There is a palpable sense of excitement in Birmingham about the growth and vitality of its art scene, and a new project space in Digbeth supporting the work of young artists has announced its arrival with The Passage. This group exhibition of works by twenty artists studying at the School of Art at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design is an ambitious display that makes use of the eccentricities of The Arches Project site, a former industrial workshop space comprised of three bays with corrugated iron roofs, rough-bricked walls and a concrete floor.
The exhibition is without theme and instead shows a variety of works on paper, video, sculpture, photography and painting from artists whose career is in development or transition, as the title suggests. Works by Ingrid Idunn, Nadine Paige Reilly and Antonio Fernandez explore aspects of ecology, gendered identity and religion respectively. The concerns of the artists here are wide-ranging and critically engaged.
Some of the most intriguing pieces on display, however, are a series of sculptural works by Jack Marder which draw on the more sexual and sensual references implied by the exhibition’s title. Making use of the theatricality of a concrete stage-like structure, several works from his Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) series are shown on floor and wall. In one, thick smears of pastel coloured paint cover a glossy plastic disk and a spoon protrudes from a chewed up lump of expanding foam. Another is a plate sized ring of pink and white marshmallows. His flamboyant use of colour, material and subject stands in stark contrast to the industrial aesthetics of the gallery space and his most striking piece is a wall-mounted rubber paddling pool, wrinkled and painted a fleshy tone to resemble huge female genitalia. Inside, are melted sweets, layers of crusted red latex and other objects that combine the bodily with the edible. Spilling from the top of the sculpture onto the floor is a stream of sparkling pink metallic strands, of the kind used in cheerleading pompoms: a charmingly effervescent explosion of excitement.
The fleshy rubber of Marder’s paddling pool is echoed in an adjacent work by Frederick Hubble called Doldrums. In this, a weather balloon was inflated just enough to allow it to bob about the space while tethered to a clock pendulum. When I saw the sculpture, some of the helium had escaped and the balloon lay in a more melancholic position, half-collapsed on the floor and patched with white tape. What began as a buoyant and mobile idea is neatly transformed into something more complex, stronger and more real. Hubble also shows a series of photographs made in the Dolomites which seem to show a snow covered mountain melting into one small drain. There is something poetic and tragic in these images, and on the day I visited, heavy rain had left small rivulets of water across the floor of The Arches Project in a serendipitous echoing of work and space.
A similar symbiosis can be seen in David Poole’s video installation. This consists of wooden frames and cardboard struts which form a sculptural backdrop for a projection of Buster Keaton’s One Week. Keaton tries to assemble a life-sized flat-pack house in the film, and Poole’s work here eloquently brings together domestic and industrial architectures framed within an archway. In Poole’s filmic intervention, repeated fragments of the film show characters trapped in the same short frame again and again. The rhythm of the work is enhanced by a nearby dripping drain pipe, inadvertently incorporating the ambient sounds of the space into the work itself.
Without a thematic framework, The Passage can at times be difficult to navigate. Certain works outshine others, but there is huge potential here. The exhibition has been conceived and delivered with great energy and enthusiasm, and the fledging The Arches Project offers an alternative site, something with more freedom and dynamism, perhaps, than a typical white-cube space. The Arches Project is a very welcome new addition to Birmingham’s artistic community and retaining ambitious artists such as these within the city after graduation must be a priority.
The Arches Project
With thanks to Rob Crook for the installation photographs