Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Future, Conveyed

Image Charlie Levine

Birmingham, once referred to as the Industrial Heartland of Britain, is undergoing a major cultural renovation. The abundance of disused factories throughout the city, a tribute to its history, are being transformed into Artist Run Initiatives (ARI), effectively attempting to shed the cloak of industrialisation and bring Birmingham into a more artistically aware future. While it could be said that Birmingham boasts an underground but established art scene, the general population appear almost fearful of the arts and there is a real sense in Birmingham of apprehension and a reluctance to embrace it which isn’t as apparent in such places as London, or even Sydney. Perhaps that’s why I ended up here.

However, my timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate. As a Sydney- born, UK- based freelance art writer, the recent economic downturn has ensured the future is completely uncertain. Having graduated from the College of Fine Arts in 2007 I took my BA Art Theory (Honours) and MA Art Administration and moved to the UK. As someone whose primary reason for relocating overseas was to develop their career, as you can imagine the recession was like a slap in the face. Art, every variable facet of it, is such a temperamental and turbulent beast under the best of circumstances, but now with the ever present threat of poverty looming over my head like the blade of a guillotine, the future is not only ambiguous but absolutely terrifying. Along with Birmingham based freelance curator Charlie Levine and artists Harminder Singh Judge and David Miller, we have sought to defy the recession and take our futures into our own hands by establishing a new artist- run initiative- Conveyor. Having executed an exhibition in 2008 titled GOODS In within a section of an old furniture making factory outside the city centre, Co- Founders Levine and Singh Judge concluded that it would be the perfect home for their new collective. And so it is that Conveyor joins the independent and ongoing tradition of ARI in Birmingham.

Unlike Sydney where unused spaces are limited and often expensive, Birmingham is ripe with empty factories and warehouses as a result of its industrial past. While many of these spaces are monopolised by the rental market, numerous have been left abandoned and in most cases it is only a matter of knowing the right arm to twist and the right concept to pitch to acquire space for ‘one- off’ exhibitions.

Preparing for its first show, Conveyor is primarily about process and collaboration between artists, curators, writers and arts organisations and the development and continual realisation of one day art events and exhibitions. It is this focus on the one day event structure of the space that sets it apart from other ARI in Birmingham. With an exhibition program that is set to include Sydney- based video artists Sam Smith and Kate Mitchell, along with evocative artists from across the UK, Conveyor is undoubtedly bringing something fresh and innovative to the constantly evolving and slowly emerging art industry in Birmingham. While Levine, Singh Judge, Miller and I each joined this initiative with separate agendas, we are all united by one common goal- to promote exceptional national and international art and attempt to transform Birmingham into a more culturally aware city for the future.

Sitting down with Levine we discussed the recent economic downturn, Conveyor and why she’s determined to make her future, and the future of the city she calls home, a little more certain.

NG: Firstly can you just give a brief background to how you became involved in the arts?

CL: I began my career in art through my study of photography at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design (SIAD). It was through my studies and the influence of my lecturer David Campany that really led me to engage critically with not only photographs, but art in general. I became very preoccupied in my final BA year with the display of work and how one encounters them, from that and my research it made sense to move into curating and critical writing and I have never looked back.

NG: Do you think there is a trend emerging where curators are turning their backs on the established galleries and going freelance?

CL: Birmingham is a really interesting city when it comes to artists- led, curatorial- led, freelance-style practices. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing institutions that do give funding and there are some fantastic artist run practices that receive funding so it’s not all negative. There has always been a real culture of artist run initiatives in Birmingham and there has always been a want, a desire and a need for it. As a result of its solid history I think artist lead spaces are really welcomed by an arts audience. The main problem is sustainability and within the current climate this has become an even greater issue.

NG: Tell me about your new collective Conveyor.

CL: I would like to think that Conveyor is emerging out of that long history that I mentioned of artist run spaces in Birmingham and will become a part of that history. In 2008 I curated a show with artist Harminder Singh Judge, who is also the Co- Founder of Conveyor, called GOODS In. It was in an old furniture making factory in Moseley, just outside Birmingham’s city centre, called G. S Smart and Co. Factory. It was a one day event incorporating work from 15 international and UK based artists that responded to the space. This was my introduction to the space. Conveyor will inhabit about 1/8 of the entire space- it’s a huge building- and it will be sectioned off from the rest of the factory. It’s totally dishevelled, no one’s been in there for years and while the furniture is obviously no longer being produced it still lives in the space and will be used by the first two site specific artists who are scheduled to exhibit.

Basically we are trying to set up and realise a new artist run space that shows national and international artists. To an extent we want to continue the tradition of promoting Birmingham artists while reaching beyond the city. Birmingham is still growing- artistically speaking- and if Conveyor can assist in some degree to open people’s eyes to what’s out there then we’ve achieved something.

NG: What’s the plan for the first show?

CL: The first show will be site specific and a response to the space. We’ve invited a duo from Halifax in the UK, Milk, Two Sugars, to utilise whatever materials they are able to find within the space to make sculptural pieces that, in a sense, archive and critically comment on the history of the building. Milk, Two Sugars will bring a sense of comedy and unpredictability to the space as they are known for their illustrative work which always contains a satirical edge. There will also be a take away aspect to the show, which will remain secret until the exhibition day.

NG: How is Conveyor different to other artists run initiatives in Birmingham?

CL: For starters we are completely untouched by any type of formal ties or bonds. We are not affiliated with anybody, we receive no funding from anybody and therefore we have no agendas to adhere to except our own and the artists we choose to exhibit. Also, by promoting ourselves as an ‘events’ space there is more freedom to have a higher rotation of artists and we are capitalising on the buzz and excitement that generally accompanies the openings of exhibitions. If we can sustain this sense of intrigue around the space then it opens Conveyor up to innovative collaborative projects where there are basically no boundaries or limitations to the creative process. In this sense Conveyor is functioning on an entirely different level to other artist run initiatives in Birmingham.

NG: In your opinion is a gallery like Conveyor an asset to the Birmingham art scene?

CL: It’s a tremendously valuable asset, absolutely. Birmingham’s history has always relied on the artist run space so there’s no reason to stop now when there’s a proven formula that it works; it’s just a matter of keeping it sustainable. The thing with Birmingham is that you don’t want people to come to the city just to go shopping in the Bull Ring or to have a coffee at one of the 4 Starbucks that are in it. If that’s all they come here for they will leave poor and over- caffeinated! When you offer people in Birmingham something different and a little bit more unique they respond to it and want it but, like I said before, it’s just a question of sustainability. There is an audience out there for this type of initiative, we just have to find it.

NG: Do you think Conveyor has a future, given that at present it is entirely self- funded?

CL: Given that we are entirely self- funded it is difficult to think beyond one year at a time. We have an amazing line up of artists scheduled for this year, including some Australian artists, and if Conveyor is well received by the people of Birmingham I don’t see why it wouldn’t continue for a second year. The trap for us would be to think too far in advance. While presently the thing that sets Conveyor apart is the fact that it is entirely unaffiliated, we would not be completely opposed to joining forces with other arts organisations in the future or attempting to acquire funding but only as long as the integrity of the space was maintained otherwise what’s the point?

Conveyor will hold its opening exhibition June 6th 2009 with the UK artists Milk, Two Sugars

Article originally published by runway and The Invisble Inc. Issue 14: July 2009:

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Menagerie of Birds

Installation view, image Charlie Levine

Menagerie of Birds
Pitt Studios, Worcester: June 6th- 28th 2009

If you suffer from ornithophobia, that is, a fear of birds, then the latest exhibition at Pitt Studios in Worcester is not for you. Reminiscent of the well known Alfred Hitchcock film 'The Birds', Menagerie of Birds curated by emerging freelance curator Charlie Levine, brings together a collection of artists whose work encompasses thoughts of captivity, luxury and curiosity represented through the image of the bird.

Historically ‘Menagerie’ refers to the collection and captivity of exotic animals, with allusions to the establishment of luxury and curiosity. With Levine as the bird fancier, Menagerie incorporates a subtle sound piece by Stuart Tait, books by Annabel Dover, paintings by Michelle Munn, Caitlin Griffiths and Scott Robertson, a light drawing by David Miller, delicate cut outs by Claire Brewster, sculpture by Harminder Singh Judge and a text piece by Ana Benlloch. One thing is for sure, this exhibition is certainly eclectic.

For the final hour of the preview Alex Lockett and Ian England in collaboration with [insertspace] hosted a Pigeon Party as part of Project Pigeon. Lockett and England invited the public to ‘come and celebrate the pigeon, dance to pigeon songs, eat seed cake, drink whisky and meet the birds.’ Project Pigeon is an art, curatorial and education project with the artists keeping and racing pigeons, running workshops, holding open loft days, and exhibiting artworks carried by pigeons.

Brewster’s incredibly beautiful cut outs of birds, masterfully curated by Levine, appear to be almost attempting to escape the space. As they make their way up towards the light and high windows of the gallery we are left with a sense that they are captive, kept inside for the enjoyment of the audience.

The quirky nature of Robertson’s paintings of pigeons is only overshadowed by the quirky nature of his pricing system. With a ‘first come first served’ approach, the artist prices his work not by value but by who can get in the fastest. If you are lucky enough to be the first to purchase one of his works- whichever one that may be- it will cost you £5.73, the second £11.46 and so it continues until the seventh painting which is priced at £40.11. Unconventional perhaps, but it’s all part of the charming nature of the work and the eccentricity of the artist.

Caitlin Griffiths

The beauty of Griffiths work can be found in its conceptual foundations. Having produced and distributed questionnaires to the Director of Pitt Studios, his family and Levine, the artist produced intricate paintings of specific birds based on their answers. Each bird represents a person and it truly came as no surprise that Levine was the songbird, naturally. It is this inclusive and somewhat comical aspect of Griffiths work that makes it so evocative and with the elusive reference to similarities between man and animal, it could be argued that the nature of the artist’s work is quite Darwinesque.

Dreams of Flying, a text work by Ana Benlloch, takes the reader to another plane of thought and is arguably the closest you will ever come to being inside the mind of a bird. All at once fanciful and dark, Benlloch’s words adopt a sinister edge and we are afforded a glimpse into an otherwise unknown psyche. Leaving the reader with the slightest sense of desolation at its completion, Dreams of Flying effectively captures the imagination and takes you outside yourself.

Menagerie of Birds taken purely at face value, is a beautiful exhibition. However, if we look beyond simply what is there to the meaning underneath, we discover an exhibition that address issues of captivity, freedom and the innate curiosity man has for things that are caged. It is through the skill of the artists and the skill of the curator that such a topical exhibition can be presented in such a humorous context and yet still retain its poignancy.

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Saturday, 18 July 2009

Art Basel

June 10th-14th 2009
Messeplatz, Basel, Switzerland

Hailed as a resounding success by those in the know, the 2009 Basel Art Fair is a culmination of the crème-del-la-crème of the art world with galleries and dealers showing the very best they have to offer in an attempt to sell as much as possible to an unsuspecting arts audience. Only problem is, a large majority of those frequenting the art fair are not unsuspecting. On the contrary, the only thing to rival the status of the Warhol’s, the Lichtenstein’s and the Picasso’s is the status of those in the position to purchase one of them. This was made evident with the appearance of Brad Pitt on the VIP day to officially open the fair. With Pitt walking away with a Neo Rauch for just under $1m from Zwirner Gallery, the artistic equivalent of the meat market had officially begun.

It came as no surprise that galleries such as London’s White Cube didn’t disappoint with exceptional work from Andreas Gursky, Antony Gormley and Gibert & George. In particular, Gursky’s May Day V, 2006, was a hit with its depiction of an office building at night. Dubbed the ‘highest priced photographer alive’ by New York Magazine in 2007, Gursky’s May Day V is evidence of the photographer’s passion for ordered spaces and repetitive grids while inciting the voyeur within us all.
[i] With a smiling figure of Gursky himself on the sixth floor, it’s like a ‘Where’s Wally’ for adults.

Galerie Karsten Greve, St Moritz, had an impressive collection of Sally Mann photographs. Best known for her images of adolescents and the subsequent controversy these presented, her landscapes, while aesthetically beautiful, felt stale and lacked the depth of Mann’s previous work. While Virginia #38, 2004, Deep South #1, 2000 and Untitled (Fredericksburg #10), 2000 maintained the artist’s distinct style, the lack of any human presence ensured that the work, while impressive, failed to inspire.
With such a high intensity of art concentrated in one spot it comes as no surprise that amongst the exceptional art that is on display there were a few unexceptional pieces. Ever since Marcel Duchamp placed a male urinal in an art gallery, called it Fountain and subsequently elevated it as art, people have been pushing boundaries. Have we truly reached a point where artists are so starved for inspiration that a ball of hair on a plinth is now deemed art? Apparently so. When one unsuspecting art enthusiast, exhausted from the heat of the day, proceeded to turn on a pedestal fan, they were quickly informed that they had just obstructed a work of art. One cannot help but feel as if the art world is taking the piss.

Arguably Art Unlimited, located in Hall 1, is where business ends and real art begins. In its tenth year and with a tendency to reflect the current state of artistic practice, Art Unlimited specialises in large scale work and video installations.
American artist Matthew Day Jackson’s sculptural work Dymaxion Family, 2009, consists of four vertical wooden boxes within a darkened room. On closer inspection the viewer can discern an intricate assemblage of wood, metal, roots and luminous hardware in the form of human skeletons. Lit from underneath and lined with mirrors, the skeletons are viewed through two-way glass that effectively multiplies their form endlessly. All at once beautiful and slightly disturbing, Dymaxion Family investigates themes such as death, transcendence and purgatory, themes which are fundamental to Jackson’s work.

Public art is an integral element of Art Unlimited, with work being exhibited outside the boundaries of the main halls. Danish artist Jeppe Hein constructed Loop Bench, 2006, to be utilised as a functional form of seating for the public outside the entrance to Art Basel. Turning passive bystanders into willing participants is integral to the fluid piece, with the public encouraged to sit, stand, lie, lean, effectively transforming the work into a type of public forum.

Drawing crowds from around the world, Art Basel presents a benchmark of the standard and quality of work being created and exhibited today. It would seem as if the dark cloud of the recession has in no way hindered those in a position to purchase, with red dots lining the walls and New York art advisor Allan Schwartzman commenting “We are far enough into this new economic cycle that people are comfortable spending again.”
[ii] Let us hope that they do not invest in a ball of hair or a pedestal fan.

[i] It’s boring at the top, Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine, May 13th 2007.
[ii] Preview sales defy all expectations, Lindsay Pollock, The Art Newspaper, June 10th 2009.
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