Walking into the city centre in the sun at lunchtime I was taking my first visit into the Birmingham art scene. We were walking to the modern art gallery and I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I have often been rather sceptical about modern art as for a long time I have seen two extremes: some really interesting, intelligent art looking at people, culture, etc and really presenting stories and ideas in interesting ways. On the other hand, there’s the classic post-modern blah that means nothing, has very little backbone or thought and it’s only aim is to produce emotional response, mainly disgust, dislike, or controversial hatred.
I went with an open mind and in part was pleasantly surprised. The Ikon Gallery is placed in a square within which there are interesting sculpture-like pieces framing the square, they could be seating, or just a way of bringing your eye towards the sandbag-surround of the Ikon doors.
On the first floor were large photographic prints on Yto Barrada’s about the everyday life in Tangier, the artist’s hometown. Walking round images of deserted and half-destroyed buildings, people with their backs to you, and regions of the Rif mountains (an anti-colonial insurgency in Morocco), there is a feeling of lost, a little poverty, but a simple way of life. Alongside the images we found a film piece, put together from aged home movies of life in Morocco, and an audio of short stories of what seemed to be the artist’s life. Hand-Me-Downs (2011), produced for this exhibition, includes sixteen “myths” (unreliable or unverifiable stories). Told in a very matter-of-fact manner, each story gave you a little more depth to the photographs around the gallery. Even when they were disturbing, (for example, young children burying a cat alive to take it’s skeleton to school, or a sister clobbering her younger sister around the head with a high heel shoe for ripping her skirt) they spoke of the reality of life – nothing hugely dramatic, but memories that have stuck with people over time.
The second floor was different, full of sculptures placed in a way that made them intriguing but didn’t give anything away without your trusty Exhibition Guide in hand. Bedwyr Williams, a Welsh artist born in 1974, seemed to form each piece based on a collection of random thoughts. A sink and toothbrushes attached to the wall (Liebesgarten (2012) Sink, 2 electric toothbrushes and audio) representing a serenading couple, seemed a little ridiculous despite the guides statement. The Heron (2012) Canopy pierced with falling lamp was somewhat interesting and the light did give you the feeling of being on a street beside a New York hotel but for such a small effect I wondered the point. In a separate room, catching my eye were a series of A5 drawings of collected and spontaneous thoughts, which were interesting in a way that looking at a child’s doodle and wondering what was their inspiration is interesting. I’m not sure I would’ve put any of them on my wall though. On our way out, the final piece (and something I was surprised to have missed on the way out) was what looked like an upside-down beach hut. Named the Sentry Box (2012) it was reminiscent of a toilet tent which toppled at a sheep dog trial where the artist’s grandfather was competing. Strange as it was, it was also bold, and made an interesting image at the very least.
I feel that if I were to grasp inspiration from either exhibition I would gain more from Yto Barrada’s work. However strange it may have been I would have loved to gain film material from my childhood, and tell stories about what happened. It resembles many scrapbooks, albums and family trees that people put together about their history. Those images and stories help connect you to the people involved, and those connections and relationships are deep and intriguing. It may have been that depth that was missing from Bedwyr Williams’ work.
But that’s just my opinion, and art is full of them.