The Temporary is an cross-media exhibition curated by Rachel Marsden at ARTicle Gallery that explores the notion of temporality and the transitory – particularly in an urban context.
The Midlands has seen a cluster of walking art exhibitions recently that seem to have been put on for the benefit of Still Walking: among them Walk On at Mac, Land Art at Mead Gallery and Walking Encyclopedia at AirSpace gallery. A recent addition to this growing collection is Rachel Marsden’s concise exhibition at ARTicle (in Margaret Street School of Art). While not specifically about walking, it certainly covers my favourite themes of moving through a city, looking for patterns and weighing up how we feel about our surroundings. It’s also being held in an often-overlooked public gallery, itself in a jewel of a building that many seem to forget about when characterising Birmingham’s architecture.
A first sense of the exhibition is of an overwhelming, incomprehensible and uncontrollable Ultrametropolis that leaves its citizens baffled, blitzed and bamboozled, spluttering in its own dust cloud. What initially appears to be a far eastern focus (and knowing Rachel’s Shanghai connections) proves on closer inspection to be international phenomenon. Being constantly being wrong-footed by one’s own city is an experience much closer to home. Birmingham’s long-term unsentimental adhesion to its motto of ‘Forward!’ has variously left in its wake huge, useless viaducts, the demolition of unfinished high rises and campaigns to save iconic buildings scheduled to be razed less than 40 years after their creation. By know, we are used to it: right or wrong, that’s the character of the city. People know that if they return to Birmingham after several years’ absence, they won’t be able to find their way around – not even out of the station. But it’s not quite the same: Rachel knows she won’t be able to find her way round once familiar streets in Shanghai after just one year away. Something has gone wrong, or is at least worth examining. That exploration feels like it should be heavy, dispiriting and pessimestic but it is curiously liberating, spiritual and certainly sublime.
The exhibition is dominated by a large scale work occupying the entire width of the far wall: Lu Xinjian’s City DNA is a dense grid of symbols and shapes that reminds me of an urban planner’s figure ground map – the rendering of buildings as silhouettes and the removal of all other visual map information. The familiarity and character of the city map is changed utterly when see this. Other patterns can then present themselves and the results can be hypnotic, as is the case on this epic scale. Eventually, junctions, roads, rivers and contours present themselves from the seeming chaos and you might even guess which city this is. The exhibition is not wholly about visual art, and If your exploration is to be genuine, then it needs to be done across a variety of scales and media. IPods mounted on top of City DNA play you a selection of further musical and sounds that work as further investigations, and naturally there is a remix to download. Manchester band Part Wild Horses performed an newly commissioned work in the space on the opening night. Modular furniture by Li-En Yeung and Tom Vousden is scattered around the room and you are invited to reassemble it to suit your needs (as happened during the live act). It can be a precarious undertaking and you need to become part structural engineer to make sure your design doesn’t topple.
The remaining walls display the photographers’ work, scrambling and reassembling sizes, locations and even the photographers themselves, better revealing the themes of the exhibition. Some are apparent for their meaning, such as the former Shanghai residents returning to their homes, now rubble, being dwarfed by a wall of tower blocks behind them. Other images are more personal reflections; snapshots of disorientation. Elsewhere, in Cyril Galmiche’s ‘Pudong, Summer’ projection splits Shanghai’s business district into vertical strips, dividing the day up into equal but remixed zones. From nowhere, a boat floats across a band then disappears into another time wormhole. I’m reminded of the installations in last Spring’s mesmerising Metropolis at BM&G and want to see this piece at room height, and with a beanbag.
Credit: Li Han, Hu Yan
The most affecting works are those by Li Han and Hu Yan, whose incredible work appears on the poster for the exhibition. Their intense, technical, isometric renderings cover not only the poster but page after page of what looks like a whole series of graphic novels. Every railing, pane of glass, brick, twig and leaf in the city is given the same minute scrutiny. After living with this reality for a few minutes, staggered by its precision and sheer bewildering scale, it becomes apparent that the scenes are populated by humans too, nearly invisible amongst the endless rows and grids of…stuff.
I bought the badge set and took home two of the beautiful posters. They were short lived, alas: I spilt tea over the first then mistakenly tore up the other to use as a shield for an iron on transfer.
The Temporary is on at ARTicle Gallery until 4 April then at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester from 17 April – 11 May 2014