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.
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…