Thursday, 30 April 2009

Lost But Not Forgotten

Freedom Cabinet, David Miller


David Miller & Natalia Morris
Treasure Seekers VII
Birmingham School of Art: February 11th- 19th 2009

freedom . n. 1. the power or right to act, speak or think freely. 2. the state of being free.

Philosophers, dictators, politicians, writers and poets have sought to define it. That God- given right that every person is born with the opportunity to live free. For some this is not a struggle but for others it is something they fight for every day, this elusive, intangible thing that mankind strive to maintain and, ironically, control. What is it about the word ‘freedom’ that inspires men to rise up and nations to start wars? Artist David Miller explores this almost idealistic notion of freedom through his work The Freedom Cabinet, part of the exhibition Treasure Seekers VII at the Birmingham School of Art.


Curated by Charlie Levine and Kate Pennington- Wilson, Treasure Seekers VII invited local artists David Miller and Natalia Morris into the Birmingham School of Art Archives to create works which responded to what they uncovered and re- discovered.

Incorporating slides detailing quotes relating to freedom by such dignitaries as Freud, Kant and even Hitler, the casket inside the cabinet in Miller’s work was once the home of documents titled ‘The Freedom of the City’. The artist comments, “It struck me as ironic that the ‘freedom of the city’ had been so thoroughly held inside its own casket, and this again inside its own cabinet, and more ironic still that it was now lost, perhaps now actually free.”

Questioning this inherent need for freedom and the overwhelming desire to protect it encapsulates The Freedom Cabinet and forces us to re- evaluate pre- determined definitions and ideals. As part of the work Miller took photographs of the cabinet. Beautifully simplistic and compellingly evocative, it could be argued that this series of images are photographs of freedom. However, it is not the picture of freedom we are familiar with as an embodiment of a nation or a sect of people- it’s freedom as a concept, an intangible myth that cannot be owned, cannot be caged- it simply exists.


For Herbert, Natalia Morris

Natalia Morris’s expedition into the Archives produced an entirely different experience to that of Miller’s. Her video installation, For Herbert (Sir Herbert Manzoni), incorporates 3 Dimensional shapes that would have, at one stage, acted as models of study for Fine Arts students. Having since become antiquated, Morris subsequently brings them back to life while highlighting the architectural legacy of Birmingham.

Initially attracted to the simplicity of the shapes, Morris comments that “when arranged together, they appeared as microcosms for a metropolis.” As the camera guides us through the makeshift city scape, the haunting music invokes a sense of nostalgia and of things lost. For Herbert, as the title suggests, references the legacy of Sir Herbert Manzoni who was the City Engineer for Birmingham between 1935 and 1965. Influenced by the Swiss- French architect Le Corbusier, Manzoni’s vision of simplified, modern architecture was realised in the aftermath of WWII when numerous buildings throughout the city were reconstructed. Many opposed Manzoni’s idealism and actions were established to stop his modern envisage for Birmingham. For Herbert pays homage to this visionary whose buildings, much like the 3 Dimensional models gathering dust in the Archives, have been rendered obsolete.

Bringing to mind the age- old adage ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’, Treasure Seekers VII effectively re- invigorates the Birmingham School of Art Archive, constructing new meaning to its collection. While Miller strives to comprehend our incessant pursuit of freedom and need to capture it, Morris reflects on the work of a man whose ideals were perhaps misunderstood during his lifetime. Through the poignant work of both artists we are reminded that every artefact has a past and if put in the hands of the right instigator, it has a chance at a future as well.


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The Artist Formerly Known As David


David Miller
The Death of David's Youth
Artist’s home: April 4th 2009

Never one to conform to pre- conceived ideas, it should have come as no surprise when Birmingham- based artist David Miller announced his intentions to host a wake to mourn the loss of his youth and the beginning of his thirtieth year.


Under strict instructions to wear black and arrive at 7.30pm, ‘mourners’ were greeted by Marcus Ascoti, aka artist Edward Wakefield, who proffered an order of service, complete with twelve verse hymn, and a glass of Black Velvet. Mourners were then directed into the parlour where they could converse, in appropriately hushed and respectful tones, with other funeral- goers whilst enjoying the almost Hawaiian- inspired background music. Perhaps it was the music, perhaps the large quantities of alcohol or perhaps just the simple fact that Miller is in fact not dead, but the mood is conspicuously chipper.

At 8pm sharp a bell tolls ominously and the mourners are escorted into a rather pokey, dimly- lit room that is dominated by a coffin and an imposing figure reminiscent of the grim reaper. While one assumes this sinister figure is the artist formerly known as David Miller, there is an unnerving air within this tomb- like room that gives birth to uncertainty. As the service commences and the hymn is sung, something quite uncanny occurs: suddenly smirks fade from faces and muffled laughter that initially filled the room turns to silent reflection. Whether affected by the sheer stillness of the room or just overcome by the sense of grief that inhabits every darkened corner, is ultimately unclear. However, what is abundantly evident is the expression of quiet contemplation that sweeps round the room like an evening breeze.
As ‘the reaper’ begins to process photographs in the solution contained within the coffin we are afforded a glimpse into the life of David Miller and like his life, the photographs shine bright and clear only to fade to darkness a minute later, their time tragically cut short. As several mourners step forward to gain a closer look at the imagery inside the coffin a soft but very audible sob can be heard. Affected by the ‘funeral’ perhaps more than they anticipated, people actually become immersed in the poetic melancholy of the performance. The photographs, fifteen snapshots from every other year of the artist’s life since birth, depict Miller as a child, an adolescent, a man and the people who were a part of his life, friends, family and lovers. We are reminded that often it is those who pass in and out of our lives that make the journey worthwhile, these are the people who complete the photograph.

At its conclusion people are lead back into the parlour where the air of reflection and sadness is palpable. What arguably began as a satirical mode in which to commemorate a birthday surprisingly transformed into a serious and poignant reflection on mortality and the very real notion of loss and desolation. While exploring his own issues with the ageing process, Miller effectively touched a place within all of us that, whether we are aware of it or not, fears death and the things that are inevitably left unsaid.
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Gane vs Iddon

Alternative Suns, Jo Gane

Jo Gane & Henry Iddon
Gane vs Iddon
Three White Walls: January 31st – March 2nd 2009

Climbing fences, conversing with eccentric locals and stained fingers are all part of a days work for photographer Jo Gane whose series, Alternative Suns, is currently showing in collaboration with the work of photographer Henry Iddon in Gane vs Iddon at Three White Walls in Birmingham.

Gane, who adopts traditional methods of practice, spent numerous evenings camped in fields and rural areas around her home town of Corley, outside Coventry, capturing the ever fading light and re- living the source of most of her childhood memories. Realising that nothing appeared as she had remembered, Gane comments “I used night time to mask the unfamiliarity within the landscape and to camouflage the things I could not remember.”

It’s this fusion of the familiar and the unfamiliar that embodies Gane’s work and transformed her practice into an entirely visceral experience as the artist spent hours in each location surrounded by the sights and sounds of her past. Using slide film and a large format field camera, the long exposure time, according to Gane, “allowed the light to spread and show itself in a completely contrasting way.” With ambiguous references to the consequences of pollution, there are conspicuously very few stars present in the darkened sky. Once used as a means of navigation, the absence of stars in Gane’s photographs serves as a reminder that technological advancement often causes traditional practices to become obsolete.

Adapted during a period in the artist’s life where she was torn between the suburban life she’d always known and the allure of city living, Gane interprets the light in her photographs as “forming a barrier between the urban and the rural landscapes.” Here we uncover the central theme of Gane vs Iddon- that age old struggle between the beauty of nature and the ever expanding metropolis. This separation between human habitation and the environment is also evident in the photographic work of Henry Iddon, whose evocative images of the Lake District present a striking contrast to Gane’s photographs.

Finding inspiration in Wordsworth and the Romantics, Iddon comments, “I was seeking to look at the Lake District in a new way, a way that hadn’t been done before.” With the intention of photographing the entire region, the artist would walk the hills by moonlight before camping on a summit and walking down in the morning. Through the series Spots of Time Iddon effectively captures the sublime qualities of the area, reminding us that while society will continue to construct and expand, nothing compares to the limitless natural beauty of the landscape.

Arguably more strategic and documentary than Gane’s work, Spots of Time presents the vastness and the unpredictability of nature while unveiling the Lake District in such a way that would not have previously been seen by the twelve million people who visit the region each year. Essentially this is the core thread that connects the work of these two artists- their ability to encapsulate an aspect of the landscape that previously was unseen and would not be possible without the skill of the camera and the person who wields it.

While it could be said that Gane’s work is more intimate, being centred on locations relating to her childhood, Iddon also embodies a degree of familiarity by capturing one of the most well known attractions in Britain. Even those acquainted with the Lake District will uncover new depths to the region only made possible through Iddon’s photographs. Both artists explore aspects of light and dark, of things being hidden and revealed and the sheer magnitude of the landscape.

On first viewing Gane vs Iddon one would be forgiven for thinking it was simply an exhibition of contrasting imagery and homage to the allure of the landscape. However, upon closer inspection it becomes evident that these two artists perhaps have far more in common than initially thought and like any good relationship; it is their distinct differences that make this exhibition a success.


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