Curated by Ruth Claxton and Gavin Wade, ‘Birmingham Show’ at Eastside Projects proposes three specific questions as starting points from which to explore art produced by those with a connection to the city – ‘What is the art of Birmingham?’ ‘Is there an accent to Birmingham’s art making?’ and ‘How is Birmingham useful for the production of art?’ These tongue-in-cheek questions are invitations to explore the work of artists who were born in the city, have studied or worked here or base themselves here now; to uncover what might connect them as artists who have passed through and been shaped by this place in some way.
With over forty works of art, ‘Birmingham Show’ is a densely packed display that requires some unravelling. Works are layered over other works (a tool that Eastside Projects use frequently) and are arranged to fill almost every available space. In this way, the design of the exhibition, in its strange juxtapositions, layers and infills, very much mirrors Birmingham’s aesthetic, its construction and its ethos of development and progress in favour of preserving the past. A layering of time periods is characteristic for both the city and the exhibition. A number of the artworks have been made this year; the earliest dates back to 1960.
One of the significant things about this exhibition is its unique and perhaps unlikely combination of artists. Birmingham-born Turner Prize nominee Roger Hiorns shares the gallery with emerging artists recently graduated from art school and completely unknown amateurs such as Easton Hurd. Born in Jamaica in 1938, Hurd trained as a carpenter, before moving into heavy industry and the brewery profession. In 2000 he started working as a security guard at Birmingham School of Art on Margaret Street, whose students’ work inspired him to paint. Touchingly, the five paintings Hurd is displaying here, derived from photographs of the city, comprise his very first exhibition.
Eastside Projects’ much used mobile wall panels form a structural framework for the exhibition and several of these have been painted by street-artist Mohammed Ali. His ‘Reign of the Pen’ (2015) responds to Birmingham’s central role within the pen manufacturing industry, combining images of fountain pens and falling bombs amid burning embers in a Blitz-like scene resonant with Birmingham’s role in arms manufacture and subsequent bombing raids in the Second World War. The fact that Ali produced these paintings not long after Paris’ terrorist attacks at ‘Charlie Hebdo’ adds a further layer of resonance to the works. Birmingham’s industrial past and present is also evidenced in a large sculptural work by Sofia Hulten. ‘Forking Paths’ (2013) is made up of heavily rusted welded steel chains suspended from the gallery ceiling, its chains finding visual echoes in Ali’s works and in the light industry that continues within Digbeth.
Other works engage more specifically with the architecture of the gallery. Within Leah Carless’ ‘Other people’s hair’ (2015), tiny strands of hair cover the gaps between the floor and the roof’s supporting pillars. The four tactile and unsettling pieces, in various grey and black hair samples, follow a form synonymous with the patchwork of tarmacs that make up our urban roads and pavements. Similarly, Richard Hughes’ ‘Super Yob’ (2014) consists of polyester resin forms painted to look like paving slabs which are inserted, on end, high up in the gallery walls and acting, like Carless’ work, in a dialogue with the ordinary streets outside the gallery door.
Not all of the works within ‘Birmingham Show’ have a connection to the city. Rather, it is the artists themselves that do. For instance, Keith Piper’s collage ‘Thirteen Dead’ (1982) tells the story of teenagers who perished in a London house fire. It is included because Piper moved to Birmingham from Malta in 1963. ‘Glass’ (2014) by Leicester-born, Birmingham-based Antonio Roberts visualises a space unbound by geography altogether. His video incorporates a ‘generative pure data patch’ which transforms his Twitter feed into a series of brightly coloured, angular, moving forms.
The exhibition is accompanied by a series of events and other smaller projects, including Meghan Allbright’s dinner-artwork ‘So it is wanted there where the power lies’ (2015) and a collection of texts responding to the exhibition’s questions. Written by artists, curators, educators and others concerned with the state of the visual arts in the city, it is hoped that these texts will eventually form a new publication that further opens up discussion on the art generated from or within this city. Other events within the wider programme include talks and events by Anna Barham, Larry Achiampong and Keith Piper which will open out the exhibition’s themes to further audiences.
Of course, the exhibition does not answer, and cannot hope to answer the questions it puts forward. It is not meant to. ‘Birmingham Show’ does, however, act simultaneously as a showcase for people who are connected to the city, who are invested in its growth and its health, and as a series of conversations across time about geographical associations and identities. Such ideas are particularly pertinent in light of funding cuts to museums, galleries and libraries in the city, to the destruction of significant architecture and to the loss of a unique cultural record. Eastside Projects’ ‘Birmingham Show’ recognises these facts and acts as an important marker within Birmingham’s future artistic legacy and vibrant present.
31 January – 11 April 2015
Commissioned by New Art WM, March 2015