Uinversal themes the focus of new exhibition at York Art Gallery

The most ambitious large scale media art exhibition that York has ever hosted opens at the city's art gallery today. Yvette Huddleston reports

Vanessa Myrie with Stones Against Diamonds (2016) by Isaac Julie. (Charlotte Graham).
Vanessa Myrie with Stones Against Diamonds (2016) by Isaac Julie. (Charlotte Graham).

As part of the first York Mediale, a ten-day citywide digital arts festival launched yesterday, York Art Gallery is hosting a landmark exhibition which opens today.

Strata - Rock - Dust - Stars showcases selected works by internationally renowned artists, all inspired by William Smith’s 1815 geological map of England, Wales and Scotland. The map is widely acknowleged to be a key factor in the development of the science of geology and it fundamentally transformed our understanding of the world. It also paved for the way for the monetisation of mineral deposits.

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The show has been curated by Mike Stubbs, director of FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, and features work by Isaac Julien, Agnes Meyer Brandis, Semiconductor, Phil Coy, Liz Orton, David Jacques and Ryoichi Kurokawa. “I have been working for some time with a group of artists who are working between art and science and I thought that the William Smith map would be an interesting jumping off point,” says Stubbs. “And it connects with these artists who are looking at exploration and curiosity.”

The show also, he says, provides an opportunity to encourage people to think about the way in which art and science have been “falsely divided” for so long. “Why have they become so separated,” he ponders. “The technology that some of these works are made with is not so different from some of the techniques scientists use for collecting data.”

Given that the exhibition is partly inspired by the study of strata, it is appropriate that it has several layers to it. Themes include mineral exploitation and the consequences of human greed. David Jacques Oil is the Devil’s Excrement takes its title from a prophetic speech given in 1975 by the then Venezuelan Minister for Energy and prompts the viewer to consider mankind’s role in climate change. “This is the first era in terms of the Earth’s history where manmade interventions have become the most dominant force on the planet,” says Stubbs. “We have done undoable damage and we are beginning to confront the idea that the human race may be only temporary.”

Some of the works are playing with the notions of truth and imagination, exploring the area between fact and fiction, and in our ‘post-fact’ modern world that couldn’t be more resonant.

German artist Agnes Meyer Brandis, for example, combines storytelling with film for her work Moon Goose Colony in which she imagines that geese can fly to the moon. “You see Agnes in the film trying to get the geese to follow her on a bicycle,” says Stubbs. “She gives them all the names of astronauts and cosmonauts and she presents ‘evidence’ that the geese made it to the moon.” Isaac Julien’s screen installation Stones Against Diamonds, filmed in Icelandic ice caves, explores the idea of value and questions why some stones are considered more valuable than others.

“There is something deeply philosophical about the themes in the show,” says Stubbs. “We all get so tied up in our own things, but across the artworks there is an exploration of scale – everything from the microscopic to the galactic – which all respond to the idea that we are just tiny in relation to the history of the world and the scale of the universe.”

Strata - Rock - Dust - Stars, York Art Gallery to November 25. York Mediale runs to October 6. yorkmediale.com