Can we ever adequately tell a history of the contemporary?
Within the context of the exhibition both artists and curators attempt to communicate what it was to ‘be there’, yet in doing so frequently turn to an established set of aesthetic conventions and narratives established in the latter 20th century’s turn to the archival. In looking back there is space to create new means in dealing with the past-ness of it all and the inherent melancholy of returning to a time within living memory.
This challenge is one that seems to have a particular lure for the arts, evident in a number of exhibitions using both the material and aesthetics of the archive within recent decades. So many attempts at this task might infer the ultimate impossibility of such a goal. Yet, they also tell something of the rich potential of the question.
From April to November 2015 three exhibitions curated by Lynda Morris – ‘Modern History’ Volumes I, II and III took place at galleries located in towns within Lancashire and Greater Manchester - The Grundy in Blackpool, The Atkinson in Southport, and Bury’s Art Museum and Sculpture Centre - attempting to give an indication of cultural and visual trends of Northern life from 1969 to the present. Shows include work by regional artists who have worked on themes both local and global, and impressions from those who have studied or relocated to the North West.
We are led from the familiar urban narratives of John Davies’ photographs of concrete constructions, alongside documentation of working class culture in other forms; to pieces exploring the notions of Diaspora, Feminism and the document itself in a far wider context. Mirroring this multitude of voices from both inside and beyond the region are the locations selected for the shows - hosted by arts venues that are often overlooked by wider arts dialogues, residing in towns not often marked out on the cultural map. The three galleries are idiosyncratic spaces, each with a definite reflection of location and history, with their reformatory intention and grand architecture marking them as spaces for improvement and education.
The exhibition series combines a definite sense of place and regionality through each gallery site, yet also retains a sense of internationalism and reflects the globalization occurring within the time period of its focus. Refreshingly, this northern show looks beyond its county borders and to the wider experiences of time, place and history making. There is a deliberate focus on showing work that shifts from the expected regional conventions of Lancashire, to something demonstrating a current, outward looking and varied pool of practitioners.
Whilst recent art trends have been characterised by a turn to the archival, the ‘Modern History’ series has adopted these aesthetics and methods, acknowledging their ultimately personal and unreliable nature. The concept of a ‘modern’ history places this work and history making in the directly experienced present - a mood which is reflected within many of the works from the perspective of the individual artist within the contemporary socio-political landscape.
Within the second ‘Volume’ of ‘Modern History’ hosted at The Atkinson, two pieces in particular exemplify this trend: Nina Chua’s film ‘Chongqing Sunset’ (2011) is juxtaposed against David Osbaldeston’s evolving public declaration text work ’As Things Stand’ (2008-14). This curatorial move places into relief the two moods – the quietly personal and the loudly political - running throughout the series. Osbaldeston uses the platform as a space for political dissent and protest, one that is evolving rather than set and responsive to societal shifts, Chau as a space for subtle reflection on a globalized experience.
‘As Things Stand’ consists of a large chalkboard listing the political and social freedoms limited to those living in the region, updated to include responses to the 2015 election results and ensuing further cuts to benefits and the arts. The piece contains references to the real consequences of life under the current conservative political system in the UK, e.g. “NO PAY RISES”, but also the impact on the inner life of individuals, “NO DAY-DREAMING”. The voice employed is militant yet comedic, embodying that sense of radicalism and gallows humour that northern society claims (or aims) to embody at its heart. Written in chalk, the work is reminiscent of both the groundswell politics of the region, and a sense that there is still a potential for change, for another history to be written over this dust.
In contrast to the vocal immediacy of Osbaldeston’s work, Chau’s film provides an alternative vision of our global, post-Millenial landscape. Made whilst the Manchester-based artist was spending time in China, the film is shot from the window of a train moving through the dusk hued urban space of the city’s commuter route. Framed by this familiar yet foreign viewpoint we are reminded of a sense of international shared experience; despite the particular use of colour and recognisable text of Chinese characters in advertising hoardings, there is an impression that this space could be anywhere now, our own journey home. The dislocation of a postmodern experience within the urban space, all strip lighting, ubiquitous advertising and silhouetted views over skyscrapers, is at once comforting in its familiarity and disturbing in its ubiquity.
This amalgam of styles and mood renders a distinct lack of an authoritative, prescriptive voice within these three exhibitions; instead artists are making work reflecting their own experience of a particular time and place. Perhaps it is both more meaningful and honest to this sense of regionality that responses should differ in this way. In her curatorial stance Lynda Morris has approached the exhibition format as a locale for multiple, individual and anecdotal versions of particular moments in contemporary culture.
Morris’ essay accompanying the exhibitions exists as fragmentary recollections of a series of personal encounters with both the artworks and their social context, reflecting her curatorial approach. Pieces and ideas are juxtaposed in a manner distinctly recounting an individual experience of multiple times and places; jumping between cities, decades and subject matter. This feels refreshing in contrast to the well established convention of exhibitions relying purely on the aesthetic suggestion of the historical. Instead of that authoritative voice, these shows acknowledge the shifting status of history making (and reading) as a process that is becoming increasingly fractured and uncertain. Here, a lack of hegemonic aesthetic or obvious theme is celebrated: as viewers we are left to create connections and meaning for ourselves.
Paul Ricoeur (in his work as a philosopher of history) wrote about the theory of the trace – a notion that perhaps epitomises this constant searching for a work which ‘sums up’ a particular moment in time. He wrote that the objects we leave behind, whether incidental or as creative output, may only ever remain as a marker of what has passed, that something happened here, rather than imparting any coherent meaning.
Each artwork (whether in this series of exhibitions, or some other unknowable future context) is read anew through both changes in time and location and that unknown future audience. In considering the trend toward the archival exhibition, it is also worth acknowledging the ultimate impossibility of the task. We acknowledge histories, archives, and their accompanying given narratives to be biased, yet contemporary culture persists in attempting to create its own commentary and a constantly recycled mythology of the present moment.
This article has been commissioned by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North West (CVAN NW), as part of a regional critical writing development programme, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England — see more here.