Home is where the art is

When the Talking Heads closed, one of my homes in the city was lost to me and I wondered where, if anywhere, would take its place: a pressing issue given the very diminutive dimensions of my actual home.  In fact a number of places have taken up some of the slack, I’ve followed some of the surviving regular events at the Heads to their new homes and have taken advantage of the expanded programme at NST (the Nuffield Theatre, as was) – though NST was already a home, it has just become a more regular one (albeit now in two places).  No, the Southampton cultural space which has taken the place of the Heads as a second home is the John Hansard Gallery.  Rare indeed is the week where I do not pass through its welcoming doors at least once.

I do not remember being dragged reluctantly round art galleries as a child in an attempt to ‘improve’ me.  This may be because it didn’t happen or just that my brain has repurposed that storage space for even less useful trivia.  This absence may explain my lack of antipathy towards art galleries, though does less to explain why I started going: it was probably originally to get out of the rain and then got out of hand.  It may certainly go some way to explaining my enduring unimproved condition.

Over the years, I have been to see an ever wider range of art – generally dating from the second half of the 19th Century or later – and have often found something to enjoy in at least some modern art.  However, the realm of the truly modern and the conceptual – which is the métier of the JHG – had always passed me by.  I’d visited the gallery only once in its old home on the university campus and was largely baffled by what I saw.  But then, earlier this year, it moved to Studio 144 in the heart of town and on my way to (or from, given the commutative nature of translations in space) almost anywhere in or near the city centre.  After a brief taster session, it opened properly in late Spring and it was from then that my engagement with a whole multidimensional hypersphere of new art began.

Of the eleven main artists whose work has been shown in the gallery since its opening proper, I had heard of only two, and one of those I knew no more than the name.  Had the gallery still been at the campus, I probably wouldn’t have been to see any of the exhibitions and my life would have been so much poorer as a result. Given that the gallery is free to enter and, in its new location is so often on my way to or form some other errand, it is just so easy to pop in: so I do.  It is a lovely excuse for a little time out from the stresses of quotidien life and to escape into a whole different realm.  In the midst of a shopping expedition, or when stuck on something at work, I can lose myself in a picture, sculpture or film (or something even more strange) for a few precious minutes.  I cannot claim to have loved everything I’ve seen, but most have prompted new thoughts to bubble up in what remains of my brain and many of the artworks have become friends.  That’s the joy of being able to visit the same visiting exhibition multiple times, which I’ve never really had a chance to do before: the familiarity builds deeper links with the works and some that you might initially overlook become firm favourites.  It is always a wrench when a exhibition leaves, though my feelings of loss are tempered by the excitement of thinking about what will be next to fill the gallery…

The JHG does not just rely on the art itself and its location to draw people in, it also has a very solid programme of public engagement.  From the start, it has organised free talks and workshops reacting to, inspired by, or explaining the art or artists on display.  As often as I can, I have attended these – initially, as the token member of the public but now as part of a wider community.  The talks are always interesting and having been to a number, I have started – occasionally – understanding something of what is said!  I exaggerate (slightly), but I do still get quite excited when I understand one of the references to another artist or artwork.  I also now run a book (currently only with myself) for how far into a talk the first reference to Roland Barthes will come: I really must read the chap one of these days…  As well as these more intellectual talks, it seems that most weekends there is some activity for children to get involved in art: last weekend it was making camerae obscurae, which did rather struggle with the dim December light.

It is not just a home for visual art: the gallery had a Writer-in-Residence as it transitioned and I was somewhat startled to see myself in the video which accompanied his piece (1:01:01 long) when I came to hear it performed.  The gallery also acted as the host to the recent So: to Speak Festival Small Presses Poetry Showcase – which was an amazing afternoon: three presses, ten poets and 200 minutes of poetry in one afternoon.  I’ll admit that my brain was somewhat frazzled after so many words and ideas were forced into it in a such a short time: who needs mind-altering drugs with stimulus like that!

One of the key aspects of the JHG that have made it a second home is the staff, they are friendly and welcoming in way which I didn’t really expect from an art gallery.  There is a beautiful neon sign in the foyer, in the pink and blue of the transgender flag, which bears the legend “You Belong Here” and the gallery assistants veil this glowing message in the flesh that makes it a living reality.  Given the regularity of his visits, these poor souls are now all too familiar with the author.

I think it was one of the gallery assistants who, as November drew to its apotheosis, organised the first Gallery Session: where live musicians took over the gallery foyer for the evening.  This was not the first music in the gallery, as they had a short series of works responding to their Gerhard Richter exhibition of which I only managed to catch one (even I have to work from time-to-time: probably more often than is suggested by these pages), but the first time music was ‘exhibited’ independently of the visual art.  This was such an enjoyable evening, always helped by programming three of my favourite local bands in a familiar space.  From a JHG perspective, this was their first time in the gallery for several members of the audience: so it worked as a real way to bring new audience into the building and showing that it’s not at all scary.  I believe a second session is already on the cards…

Last night, I was at the gallery once again for the preview of their latest exhibition of sculpture by Siobhán Hapanska.  These are four extraordinary pieces, each one large but completely different from its fellows and really benefiting from the breathing space they are given in Gallery 1.  They look gloriously tactile but cannot (sadly) be enjoyed haptically: perhaps appropriate, as one has a theme of temptation.  It was so exciting experiencing them for the first time and it is good to know that I can keep returning to them, each time seeing something new.  To avoid excessive spoilers, I shall show you a mere teaser fragment of Love, which may also act a metaphor for the story of my life and its lack of emotional maturity?

I also wandered upstairs to check out how the indigo is moving through the great curtain of Anya Gallaccio‘s All the rest is silence – what a marvel to have an artwork which has changed each time you go back to see it.

The final current exhibition is a retrospective of the photography of Edward Woodman (who has never, so far I know, played Callan or the Equalizer – a missed opportunity?).  Some of these photos are quite extraordinary, while others do nothing for me at all: which is entirely as it should be!  He has inspired me to look at the world around me in different ways – and to attempt to photograph it.  Not for me the laborious set up, thought and preparation of the view camera: I am more of the school of the slightly inebriated quick snap with my phone, just now (sometimes) with an additional nod in the direction of art.

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Making tracks (after Woodman, but little threat to him)

For those with a desire to see more of my attempts at ‘artistic’ snaps (don’t worry, I have yet to tackle the nude and rarely use myself as a subject), my Instagram feed is available (other, better feeds are also available and the work of real photographers should also be recommended at this time).  My feed is also available to those with no such desire and for them this paragraph can act as an early warning and an opportunity to dodge a potentially painful visual encounter.

Spending time with contemporary art has enriched my life so much, and it’s not just the art.  In recent weeks, I have used the gallery as a respite from the rain and during the long hot summer I became an habitué of the deliciously cool environs of Gallery 2.  When I visit, I’m almost certain to bump into at least one friend: as was the case with the Heads.  The location is also very handy and a talk or preview at the gallery can act as the first of act of a whole evening of cultural fun.  Last night, after enjoying the art, free wine and conversation available at the preview I ambled a few doors up Above Bar Street for some wonderful folk tunes from Alex and Hannah Cumming at the Art House.  They delivered a marvelous mix of traditional tunes, including a smattering of carols, but it was their rendition of the Grey Funnel Line that I found particularly affecting.

With most of my second home needs now catered for, I just need to find a tame space with a grand piano…

The Unregarded Digit

Since the new John Hansard Gallery opened last Friday evening, I have already passed through its doors more often than I did in the four-and-a-half years I’ve lived in Southampton and it was resident at its former site on the university campus.  OK, I’ll admit that this wasn’t that hard (it only required the threshold to be crossed twice) but I think it does illustrate the importance of location for a public cultural institution.  After tomorrow, the Gallery closes again until it opens permanently in May.  To my own astonishment, I find I am going to miss it: I won’t be able to just nip in on my way home from the shops or a haircut and I’ll miss my ‘friends’ of the Sampler who will have been replaced by new exhibitions come May.  It seems a good thing that art and culture is integrated with the other stuff of life, not something apart and only for ‘special’ people.

I think the JHG has one other major advantage over other art galleries in attracting passing trade.  Whereas your typical art gallery may boast a more, or less, architecturally distinguished home it rarely offers any taste of the delights which might lie within, except perhaps for the odd piece of sculpture.  At the JHG, a huge amount of the ground floor is comprised of floor to ceiling glass offering any passers-by a full view of some of the art on offer – even when the gallery is closed!  Whilst this exposure to the sun’s all-too-powerful rays wouldn’t suit every artwork, the interactive Sampler exhibits seem perfectly suited to peaking the interest of the public and drawing them inside.  There is a joy in pressing one’s nose against the glass which most art institutions seem to have neglected to their detriment.

When you do enter, you are presented with Huddlehood and the Conversation Station.  Both of these artworks invite the audience to be involved – both with the art and with each other (and also with the staff of the JHG).  On my visit yesterday, I took well over an hour to get past Conversation Station – and even then, never quite got round to playing with the artwork and using its collection of materials of different sizes, shapes and forms to build my own space for conversation.  Instead, I spent my time in fascinating conversation with the artists supporting the exhibit, talking about what role art and galleries might play in society today and what benefits they bring to visitors.  I’m not sure I brought any particularly novel insights to bear, but I will share a few of my thoughts on the matter (if that is not being rather too grand) as part of this post.

I don’t think I come from a particularly arty background.  I don’t remember visiting art galleries as a child and the only art I can remember at home were prints of Terence Cuneo’s paintings of steam trains, each with a mouse hidden somewhere in the picture and I probably wasn’t aware that the pictures were prints at the time.  My childhood was a long time ago, so I may have forgotten some art-based brainwashing by my parents or teachers – but to the best of my knowledge, visiting art galleries is a project I have developed on my own as an adult (in age-terms, if no others).  I’m not really sure how it began but it might have been going to see an exhibition of pre-Columbian art at the Hayward Gallery after reading a book about the cultures of meso-America or it might have been the Neue Pinakothek in Munich as a plausible (and cheap) touristy thing to do in November and where I first saw a Kandinsky: both of these would have been in my mid 20s when I first lived and worked in London.

I value art and galleries as an escape from the always-on, rushing around, instant gratification of much of modern life.  An art gallery is a space where – unless the exhibition is hideously crowded – one can spend time away from the hectic pace of life in just mooching around and contemplating.  You can approach things in your own time, at your own pace and in your own order: unless some over-zealous curator has imposed an Ikea-like labyrinth on the visitor (Grr!  Just because you studied Art History, you don’t have to inflict it on the rest of us!).  Each artwork acts as the start of a conversation with the viewer, but if you don’t want to join in then it won’t be offended if you move on immediately to find a more appealing interlocutor.  There are no comments below the line with an artwork and you can spend as much time, or as little, as you like considering what it is saying to you – which may be entirely unrelated to what the artist imagined it might say – and allowing your mind to wander where it will.  I usually find a few pieces call out to me immediately demanding attention, but it is often a shyer work which ends up becoming my friend.  Sometimes, as with human friends, it is only after spending time with them – and perhaps going away and returning later – that you come to realise that this is the work for you.  Over the my years of gallery going, I think I have come to enjoy a wider range of artworks then I did at the beginning – perhaps this is just age, or perhaps I understand I wider range of points-of-view and approaches to making art than I did.  I’ll usually still encounter work which I view as a complete waste of time and materials – but then again, I don’t like or understand every book, or TV show or film or song that it created so why should I like or appreciate every work of visual art.  Equally, I can’t think of any gallery visit where I haven’t found something which appeals or makes my think or consider a different view point.

Art galleries do tend to have a rather hushed vibe, like a library, and I will admit to turning my mobile phone off when I visit: though this is probably more about the embarrassment of it ringing (anywhere – it’s equally humiliating on a bus) than any need to maintain a sepulchral feel.  I wonder if this puts people off, along with a certain class of gallery goer?  As I’ve said, art is a conversation and, while I often go alone, I do enjoy going with friends so we can have a good discussion about what we see, its merits and what it might mean.  Yesterday, I went alone but as already established bent the ears of the resident artists for far longer than is acceptable in polite society.  This did yield a strong recommendation to head up the stairs to see a video artwork called Don’t Look at the Finger by Hetain Patel.  I am generally rather sceptical about video art and it always seems to have the wrong feel for a gallery somehow: it forces the conversation too much and creates a long time commitment.  As a result, I tend to skip these parts of galleries – but I am so glad I didn’t yesterday.

I can think of few better ways I might have spent 14-odd minutes – and this despite the fact that it was clearly lunchtime by the time the film started. As a work it is tricky to describe: it has elements of sign-language, of dance and of martial arts blended together in a way which could only work on video.  A more traditional staged approached would not have permitted the audience to be close enough, nor to experience the work from teh right places.  It also features the most incredible textiles in the clothing of the participants and, at one stage, these are changed through an origami-like process to reveal even more glorious detail to their design and to reflect a turning point in the piece.  It has also has a strong emotional element, in particular when the main female protagonist smiles for the first time it lights up the whole room and the life of the viewer.  I spent most of the running time in slack-jawed amazement that anything so incredible had been created and I was allowed to watch it, for free!  I shall be returning to watch it again this afternoon, but there is a certain sadness that I can never again see it for the first time…

My other great joy from my visits so far are the leached-out, grey-scale photographs of the play of light and shadow with forms and angles taken of and during the construction of the building.  Seeing them for a second time, I have new favourites to add to my existing friends.  They are such an interesting way of looking on mundane concrete, plaster board panels, wiring and pipes and I’d love to have some at home: I hope the JHG finds some way to keep them as they are beautiful and a document of its rebirth.  If not, I am going to miss them terribly.

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Embracing the grey!

As usual there is no great message here, but if you have a local art gallery why not take a look and, if they are up for it, why not chat to the people working there: you never know what they might introduce you to!