Devon Days & Bristol Times – UK

During my three and a half week UK interlude from China times, RJW and I went to spend a few days in the UK county where I was born…Devon….the farthest Southern point of Devon in Salcombe, Bantham Beach, Burgh Island, Start Point, Beesands, Kingsbridge and more. It is a beautiful area of the English countryside, one of my favourite places, so peaceful and idyllic…all the time in the world to walk, breathe and think….standing and staring into the open waters looking up at the blue (sometimes cloudy) sky. It was certainly what I needed after the confines of Shanghai…fresh air really does not exist in Chinese cities. My body and mind were really quite confused as to what to do during those few days…I’m not very good at slowing down and having a rest…I think I got there eventually.

On the way back from Devon travels, we stopped off in Bristol to see friends, where I also had time to visit some of Bristol’s contemporary art institutions. I really do like Bristol as a city – there is something very distinct about the dynamic of the contemporary art scene there. The first exhibition was Haroon Mirza: /|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/| at Spike Island on display until the 25th March 2012. Spike Island is actually one of my favourite spaces in the UK where this exhibition did not fail to please. I have been familiar with Mirza‘s work since 2008 where in 2009, I asked him whether he wanted to be included in the group exhibition \”home\” I curated at the Airspace Gallery in February 2010. Due to the numerous commitments he had on that year, he was unable to take part…I still keep him noted down and considered for future projects, one of which is in the making…let’s see how that one develops.

In this show, Mirza presents ‘a body of work that fuses sound and image into a complex sensory experience…a group of individual installations, each an assemblage of separate components that synthesise light, sound and movement. These are often orchestrated to form an aesthetic whole, building and looping across the gallery space to create an immersive experience that refutes galleries’ privileging of the visual.’ (Spike Island 2012) You are taken from the enclosed to the open, from the intimate to the intimated…your senses overwhelmed by an overload of light and sound set in parallel with visual and aural subtleties. On occasions you could feel the sound inside your chest…the vibrations resonating. The use of slightly aggressive looking sound-proofing material to line the walls of the third exhibition space adds a tactile quality and physical depth to the installation, to the artist’s excerpts from his sketchpad on display giving an intimacy with Mirza‘s drawings, scrawls, diagrams and writing. You feel protected. Lighting is fundamental…as you move from room to room from complete darkness to subtle tones to stark white brightness. This is key to the context of the artwork…reflecting further their personal message. Collaboration is another key facet to the works as shown through recent engagement with Sheffield based artist James Clarkson, and further sampling of other artists’ works to create the online composition ‘Sound Spill’. The works have ‘a lo-fi, homespun manner…a DIY aesthetic that suggests an underlying ethos of collectivity and independence’ (Spike Island 2012). He shows a particularly articulate confidence through simple visual and complex aural aesthetics. Thanks must go to the Spike Island for supplying me with the images shown below.

Haroon Mirza, Installation view, The National Apavilion of Then and Now, 2011. Anechoic chamber, LEDs, amp, speakers, electronic circuit. Photo: Stuart Whipps. Courtesy the artist and Spike Island.
Haroon Mirza, Installation view, I Saw Square Triangle Sine, 2011. Mixed media including Angus Fairhurst Underdone Overdone Paintings 1998. Photo: Stuart Whipps. Courtesy the artist and Spike Island.
Haroon Mirza, Installation view, 2012. Photo: Stuart Whipps. Courtesy the artist and Spike Island.
Haroon Mirza, Installation view, Untitled Song featuring Untitled Works by James Clarkson, 2012. Mixed media. Photo: Stuart Whipps. Courtesy the artist and Spike Island.

Next, was a very brief visit to the Arnolfini gallery, where I was initially greeted by Neil Cummings wall-based creation ‘Self Portrait: Arnolfini’. He was invited by the Arnolfini to create a series of site-specific self-portrait works, in his interpretation as textual socio-historic wall maps, in relation to the organisation throughout its 50th Anniversary year. They are shown throughout the building in the gallery’s more communal space such as the entrance foyer, stairwells and corridors, and struck a chord with my love of archiving, mapping, order and language. For this project Cummings worked alongside designer Stephen Coates, to create maps that trace the Arnolfini‘s history and speculate on possible futures. They use data from the gallery’s archive and speculative conversations from gallery staff to realise this relational timeline where it is presented through three colours – ‘pale blue for the history of art and Arnolfini, purple for technological innovation, and olive-green for social and financial organisation. The timeline starts from the Bristol Riots of 1831, following the gallery’s expansion and relocates from Triangle West to Queen Square and then to W-shed (now Watershed), before arriving at its current location in Bush House in 1975. The timeline ends on the second floor where the data becomes highly speculative, imagining what might unfold in the coming decades.’ (Arnolfini 2011) I was very pleased to see that one of the purple arrows in the main entrance foyer mentioned a possible project with Asia in 2026 called ‘Multitude’, that included a specific Chinese strand with the cities of Beijing and Dalian. It made me smile to see Asia included in the future potential and development of a gallery’s artistic programming. As to whether this will actually happen…well, we will see in time, right? Also, I think 2026 might be a little too far away…they should be thinking about Asia now or in the near future. I’ll be very interested to hear about it when it does happen though.

Neil Cummings. Detail view of Self Portrait: Arnolfini 2012. Photo: Rachel Marsden
Neil Cummings. During installation view of Self Portrait: Arnolfini 2012. Photo: Neil Cummings

Also on display at the Arnolfini was ‘Museum Show Part 2’, a group exhibition (obviously) following on from Part 1 shown at the end of 2011. This second chapter, on display until this Sunday 19th February 2012, presents a major historical survey of museums created by artists. ‘Museum Show Part 2’ – ‘a ‘museum of museums’ perhaps – presents a comprehensive selection of these highly idiosyncratic, semi-fictional institutions. It is the first ever exhibition to chart this particular tendency in contemporary art.’ (Arnolfini 2012) A clever concept, which was intriguing to physically negotiate as you were unsure as to what museum and individual institutional construct was to follow.

Each artist or collective had such an innovative way to present their own “museum”. As part of the show is the contemporary Chinese and Beijing-based artist Hu Xiangqian with Hu Xiangqian’s Museum. Hu’s imaginary ‘museum’ is visualised through a series of recorded performances by the sole employee – the artist – in which he describes the experimental artworks in the “great collection” of his institution. The inspiration for this series comes from an experience of two artists trying to explain their artworks to each other. This artwork was also on show at the Chinese Arts Centre‘s recent exhibition ‘Institution for the Future’ curated by the Shanghai curator Biljana Ciric, who i have met with on a few occasions whilst living in Shanghai, as part of the Asia Triennial Manchester 2011 (ATM11) festival.

Hu Xiangqian, Hu Xiangqian’s Museum, performance, 2011. Photo: Arnolfini gallery guide

I’ve just looked on the Arnolfini‘s website to see they have the South Asian show Shilpa Gupta ‘Someone Else’ coming up in March…such a shame I’ll miss it as I’ll be back in Shanghai. A few nice finds in Bristol that day where it was good to see the UK’s engagement with contemporary Asian art. After this re-fuelling on contemporary art, there was time for a quick pit-stop for dinner with two good friends – thanks for the amazing homemade fish stew guys. It was super yummy. I really loved eating real, home-cooked food whilst I was back in the UK…I know you can get it in China, it’s just for some reason it doesn’t quite taste the same.


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