Art of capturing a moment in time

Artist Ciara Phillips. Picture by Simon Hulme
Artist Ciara Phillips. Picture by Simon Hulme
  • The British Art Show, recognised as the most ambitious and influential exhibition of contemporary British art has opened at Leeds Art Gallery, writes Yvette Huddleston.
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If you have been anywhere near Leeds Art Gallery over the past few weeks, you may have noticed a fair amount of coming and going and if you have stepped inside you will have seen that many of those familiar artworks hanging in the main galleries have disappeared.

All this has been in preparation for the British Art Show 8 (BAS8) which opened at the gallery last night. When I speak to Head of Collections Sarah Brown in the gallery’s beautiful Tiled Hall café in the weeks leading up to the opening she still has an awful lot to organise but is nevertheless exuding an aura of calm. That’s down to meticulous planning, although she admits that “every day something goes wrong; despite all the careful planning you have to have a degree of flexibility.” But she’s still smiling, as this is a really big deal both for the gallery and the city of Leeds.

Elizabeth Hardwick with the artwork 'Mother George' by Caroline Achaintre, at the Leeds Art Gallery

Elizabeth Hardwick with the artwork 'Mother George' by Caroline Achaintre, at the Leeds Art Gallery

The British Art Show is recognised as being the most ambitious and influential exhibition of contemporary British art. It is the largest touring exhibition in the UK – the last show in 2010/11 attracted more than 420,000 visitors – and is organised every five years by Hayward Touring. Leeds Art Gallery is the launch venue – with the opening coinciding with the city’s Light Night festival – and the exhibition will then go on tour to Edinburgh, Norwich and Southampton. Hosting the show – and in particular being the launch venue – is a major coup for the gallery.

“The reason the British Art Show is so significant is that because it is a touring exhibition it gives those artists selected by the curators unprecedented exposure,” says Brown. “It can make artists become household names and the reason it only takes place every five years is that it aims to capture a generation of young British artists; and it has done that since 1979 when it was first established.” There are 42 artists presenting their work in the exhibition, many of the pieces being seen in the UK for the first time, and 26 of them have made new artworks especially for the show. The work will include paintings, sculpture, film installations, ceramics, textiles, multi-media and live art performance.

“It will be a really rich experience for visitors,” says Brown. “They will be seeing something that’s unique. A lot of the work – such as the performance pieces – is not work that can be easily replicated. You have to come to the gallery to experience it. There will also be the opportunity to hear the artists speak and to see their works in a way that won’t exist elsewhere – it won’t ever be configured in the same way again and that’s really exciting. Also, what makes it so special here in Leeds is that you can see the whole exhibition in one gallery – often the British Art Show will take you to different galleries around a city.”

The show has been put together by two guest curators – Lydia Yee of the Whitechapel Gallery in London and freelance curator Anna Colin – appointed by Hayward Touring and the host galleries. “They have done a fantastic job – it’s not an easy thing to do,” says Brown. “They spent a year visiting artists in their studio, seeing shows and drawing up a list of artists that they felt were representative of this particular moment. They have also been looking at themes that have emerged – the tension between the virtual and the real and the resurgence of the use of media that have traditionally been associated with folk art and crafts. They have brought together such a wide range of artists and work.”

Highlights include a major new commission by acclaimed Italian designer Martino Gamper, Post Forma, which developed out of Gamper’s interest in how objects can be transformed and reused, rather than discarded. The artist collaborated closely on the project with Yorkshire artisans – specialists in bookbinding, weaving, cobbling and chair caning – transforming broken objects into unique pieces of craft. Linder Sterling’s new work – a textile sculptural rug entitled Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes – will be activated by a ballet choreographed and performed by Northern Ballet dancers in November. Anthea Hamilton’s collection of new freestanding sculptures is a functioning ant farm while Caroline Chaintre’s colourful, hand-tufted textile wall-hanging Mother George has a tactile presence and distinctive folk art feel.

Emerging Scottish artist Rachel Maclean’s new film Feed Me is her most ambitious project to date and features multi-layered digital images. The work has been described as ‘part fairytale, part hyper-modern fantasia’ in which Maclean plays all the characters. Other pieces will evolve throughout the duration of the exhibition such as Stuart Whipps’ AMR 733V for which he is collaborating with former workers at the Longbridge car plant in Birmingham. Together they will gradually restore a Mini built in 1979, a pivotal time in British politics and industry.

“We are giving over the whole of the gallery to accommodate the exhibition,” says Brown. “The upper galleries have all been cleared and repainted and we are doing some building too – creating rooms within rooms in order to show film installations.

Artists have been visiting the gallery for the last 18 months – a lot of work that they are making has been thought about in relation to the galleries here but also it has to tour to the other venues and then it’s thinking about how that is presented.”

Brown was keen that the galleries should look their very best for the occasion and work has been ongoing over the past year to repaint, replace some electrics and install improved lighting. The schedule has involved a huge team of people including plasterers, painters, builders, technicians, audio-visual experts and Hayward Touring staff, and it’s been a massive logistical undertaking. “It’s like a huge set design and then you begin to choreograph which artists need to be here to install their work and those who can’t be here.

“There is a jigsaw puzzle element to it. I always try and rethink the space for each exhibition but now more than ever and I guess people don’t realise what goes on behind the scenes. A lot of work from our permanent collection is out on loan and the rest is in storage – the gallery has such a great collection that there is a really strong demand for it.”

The first conversations with Hayward Touring took place four years ago, not long after Brown arrived at Leeds Art Gallery in 2011 – she remembers presenting the proposal to host BAS8 to Leeds City Council – and she has thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with the artists and guest curators in preparation for the show. “It is such a privilege to be working with so many great artists and you really are part of making new work,” she says.

“We have worked closely with the Hayward and the other cities, so it’s not a single curatorial vision. The way in which institutions work with artists has transformed – it is such a collaborative process – and that makes for a more interesting and exciting show. ”

Always a great champion of Leeds Art Gallery, Brown is mindful of the importance of the exhibition and what it could mean for the city in the future. “I feel the potential of the gallery is phenomenal – it has a fantastic collection, a magnificent building and great library right in the centre of the city,” she says. “Visual art is such a significant component of the vibrant cultural programme in the city of Leeds and with its bid to be named European Capital of Culture in 2023, this is an opportunity to really showcase that.”

• British Art Show 8 is at Leeds Art Gallery until January 10. Entrance is free. 
www.city.art.gallery@leeds.gov.uk.