Second and final Wunderkammer road trip this week going up North through Birmingham, Yorkshire and Manchester. Our first stop on the map was Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which was the only institution we visited in Birmingham.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery first opened in 1885. It houses 40 galleries to explore that display art, applied art, social history, archaeology and ethnography including the largest public Pre-Raphaelite collection in the world.
We began our exploration in the Industrial Gallery, a focal point of interest and a snippet of the institution as a whole. The individual cabinets reinforce the gallery’s bold vision, “By the gains of Industry we promote art”, and powered by the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, who both had a huge influence on the artistic life of Birmingham. This vision was not simply to cultivate the aesthetic sensibilities of the working classes, but also to “make social relations and industrial design more harmonious”. If the founding of the National Gallery in London issued in the “institutionalisation of the arts”, this was intended to give art back to the people again. But this time it would be accessible not simply to the rich, who had previously been able to collect and display it for their private pleasure, but to the lower orders, to the benefit of society as a whole.
I was particularly interest in the curation of “Night in the Museum” by leading British artist Ryan Gander. As an artist, Gander is known for avoiding a recognisable style, preferring to work with many different materials to explore new approaches to art. For “Night in the Museum”, Gander has positioned a range of figurative sculptures so that they can gaze at artworks featuring the colour blue, a colour which is important in Gander’s work, and which for him represents the abstract ideas often found in modern and contemporary art. The figures contemplate a wide selection of post-war British art encompassing different styles and periods. In presenting works in this unusual way, Gander disrupts the role of the curator as a mediator between art and the public. He invites us to look beyond traditional themes and histories and to consider new narratives and relationships.
In a conceptual way, the two works become a single work. So, each pairing, when you look at them, you don’t look at the pairs individually anymore. They become a work of two parts, by two artists, by this forced proximity. It’s funny, the artist has their own themes and perspectives in the construction of the work, but when you put them together, they still have those themes and perspectives that the artist originally intended for them, but they take on another meaning in their pairings.
‘When I look at sculptures of the human figure I am frequently left thinking of all the things that they’ve seen. This is the world of the silent onlooker.’
Leaving the amazing hostel in Peak District nice and early and heading for another day of exploration and wonder. We stopped at The Hepworth Wakefield, an art gallery designed by British architect David Chipperfield inaugurated in 2011 making it the most modern institution we visited. Saying that, from its foundation in 1923, the original Wakefield Art Gallery adopted an ambitious collecting policy with a core aim to nurture an understanding of contemporary art. The art collection consists of over 5,000 works which includes a significant group of work by modern British artists, most notably, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore who were both born in the Wakefield district.
The Hepworth Family Gift is central to the gallery’s permanent collection and the purpose-built spaces offer a full exploration of the prototypes for the first time. Coming directly from the Barbara Hepworth Estate, the Gift illuminates the artist’s working methods and creativity. Consisting of a range of full size working models, including some surviving prototypes in plaster and aluminium made in preparation for the works in bronze Hepworth executed from the mid-1950s to the end of her career. It also includes drawings and a large group of lithographs and screen prints by Barbara Hepworth.
Provocative propositions when it comes to placement of work, specially when it comes to sculpture. Although a massive gallery space, the work is a bit cramped in such location as if in contrast it was placed on an outdoor setting, however the main purpose of this curation is for mere education by showing archived films, tools and materials within their social, political and working contexts.
In addition, we looked at the exhibition by the four artists shortlisted for the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture – Phyllida Barlow, Steven Claydon, Helen Marten and David Medalla. An art prize which aims to demystify contemporary sculpture, which Helen Martenand also elected for the Turner Prize won.
“The artist has a responsibility to communicate in a way that is egalitarian in a world that is increasingly hermetic – but that’s also the job of the institution and the curator. I love talking about my work – but I don’t want to do it in a forum that is a corrupted, dumbed-down version of my words. No one wants to be paraphrased to sound like an idiot because that’s accessible.”
Kettle’s Yard at the Hepwroth is a display that brings together over 100 works of art, ceramics, furniture and objects from Kettle’s Yard which was both a home to Jim Ede and a place in which housed one of the UK’s most significant collections of modern British and international art.
Dialogues about the relationship between art and the home, architecture and design are raised and these debates were also explored at the Wakefield Art Gallery, which was originally housed in two terraces in the city centre.Similarly to Kettle’s Yard, the majority of works in the Wakefield permanent art collection are domestic in scale and were acquired from contemporary artists, many of whom developed ongoing relationships with the gallery.
Artist Anthea Hamilton has created an installation made in response to the House and its collections. The careful arrangement of art and objects at Kettle’sYard by Jim Ede resonates with Hamilton’s own interests in the choreographing of space and objects. Her installations often resemble stage sets that engage visitors with imagined narratives incorporating references drawn from worlds of art, fashion, design and cinema.
Only 20 minutes away we stopped at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Being our second time this academic year, it definitely was a much better experience as the weather was great and we had a bit more time to explore the park which with a better understanding of it’s main purposes in terms of curation and their connotations.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park seeks to provide a centre of international, national and regional importance for the production, exhibition and appreciation of modern and contemporary sculpture. Many inspirational elements combine here to create a unique and exceptional balance of art, heritage, learning, space and landscape.
Beyond Boundaries: Art By Email, responding to an open call, artists across the Middle East and North Africa submitted artwork via email for inclusion in the exhibition. The artists were given the brief to not only share the realities of current situations in various countries such as Iran and Iraq but also the resilience, hope and creativity that thrives throughout the region, often despite the circumstances.
An abstract sculpture by the Iranian artist Sahand Hesamiyan, the instructions for which were submitted via email, were 3D printed during the exhibition. Interesting concepts which have been explored as well by our FabLab team.
James Turrell has created the skyspace within an 18th century Grade II listed building. Deer Shelter Skyspace does not disturb the tranquility of the site, but creates a place of contemplation and revelation, harnessing the changing light of the Yorkshire sky. The skyspace consists of a large square chamber with an aperture cut into the roof. Through this aperture the visitor is offered a heightened vision of the sky.Final day of our trip and we headed to Manchester. First stop being Manchester Museum, a museum displaying works of archaeology, anthropology and natural history and is owned by the University of Manchester. Sited at the heart of the university’s group of neo-Gothic buildings, it provides access to about 4.5 million items from every continent. It is the UK’s largest university museum and serves both as a major visitor attraction and as a resource for academic research and teaching.
Moving into the much-anticipated Whitworth Art Gallery was such a pleasant surprise. Often museum reflect upon the times and historical context of their cities, however, the Whitworth felt much alleviated from that. Not being bombarded by artefacts after artefacts. With the contemporary expansion just in 2015 this institution has a modern aesthetic which focuses on modern artists but also houses a notable collection of watercolours, sculptures, wallpapers and textiles.
A glimpse of the people behind the collections, the artists, collectors and individuals who shaped the Whitworth its an intriguing curation of portraits which then, is a portrait overall. Like many of the artworks on display, it is a sketch of a particular moment, from a particular perspective. It is an intimate picture that hints at the complexity of its subject.
Andy Warhol shows the sharp critical opinions of an artist known to many primarily as art salesman, purveyor of product and celebrant of capitalism. Focusing on themes of death, politics and identity it presents audiences with Warhol’s reading of the American Dream at a time when the country is under continued scrutiny following the 2016 US Presidential election.
Final stop of our adventure was the Manchester Art Gallery. With a combination of contemporary and historical work blended together fitted within their contexts, reflecting the landscapes, its times, social, economical, cultural and political identity for which Manchester is portrayed.
I was especially intrigued by the photography exhibition curated by the iconic British photographer Martin Parr, Strange and Familiar which considers how international photographers from the 1930s onwards have captured the social, cultural and political identity of the UK. Especially in reflection to Brexit and pondering how British culture is portrayed from an outsider and if that has an effect with its identity.
From social documentary and portraiture to street and architectural photography, the exhibition celebrates the work of leading photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rineke Dijkstra, and Garry Winogrand. Bringing together over 250 compelling photographs and previously unseen bodies of work, Strange and Familiar presents a vibrant portrait of modern Britain.
Can’t believe how fast these two weeks has gone but it has been such a valuable experience. It was a great opportunity to engage with and reflect upon my engagement and encounters with artifacts, their curation and the contexts that I experienced within these institutions. I will be taking a little break from visiting museums for a while. Joking aside, with such an immersive experience it can be at time overwhelming however, it has taught me how to come abouts to explore museums and galleries. Some key aspects surrounding how objects and work is currated has been playing around my head and these aspects are at the core of how I view, create and curate work of my own.