Office blocks on Holloway Head. Maybe it’s the cold weather with its light dusting of snow, or the apparent signs of low occupancy, but to me these buildings seem to have taken on a strange sort of quietness. They weren’t quiet when they were built — they were the brave new future of society. They have become quiet, through some process I don’t understand.
Two summers ago, I was sat at a table in a Sea Cadet hall on the Kent coast, sharing bread and wine with friends and strangers. The moment was memorable for being both strongly immediate and simultaneously somehow timeless. Tonight there is also bread and wine, faces familiar and new, but the setting and context is different: a wet winter night, a gallery space, a vitrine filled with a clay landscape strewn with bone, shells, leaves, and incense sticks. Both occasions were instigated by the artist Hannah Lees.
Near where I live in central Birmingham, there’s a patch of waste ground, maybe 150m square, surrounded by a metal fence. Left untouched by developers, tall grasses and shrubs have flourished, and magpies and other birds can often be seen hopping about looking for insects to munch. Here, in late summer, the constant drone of crickets drowns out the traffic on the main road a stone’s throw away; the autumn sunsets, unobstructed by tall buildings, are spectacular. A wide variety of rubbish has accumulated on the east side of the fence, including an empty suitcase and bottles and cans of all descriptions.
In a densely occupied city like Birmingham, sometimes you have to strain your neck to see the sky, tall buildings blocking the view on almost every side. Sometimes, however, a demolition will clear a wide open path to the clouds. Coming across one of these views, where I’d gotten used to seeing another brick or concrete façade, can be quite jolting. The above space used to belong to a leisure complex offering ten-pin bowling and skating; now it is a hole, filled with sky. A billboard at the end of the street indicates that it is destined to become student housing.
Western media representations of the inhabitants of Palestine tend to divide them neatly into two groups, Jews and Arabs, with the occasional vague reference to Christians of unknown origin and denomination. As is usual with such things, the reality is much more complex, with many different groups occupying and overlapping in a highly contested geopolitical and cultural space. Jumana Manna’s film A magical substance flows into me (2015), currently showing at Chisenhale Gallery in London, introduces us to some of these groups through an exploration of their music. Having researched the work of German-Jewish ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann and the pioneering series of broadcasts of Palestinian music he made in the 1930s, Manna sets out to find the communities featured in the broadcasts and re-record their music.
The British Art Show, a national touring exhibition of new art organised by Hayward Touring at London’s South Bank Centre, recently opened its eighth edition at Leeds Art Gallery. Works by 42 UK-based artists were selected or commissioned by curators Anna Conlin and Lydia Yee, and this scale made taking in all that was on offer something of a challenge, especially as many of the works were films of quite some length. As a result, I don’t think I was able to give each and every work the attention it deserved, but here are some of the highlights that stood out.
Zarina Bhimji’s film Jangbar was shot on location in Kenya, at and around various train stations along the Kenya Railway line. In a series of long static shots and slow pans, a series of dilapidated and seemingly abandoned buildings is depicted: train station tickets offices and waiting rooms, signal boxes, houses, and a church. These are interspersed with numerous shots of the surrounding landscape. Bhimji chooses to focus in on details such as the paint peeling off a wooden bench, the broken keys of an old piano, and the bark of a tree. The soundtrack to the film was created separately to the images, and includes both sounds directly related to the image being presented (e.g. wind rustling through trees) and also a whole host of others that have no visible source: voices chattering and hollering, bangs, clatters, and rattles, strains of music, fragmented excerpts of recorded speeches, and so on.
Renée Green is one of my favourite artists, and has been since I saw her solo exhibition Endless Dreams and Water Between at National Maritime Museum, Greenwich back in 2009. Recently I finished reading her book Other Planes of There, which collects a selection of her writings from 1981 to 2010, though most of the essays, articles, exhibition proposals, and other texts date from 1990 onwards. This book documents aspects of Green’s practice with which I was unfamiliar, and also sheds new light on themes and concerns I already associated with her work.
Martin John Callanan’s latest project is a single long, white webpage, in which a vertical list of photographs is presented, all landscape-oriented (width greater than height), with some differences in size and aspect ratio. There is no text other than the heading ‘Martin John Callanan, 2004-2015’, not even alt-text. The filenames indicate that they are arranged in reverse chronological order, newest at the top; metadata is meticulously detailed and uniformly uninformative. When people appear in the images, they are always facing away, engrossed in some activity or looking out of shot. A large proportion of the images have no one in them. Some are striking and beautiful, others are mundane and dull.
One evening in late November, as I was walking through the streets of Digbeth with current Grand Union exhibitor Aideen Doran, the artist casually remarked how the area’s architectural profile reminded her of Belfast; specifically, the way in which the hodge-podge of different styles, functions, and levels of upkeep evoked streets damaged by sectarian violence, and then either rebuilt or not, according to various factors. I was struck by this equation, at the level of appearance at least, between the ravages of capitalism and those of armed warfare, though on reflection I don’t really know why I was as surprised as I was. (I’ve since visited Belfast, and the parts I saw reminded me more of the northern mill town in which I grew up than any part of Birmingham I’ve seen, though Doran knows the former city much better than I do.)