In 1944 the artist Naum Gabo asked himself “What do my works contribute to society in general, and to our time in particular?”
74 years later Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge re-opens following a multi-million pound redevelopment of its galleries and public spaces and takes this question, and its possible answers, as a starting point. It features the work of 38 practitioners whose works fill the galleries, the on-site historic house and a nearby church, as well as occupying space online and being emblazoned on the uniform of the front of house staff. This exhibition is expansive.
We see modernist works by Ben Nicholson, Richard Long, Joseph Beuys and of cause Naum Gabo. These quite literally feel at home in the space which was of cause the house of a great champion of modern art in Britain, Harold Stanley Ede and alongside these now historic works, are contemporary pieces by a huge range of international practitioners.
Stand out works include Alice Channer’s ‘Stalagmites’ (2017) and Rana Begum’s ‘No. 764 Baskets’ (2017-18). Both works confront the mass production processes to be found in the artists’ respective communities. We see textures from American Apparel dresses imprinted on to Channer’s mirrored aluminium works and Begum immerses us in a thousand handwoven bamboo baskets produced in a Bangladeshi village. Both works make the precarious labour of others visible in a way that a headline or blog post cannot, both works are visually and materially absorbing, and it is this dimension of time which forces you to consider these wider implications.
Other strong works in the exhibition include pieces which address movement through space, starting with Long’s seminal ‘A Line Made by Walking’ (1967) and quickly evolving to encompass artists’ responses to colonialism and forced migration. Photographs and films by John Akomfrah, Khadija Saye and others provide insight here but perhaps the most engaging response to this subject is Issam Kourbaj’s ‘I will be Here’ (2018). Kourbaj pins a photocopied page from his expired Syrian passport to the gallery wall each day and rubber stamps it with the word CANCELLED. It is a deeply personal reflection on the horror unfolding in the artist’s homeland.
Contemporary works which seem much less concerned with the political but perhaps continue or expand upon the modernist reflection which underpins the exhibition include a collection of five watercolours by Callum Innes. The small works are beautiful and delicate, simply consisting of one colour laid over the top of another.
The greatest strength of this exhibition is that each artwork is contributing something. Whether that is making things visible, expanding debates on key issues or quite simply being aesthetically pleasing. This exhibition makes it clear that artists are still asking themselves how their work contributes to society and perhaps now more than ever before there are a myriad of answers.