Welcome to England’s most misunderstood county, ”read the sign in the foyer of Firstsite, Colchester’s elegant arts center. No prizes for guessing what county it might be. The answer is (and always has been) Essex. Mocked and slandered for generations, he has been the butt of snobbish scolding for as long as we can remember. But now the tide has turned. The people of Essex have always been very proud of their homeland, and now they are taking those elitist sneers and turning them to their advantage. There is an extra bluster in Essex these days, a self-confidence that other counties lack. And the latest sign of that self-confidence is this new exhibit, Welcome to Essex, by artist Michael Landy.
“You could look at this exhibit and think, ‘Oh, Michael Landy hates Essex,’” he said, showing me around the exhibit. “I’m not saying that at all. Rather, his exhibit is a celebration of a place so often seen as a place forgotten by good taste – “an easy target for lazy journalists,” as Landy puts it. Welcome to the Essex polls that laze journalism and reveals the more complex truth below. For Landy, this is the “demonization of the working class” but it is a demonization that is motivated by unease. Essex’s crude commercialism, its unwillingness to care about its manners, has always been a threat to the metropolitan status quo.
Landy grew up in Ilford, which was once part of Essex but is now part of London (however, like much of that east London hinterland, he retains his Essex identity to this day). One of the young British artists who broke through the 1990s, he is probably best known for Breakdown (2000-2001) in which he cataloged and then destroyed everything he owned. Ironically, he has now turned his attention to a county commonly associated with conspicuous consumption. Welcome to Essex shows how Essex has been portrayed in the media over the past 30 years, and how that public image has changed, from sexist “Essex Girl” jokes to ambitious shows like The only way is Essex (Towie star Amy Childs is Michael’s cousin). “By reading all the headlines, you start to make a picture of yourself,” he says. It’s a picture of caricature and condescension, but Essex had the last laugh.