Union Jack isn’t the same thing as a sign saying “United Kingdom”. It’s seen through 200 years of sometimes inglorious history.

But it clearly shows some of that history by sticking together the flags of three of the four countries that make up the UK (sorry, Wales). And it looks great as a piece of graphic design!

Some of the flags in my photographs are printed on people’s clothing. The Union Jack has another life as a fashion item – sometimes purely as a pattern, not a national flag. It was apparently big in Cuba in 2013. When I went in 2016, the Apple logo was bigger – not iPhones, just the Apple logo.

Do you feel flags can be separated from the right wing?

Sometimes, but only for some of the time. The way people saw the Union Jack during the London Olympics was different to how they see it during Brexit.

Ideologies that use nationalism often crudely use existing national symbols and mythologies – or borrow from others. In Northern Ireland, 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Protestant Loyalists have appropriated the Israeli Star of David flag and remembrance poppies, while Republicans paint Palestinian and post-Apartheid South African flags on murals to portray their fight in the light of an independence struggle.

What has it been like for you to work with Stockport Art Gallery? How does the venue help to fly the flag for art and culture in Stockport?

It’s the second time I’ve had an exhibition here. It’s unique in being the only art gallery in the world that was conceived and built as a war memorial, so the building itself adds to what I’m showing.

Like every other local authority gallery or museum, they could do with more funding, but they do a lot with what they get. Small galleries and pop up exhibitions are great, but a town that doesn’t keep a grand commitment to art in bricks and mortar (well, Portland stone) is hastening their cultural decline.

Learn more

Flag of Convenience runs from 25 May to 28 June at Stockport Art Gallery. David will be giving a tour of the exhibition on Saturday 1 June, 2pm-4pm.

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