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Take Two at firstsite – Henderson and Paolozzi

27 Jan

Nearly a year after my first visit to firstsite, I boarded the train at Liverpool Street to head back to Colchester for a second look.  Everywhere has teething problems and the calibre of their latest exhibition sounded as if it was worth a return trip.  For some reason, I’d managed to convince myself that the train journey into Essex was going to be a wonderful experience but the tiny train really let us down, not even having a café to serve the usual railway tea that barely catches a glimpse of the teabag.

First Site, Colchester, Essex.

The impressive façade of firstsite.  Image via www.firstsite.uk.net.

Getting into a cab at Colchester station, we struck gold with a driver happy to fill us in on the cultural and civic developments in the town which has been the recipient of several grants and is currently ploughing ahead with ambitious renovation plans.  The main road is being partly pedestrianised, the castle is shut for an overhaul and two new hotels will shortly be gracing Colchester’s streets.  Colchester really is working to pull in the crowds.  But, this particular driver had never taken anyone to firstsite before and has only actually been once himself.

Many of my previous issues with firstsite remain and they are not going to go away in a hurry.  Still proudly ranking as one of the largest contemporary art venues in the UK, firstsite is so full of dead space that at times it grieved me to walk past these missed opportunities.

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The Potential for mezzanine levels is everywhere.  Own photograph.

The main exhibition galleries are only a tiny part of the overall space and the current show focuses around Hammer Prints, the partnership between Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi, charting the firm’s history with extensive previously unseen material that includes their original screens, photographs and test sheets.  During 1954-1975, nine Hammer Prints were manufactured as wallpaper by Cole & Son and textiles by Hull Traders and went into production, becoming celebrated worldwide.  The collaboration was not to last but the designs have become immortalised, instantly recognisable; the exhibition follows the development of these.

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Some of the original screens used in making the prints.  Own photograph.

This is the first time since the company’s dissolution that the history of Hammer has been explored.  While people are fully aware of Henderson and Paolozzi in their own rights, most will have never heard of Hammer Prints.  Although the exhibition opened in December, a catalogue will hopefully be available from next week that will enlighten the research developments further.  Products for the gallery have been created using the original images, including beanbags that seem to be receiving a lot of attention and use, but unfortunately nobody took advantage of the merchandising potential and none of these is on sale!  Due to the size of the space, the show obviously only covers a very small section of Henderson and Paolozzi’s output but it’s very well-conceived and pitched coherently to an audience who might otherwise be unaware of the techniques or the company.

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Installation view of the current exhibition.  Photo via Andy Keate and www.firstsite.uk.net and courtesy of the estate of Eduardo Paolozzi.

I’m not going to go into the architectural design of firstsite again but I must touch the thing that I feel is the most fundamental flaw of this gallery.  Due to the banana shape, there is one huge curved wall and I have previously commented how this could be tackled with ingenious ceiling hangings or sculptural installations.  I am assured there have been some impressive murals in place over the past year but, for this exhibition, the curators decided to print a few stencils of the Sea Beasts on the wall and leave nearly the whole expanse bare and boring.  Seeing that this wall dominates the entire building the sparseness baffles me.  The exhibition designers apparently wanted to create something really immersive but I was left speechless when I saw what they had produced.

curved wall

The curved wall.  Own photograph.

Yet, at the start of the exhibition, they had wallpapered the flat walls on which they could easily have hung more art.  Surely the wallpaper would have been more engaging on the curved walls.  These particular illustrations come from a series of plates found in an 18th century French encyclopaedia – the engravings were then photographed and made into a set of transfers that were applied to various ceramic objects.

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Installation view of the current exhibition.  Photo via Andy Keate and www.firstsite.uk.net and courtesy of the estate of Eduardo Paolozzi.

There is a permanent room in the gallery called ESCALA which is the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America.  Currently on display is David Pérez Karmadvis’s photography and video work broadly exploring the predicament of Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republican and the issues of border politics.  The works are very powerful and the accompanying exhibition guide provides a thorough and interesting explanation of the thought-process.  For the work Identificaión, Karmadvis contracted a tattoo artist to brand people’s names and identity numbers onto their inner lower arms, where prisoners would have had a serial number marked.  Therefore, in case they disappear or their features become unrecognisable, this tattoo will remain to identify them.  The harrowing ideas at play here pack a fairly hefty punch.

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David Pérez Karmadvis, Identificaión, 2007.  Image via www.escala.org.uk

The events programme at Colchester is to be applauded – they have talks and tours (the enthusiasm of the guide who showed us around was infectious), art courses, dance classes, family days and a film programme that includes Picturehouse screenings from the Royal Opera House, Met Opera and National Theatre.  There is also a community art space and a schools programme which is going from strength to strength.  firstsite get a fair amount of visitors; in their first year, they welcomed 172,000 people .  How many of these, however, are schoolchildren or people solely there for the events?  For me, it isn’t really a gallery – it’s currently a local community centre housed in an impressive building but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.

beanbags

The ‘reading area’ with the beanbags.  Own photograph.

In terms of the art, it really doesn’t take long to get round the space and it’s certainly not yet offering enough to merit a full day out.  The new director, Matthew Rowe, is starting any day and maybe he will herald a turning point for the gallery.  I so want this space to work but there’s still a lot of work to do.

After wandering round firstsite, it was time to visit to The Minories Galleries – a site run and managed by the Colchester School of Art with some rather lovely studio space in the upper rooms.  Their current show is a three-room exhibition of works by Ron Sims – in actual fact, the exhibition extends discreetly over the whole building and the staff are happy to open up officially closed areas for anyone to have a peek.

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Ron Simms at The Minories Gallery. Own photograph.

The exhibition works well alongside firstsite and the two organisations seem to be working collaboratively and existing in happy partnership.  Sims produces groups of clearly defined shapes and forms that create boundaries and define dimensions.  His works have strong structural compositions, seemingly constructed by manipulated surfaces and visual planes.  Although only small, this space is working well and really utilising the whole building.

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firstsite seen from the garden at The Minories.  Own photograph.

I’m pleased to say the train home had armchair-like seats and the much-desired restaurant with tea as expected.  The countryside whizzed by and before we knew it we were back in London and I was off to see the state of the Waterloo tunnels after they’d been cleaned while we were out of town.

Nigel Henderson & Eduardo Paolozzi: Hammer Prints Ltd, 1954 – 75 is at firstsite until 3rd March 2013, www.firstsite.uk.netRon Simms: Visual Genetics, Human and Animal is at The Minories Galleries until 9th March 2013, www.colchester.ac.uk/art/minores.

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Out of London and out of Heels – A Dreary Day Out in Colchester

17 Nov

I’d been getting restless so it was time for a day trip to visit another of the new contemporary galleries popping up all over the country.  This time it was Colchester, only a hop skip and a jump away by Mini.  My sat-nav, Sean with his gorgeous Irish accent, has a real thing for the M25 and by deciding to ignore him and following my own geographical instincts the journey took a tad longer than it normally would have done.  Sorry Sean.  My route, however, enabled us to enjoy the scenery and the pretty country lanes of Essex and we arrived excited to see what Colchester has to offer.

Colchester. Own photograph.

Colchester is a hill town with typically English characteristics – a castle, a river, a market place and a strict Roman grid plan surrounded by a town wall.  It’s very walkable – in fact, we easily managed to see everything within the day and still get out in time to miss rush hour!

Colchester Castle. Own photograph.

Our first stop was the town’s Norman castle, built during the reign of William the Conqueror.  The interior doesn’t do justice to the excellent condition of the building and its impressive build.  It is designed solely with children in mind; OK, fair enough, they are the museum’s bread and butter but, here it speaks down to them with patronising and dark displays and is done in a way that practically excludes adults.  Wasted opportunity #1.

Inside the Castle. Own photograph.

A neatly manicured park sweeps down from the Castle to the River Colne and rather non-descript Roman wall.  The boating lake had dried up and was rather smelly and we hurried on.  Although the park itself is pretty, this certainly counts as wasted opportunity #2.

The River Colne. Own photograph.

The town’s Natural History Museum, that we happened on by chance, is housed within a pretty church. Unlike the castle, entry is free so it’s worth a quick peek if you’re in the area.  The churchyard is overgrown and has been left to deteriorate, a common theme in Colchester – wasted opportunity #3.  It feels a bit like a town that time has left behind and is in desperate need of some TLC.   There are some English Heritage properties in town too but everything is so badly signed that you need a degree in orientation and a great deal of common sense to get around.  Oh yes, #4.

The churchyard of the Natural History Museum. Own photograph.

After lunch, it was time to visit firstsite, our main reason for this trip.  Dubbed the Golden Banana, firstsite (annoyingly, with no capitals or spaces) opened in September this year.  Designed by Rafael Viñoly it was originally scheduled to open in 2008 with a projected budget of £18 million.  It finally came in £10 million over budget and a few years late – not a good start.  Designed as an art gallery for purposes of display, it is the strangest shape building.  The curved walls do not lend themselves to conventional picture hanging and, rather than confront this ‘problem’ with ingenious ceiling hangings or sculptural installations, the curators decided to leave vast expanses of the walls bare (and boring).  This space could be interesting to play with but the gallery just doesn’t make sense.

On approach, the building does look impressive with its distinctive gold colour.  But, although great at first sight (excuse the pun), the building peters off into a bungalow-like extension that is tedious compared with the statement-making front elevation.

Firstsite.  Own photograph.

Their current exhibition is inspired by Colchester’s history as Britain’s first city.  While all the other new galleries across the UK have gone for something big to mark their openings, this exhibition gets lost in the space.  It supposedly considers how history is represented and re-enacted and how art and archaeology invite us to think about everyday, functional objects as sources of information or symbols of our cultures, past and present.  In this vein, the gallery will permanently exhibit the Berryfield Mosaic, in almost exactly the same spot where it was discovered.  This is a nice touch as it was originally part of the dining room floor in a Roman townhouse that once stood here.  But, the amount of existing museums in Colchester concentrating on local history and civic pride meant that firstsite needed to take a braver leap.  Despite its striking design, the gallery has managed to be bland – peculiarly, one work is already missing for conservation reasons.

An empty wall at firstsite. Own photograph.

They have all the big names in there but there’s no wow factor and no feeling of excitement.  There’s a nice Bill Woodrow narrative sculpture and a good Ai Weiwei column-like sculpture that combines the traditional Chinese materials of porcelain and bamboo.  The Barbara Hepworth on loan from Tate is pressed against a wall in a specially air-conditioned room.  Visitors can’t walk around it and it seems cramped.  Yet, the leaflet proudly proclaims that at 3,200 square metres firstsite will rank among the largest contemporary art venues in the UK.  What a waste of space!

Bill Woodrow, Car Door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet, 1982. Own photograph.

Mostly, the gallery seems to be filled with loos – I reckon we passed about eight different toilet blocks as we went round.  Maybe they’d have been better getting a few more works in and fewer toilets.  Firstsite is a wasted opportunity (#5) and not a gallery that I’ll be rushing back to.

Inside firstsite. Own photograph.

Onwards…  We headed to the Minories, the gallery that used to house what is now firstsite.  Built in the last phase of the Palladian style, it is another stunning building although most of it is now shut off.  Again, it’s so disappointing (wasted opportunity #6).  Colchester has so much potential but most of it has been allowed to fade away.

The Minories. Own photograph.

The nearby Holytrees Museum was the most engaging stop of the day.  Built in 1719 on the site of an Elizabethan house, Holytrees is a beautiful 18th century building whose collections focus on themes of domestic life and childhood in Colchester over the last 300 years.

The Holytrees Museum. Own photograph.

We had an amble around the town with the aim of seeing Jumbo, the town’s Romanesque water tower, built by Charles Clegg in 1882-3, and standing where the Roman Forum would have been.   Construction required well over a million bricks and Jumbo can hold up to 230,000 gallons of water.  Although it was decommissioned in the 1980s, it is a beautiful structure that dominates the town and was worth the stroll to go and see it close up.  It is partly consumed by the modern developments that surround it and I think this area could have been more sensitively regenerated (that’d be #7).

Jumbo. Own photograph.

Architecturally, the old town is quite pretty but it lacked excitement.  Although there’s a lot to see, there are very many more places where I’d prefer to spend the day.  Luckily, we passed the time gossiping and we had a giggle but that was nothing to do with the ‘delights’ of Colchester – a town that hasn’t quite worked itself, or the tourist market, out yet.

Camulodunum is at firstsite, Colchester, until 22nd January 2011, www.firstsite.uk.net.

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