Three days in the cultural capital of the East Midlands…
‘It is a large, populous and handsome town, with a spacious market-place, and considered as one of the principal seats of the stocking manufacture, particularly of the finer kinds, as those of silk and cotton.’
-Thomas Moule, The English Counties Delineated, 1830
When given the opportunity to journey to the East Midlands and spend three days immersing ourselves in Nottingham’s contemporary art scene, our first thought was – ‘what contemporary art scene?’ – The lure of experiencing all that World Event Young Artists had to offer (along with the desire to find out what exactly WEYA is) diffused any scepticism…what follows is a brief journey through the streets of Nottingham.
After a smooth train journey north under blue skies and through golden fields we arrived in the bustling heart of Nottingham, Market Square. The second largest public square in the UK after London’s Trafalagar, it is dominated by Thomas Cecil Howitt’s imposing Neo-Baroque town hall. The square is the social centre of the city, bordered by the local tram system with a massive water feature designed by Gustafson Porter.
We liaised with hundreds of WEYA participants in the shadow of the commanding Nottingham Castle for a very English lunch of fish & chips followed by afternoon tea. This gave us our first taste of the scale and ambition of the WEYA project, with hundreds of enthusiastic young creatives enjoying themselves in the afternoon sun.
We followed the undulating streets to the impressive Nottingham Contemporary gallery for Francis Upritchard’s disturbing A Hand of Cards exhibition. Though not part of the WEYA programme, the New Zealander’s nightmarish sculptures of emaciated hippies got the visual taste buds tingling and set the bar high for the weekend.
Near the All Saints store (housed in a stunning neo-gothic building, complete with white PVC drainpipes – Pugin would have wept) we encountered Twenty Eight, a smart unisex barbershop that doubles as a gallery space.
Sanjeev Thakur’s elegant monochrome portraits on the stairwell led us upstairs, where local collective Gonzo Unit are hosting an intriguing selection of work, including Spanish artist Alejandra A. Noriega’s visceral video installation The Big Dinner involving a staged dinner scene as well as the artist herself minus any clothing. Noriega herself was in the gallery (fully clothed), making for a slightly uncomfortable scene as we all watched a nude version of her serve dinner in the video projection.
That evening we strolled to the cool and airy Surface Gallery for what was billed as a ‘live painting performance’. The presentation dissolved into an awkward discussion about the very nature of Art, so we took our leave and headed to the nearby Backlit Gallery for a different kind of art in action.
One Thoresby Street
In a dark, sweltering room with a beer in hand and surrounded by the angular sculptures of Katie Aggett we arranged ourselves around the artworks and focused on performance in front of us. The appreciative crowd was treated to some sit-down comedy, tall tales and metaphysical scenarios from a strong roster of spoken word performers.
Saturday began with a visit to The Photographer’s Hub; you can read my full review here. As the town hall bell Little John tolled one, we returned to an empty Backlit Gallery. In daylight Aggett’s sculptures stood tall, casting monolithic shadows across this shared studio space. It was becoming clear that the local art scene has exploded in the last few years, with Backlit being one of many galleries commanding respect in Nottingham.
Just a few blocks away One Thoresby Street enforced this paradigm. The dystopian After the World show explores the apocalyptic connotations of the year 2012 and contains outstanding work from Caroline Monnet, Alison Stolwood and Charlie Penrose that explores mortality, the sublime and perception. Housed in a distinctive wedge-shaped building, complete with a giant 1 on the exterior, the venue is a prime artistic space and this provocative show is one of many highlights of WEYA 2012.
Flash forward to the grand finale for opening weekend. The night had all the trappings of a rave; an old bus, a winding route, a big disused building, hundreds of people and a meaty soundsystem. Of course it was very much a legal happening, with gourmet food stalls and delicious local ales.
Abdelaziz Zerrou, Eleni Economo
The night was curated by Gilles Peterson, with a stunning performance by contemporary London Cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson, a high energy show from the Brazilian MC Flavio Renegado and a typically wide ranging DJ selection from Mr Peterson himself.
The last day of our visit to Nottingham began with a trip to the beautiful Malt Cross public house for some Sunday lunch revived our flagging spirits. This former Victorian music hall (one of only five left in the UK) has been artfully restored providing the perfect repose for our tired feet.
Two of the largest concentrations of artwork are housed at Trent University’s Bonnington building and the New Art Exchange. The Bonnington show covered a huge amount of ground, from photography and painting to sculpture, video art and installations. After leaving Bonnington, we followed the tram route, walking northwest out of the city centre passing a serene graveyard enclosed by leafy terraces and arrived at The New Art Exchange feeling tired and slightly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of this event. It had been a stimulating weekend and this final viewing required some visual stamina – fortunately it was worth it.
I’m not usually a fan of installation art but Mathias Isouard’s piece on the stairs was captivating. The Frenchman’s work distorted the stairwell, using thin black lengths of wood and lines on the wall itself creating spatial and perceptive confusion. Sculptural pieces from Moroccan Abdelaziz Zerrou and Cypriot Eleni Economou worked alone but also complimented each other visually. Economou’s cubist structure evoked a futuristic cityscape with Zerrou’s neon typographics hanging in the sky portentously.
Tourism, nightlife, retail, and culture have replaced lace, tobacco, coal and bicycles as Nottingham’s bread and butter. Nottingham has certainly proven that the art scene in the city is alive and well, the infrastructure is established and the local Universities will continue to attract cultural and creative talent to the city.
-Timothy J. Holland
WEYA 2012 is running until 16 September 2012.
*Photographs © Daniel Callanan