Thursday, 18 November 2010

Behind the scenes of the Northern Art Prize

It is not often you get a chance to have a sneak preview of a significant event or product. When I was invited to see behind the scenes at the Northern Art Prize, exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery from the 26th November, I couldn’t refuse.

I have an appreciation of art but I am no critic. The blogger event wasn’t aimed at critical appreciation, but of opening a discussion and debate about the Northern Art Prize and its accessibility. The people who ‘know’ about art will be aware of the event but the very word art sometimes puts people off experiencing work they might just enjoy. The event attempted to address this by finding honest comment on the works as they prepare for exhibition.

Another part of seeing behind the scenes is appreciating the hard work that goes into creating an exhibition. Seeing the works of art as they are being assembled, or re-assembled, shows how much work is needed to put an installation in place. Even those who experience the works of art can miss the appreciation on the organisation, logistics and time consuming precision needed to place everything just right.

Most exhibitions have a theme but what was remarkable about the works of art on display was they worked as a collection despite being selected individually. Liverpool still seemed to be a cultural reference and with it themes of industry, migration and multi-culturalism. The works we were able to see had positivity and playfulness; even when looking at bigger socio-political subjects.

Alec Finlay’s four glass blown apples was the first exhibit that caught the eye. To me apples bring to mind the countryside and orchards, having been brought up in the Midlands close to the apple growers of Hereford and Worcestershire. The shear skill required to create such delicate and natural looking apples is impressive in itself but placed on a white background in pairs, you can’t help but look at the differences.

Another of his works is a bowl of seaside rock pieces with the words You have to choose to be chosen written in it. Other than a comment on the prize itself, and the fact it’s fun, I’m not sure what else it says. The same could be said for rock, paper, scissors ARC (Sofia), a neon sculpture showing the childhood game.

Unfortunately the audio-visual display from Haroon Mirza in the same room was not there. The combination of three works called Anthemoessa (the islands in Greek mythology where the sirens come from) will interact with each other and Edward Armitage’s painting The Siren. This sounds intriguing and I want to see how it works. Unlike most of the other works, this installation will have a strong audio element.

David Jaques work North Canada – English Electric also has an audio element but we were unable to hear it. There are two stereoscopic viewers, a Victorian 3D invention created by overlapping two slightly different images through the viewer.

Although only two viewers are set up, the wall is adorned with masses of the image plates. The black and white industrial landscapes is compelling as social history but the work is also structured well so the collection as a whole is visually attractive.

Across from the room is a cabinet filled with bottles in another work by Alec Finlay. Each one has an essential oil in it written as an Acrostic poem. It invites you to look into the cabinet and the poems are more intriguing than the mere cabinet display itself.

David Jaques work Por Convencion Ferrer charts a fictitious conference and journey of a Spanish anarchist through Liverpool. He’d visited Liverpool in 1908 but without the notes, I wouldn’t understand this from the work. The meetings are advertised on silken pennants that suggest a link with the trade unions and their banners and hang together as a collection of finally made banners – although I understood the concept, this side of the exhibit was a little lost on me. But it does stand on its own as a visual piece.

The final exhibit on show is a huge number of works which make a bigger piece. Lubaina Himid’s Jelly Mould Pavillions is something you could spend hours looking at and still find something new that catches your eye. It’s made from a number of jelly moulds, each one designed very differently meaning you can appreciate each mould as a separate work as well as the vista created by the piece as a whole.

The work has railway set models added to it, giving the jelly moulds a human context. A range of interesting characters from balloon sellers to sailors to children to adults have been carefully placed on the exhibit interacting with the moulds. There are also trees and cars adding to the scene.

One more element is the plans of the exhibition are laid out. These pictures contain the backstories for each mould. The notes suggest the exhibit tells something about the afro-British culture created from the migrant communities. There is certainly an African feel to some of the moulds, but it’s not a forthright display of black culture, more a collection of themes many of which reflect that side of the work.

This is my view, and I think I’ve sounded more like a critic than a voice of the common man (the later my intention). I can be sceptical of the installation lead art shown in galleries. A pile of bricks in a Burges art gallery didn’t move me at all, neither did a black square. But these works did on the whole connect with me. It is hard to comment fully on the work in an uncompleted form. Those who I met had their own views about The Northern Art prize which lead to a discussion on why the art seemed thematic and how the selection processed was reached. I’m certainly looking forward to returning to see the completed work and getting the full impact.

If you’re not the usual art goer, this is accessible and child friendly to a degree. There will be more to see and hear than I’ve described and best of all it is free to wonder round if you’re looking for some respite from the weather or the Christmas shopping over the next month or so.

Hopefully it will inspire the region’s artists in the same way that Liverpool has inspired the artists on display. With the opening of the Hepworth Gallery next May and a number of artistic projects being set up, it certainly is an exciting time for art in Yorkshire and the North. If that happens, hopefully the general public will also be able to get more involved reclaiming the arts from an elitist persuit.

You can find out more about the the Northern Art Prize, follow the event on twitter or use the hashtag #northernartprize

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