I have an irrational fear of trams (borne of a confrontation with one whilst behind the wheel of a hire car in Den Haag!) but the new tramline from Clifton into Nottingham makes for a far more relaxing journey into the city’s various art venues. On this occasion ostensibly to visit Lakeside for the Elizabeth Frink retrospective. And, although its not exactly the kind of work that pushes all the buttons for me, it was impeccably curated and displayed, exactly what one has come to expect in the Djanogly. Frink is probably due a revisioning, firstly as she, after Hepworth, is the leading woman in the post war pack of British sculptors and secondly because the fracturing of the distinctions between figuration and abstraction nowadays plays well with the vision contained within her best works. At least thats how it seems to me when I look at those pieces that resonate most with me…the heads, figures and, just occasionally, the creatures where a certain angularity and blankness overhauls the more tradition topography of the subject. And for the most part its in the spiritual commissions where this aspect of her visual thinking is paramount, making the second gallery the best of the three to my eyes. Overall the show is beautifully presented and marvellously coherent.
Because the tram service makes movement between venues so convenient my friend and myself were able to take in a trip to Nottingham Contemporary…not something we do anywhere as often as one might imagine given its proximity. Alien Encounters was a curious mix of four rather disparite exhibitions. Not that each didn’t have elements of interest but simply that there was, for me, little meaningful connectedness to the whole. I can ‘get’ the loose relationships between Sun Ra (the well known African-American jazz musician) in the next gallery and Rana Hamadeh‘s ‘The Fugitive Image in Gallery One…the notion of alienation and the appropriation of the Ancient Egyptian context…and more besides but frankly it seems both a bit of a stretch and ultimately a ‘so what’moment. The whole piece revolving around an academic book on two serial killers in 1920’s Egypt and essentially comprising the set of a filmed play suggests that the work “scrutinises the relationship between criminology, epidemiology and theatre” and perhaps it does but it didn’t engage this viewer…and the technical breakdown of several video elements probably didn’t help. I’ve talked often of the scourge of ‘stuffism’ and for me I’m sorry to say it was right up there with the best of it.
In Gallery 2 we are treated to an elaborate ‘2001’ interior in which the aforementioned Sun Ra’s discography is displayed with handy hanging headphones to dip into his huge back catalogue. Now I am actually one of those people who has both listened to a fair bit of his work (there’s even a couple albums on my ipod) and saw him perform once back in the day. Even his biggest apologists might concede that his oeuvre is patchy…in fact for most people a lot of it is frankly impenetrable. Here he is presented as a polymath thinker, artist, sonic and visual, and again to an extent there’s more than a grain of truth in it. But some of the case is crazily overstated…his visual arts output is mainly artwork designs that range across received symbolism and stage costumes that draw on a clumsy mix of science fiction meets ancient Egypt. All good fun but often rather silly and shambolic…as I reckon…is some of his music where the free jazz experimentation could often fall apart into a kind of anarchy that is a tad tedious and unlistenable (except to the performers themselves maybe). Ultimately Sun Ra is an undoubtedly seminal figure in the explosion and exploration of the limits of what free jazz and more widely contemporary experimental music (especially electronics) might be and an interesting figure in the emergent Black political/cultural milieu of 60’s America. But I’m not sure a show of this kind will bring home these messages to an especially large audience. I can’t comment on the video work in Gallery 3 as I simply didn’t engage with it…sadly often the way with split screen works of talking heads. In Gallery 4 there was proof positive that stuffism can be both trivial and bombastic (as if to point up the seriousness of Hamedeh’s material). All in all not a lot that I found engaging in the run up to the festive season!
We popped over the road to Syson, where Blue Firth (based in Nottingham) was presenting a show entitled ‘Brought Something Back’. Here there were glimpses of an engaged and engaging visual spectacle although much of the borrowed imagery seemed to me as haphazard and obvious as that deployed by Sun Ra. Of course I know one might say that about, say, Paul Klee (and there was a whiff of his ethos going on here) but then again he was situating borrowed mystical symbols within an altogether more intense and structured visual construct. One wall comprises a good looking wash of what might have been a blown up English pastoral watercolour with the individual pieces (some essentially 2D, others delicate half circle shelves with glazed stoneware) ranged across it and that worked a whole lot better than the other objects, both freestanding and wall mounted elsewhere in the space. All in all intriguing and ambitious without being entirely convincing. So a good run round whats on in the city…made possible by that jolly good tramline!
p.s. I’m aware of the fact that it was a trolley car rather than a tram in the song!