On a hillside near Monte Polizzo at the turn of the millennium archaeologists are searching for remains. They speak to camera, sharing the reasons, some academic, others personal, that brought them to this dig. As they talk the video cuts to footage found in the flea markets of Mumbai, home videos of the ceremonies – weddings, dances – that punctuated middle-class lives in 1970s India. Archaeology, an interviewee concludes, is not done just for the furnishing of museums. It drags objects, long forgotten, into our present. Reconstructing our past alters the foundations of our future.
Ashish Avikunthak’s ‘Rummaging for Pasts: Excavating Sicily, Digging Bombay’ (2001) is probably as far as we get from the West Midlands in the inaugural Coventry Biennial. Avikunthak was described to me by the event’s director, Ryan Hughes, as among the “most biennial” of artists included (his work has been shown at festivals in Shanghai, Berlin, Chicago, New Delhi), and he might seem an anomaly in a programme that has set itself the task – primarily through engaging artists based in or hailing from the region – of questioning contemporary art’s role in the future of Coventry.
Facing Avikunthak’s film, on the back wall of the long, gutted office in which it is installed, Martin Green has placed a mirror, the left side of which has been adorned with a strip of scavenged photo booth pictures. A collection of bad haircuts grins out at me. Catching, quite suddenly, a glimpse of myself in this dilapidated building, next to these faces lost to history, I no longer feel so distant from those archaeologists cobbling sense among the rubble.
The walk from the station establishes the context for this first biennial: hoardings and lightboxes promote Coventry’s bid to be the UK’s City of Culture in 2021. In parallel the council has promised ten years of support for cultural growth regardless of the bid’s outcome. For artists and curators in the city, here was an opportunity, not just to take stock of what has recently been achieved, the partnerships already instigated, but to begin plotting the parts they will play in the years to come.
These circumstances have given the programme a reflexive quality. The curators have asked themselves how a biennial might skirt clear of the criticisms to which such events are too frequently susceptible – that they administer culture from the top down; that local and emerging artists are thereby overlooked – to instead help shape and focus the development of artists and audiences within the city.
That the biennial should centre itself in an extensive group show titled ‘The Future’ therefore feels fitting. That this should be situated in the rundown shell that is The CET Building, the former printworks and editorial offices of the Coventry Evening Telegraph (home only to occasional squatters since the newspaper moved out in 2012), seems to inflect some of the optimism with at least a degree of ambivalence.
This seems reinforced by many of the artworks. Even those which bring light and colour back into the dinginess – like Holly Rowan Hesson’s ‘Fold’ (2017), an overhead projector that casts a fiery glow into the end of an otherwise unilluminated corridor – feel somewhat fragile, transient, as if the equipment might pack in, or the power again be pulled.
Others more directly express their anxieties. Mira Calix, who has been given the entire New Press Hall for her installations, frets over the increasing mediation of our lives through screens in ‘by beings in two places at once’ (2017). Photographs pinned to the lower wall – looking like lo-fi renditions of Thomas Struth’s museum photographs – show gallery-goers gazing into their phones. Monitors on the large floor in the centre of the room hold their subjects captive, roped in and unable to wrest themselves away. From the canvas’ tangle of speakers, screens and cables, accompanied by storm-rumbles and bird song, the sound of strings fills the hall, revolving in perpetual irresolution. I’m left engrossed, scrutinising the two OS maps of the city for clues, feeling like I’m searching desperately, frantically, for something I know I’ve lost but that I can no longer remember.
The sense of loss is present in other works, earthed in the city’s history. Stuart Whipps’ prints, through referencing the demise of British Leyland, serve as a reminder that Coventry was once Europe’s Motor City. A more recent and still lingering pain is witnessed in Duncan Whitley’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ (2013–2017), a film which charts the temporary exile of Coventry City Football Club to Northampton. Though there is much reference to the desire for ‘healing and reconciliation’ after their return (words strongly associated with the city’s attitude to its former enemies after the Blitz), the coffin Whitley has draped in the Sky Blues’ colours attests to a betrayal that has not yet been forgiven.
These works, looking back more than they look forward, might help us understand the caution expressed in a work like Gregory Herbert’s blue neon, ‘Up Beat’ (2016). For five minutes at a time the ‘up’ switches off, and the sign looks broken, its chirpiness succumbing to exhaustion (‘I’m beat’) or aggression (‘Beat it!’). In the next room Kurt Hickson goes one further, projecting a Sharpie-scrawled message on the wall: ‘This shit should be in neon!’ It’s an I.O.U. that will never be fulfilled, a promise of regeneration indefinitely deferred.
‘The Future’ as presented by the Coventry Biennial is not that of science fiction. It’s not speculative. It’s certainly not utopian. The ‘Highlights from the City’s Post-War Public Art Collection’ that Hughes has selected show how Coventry has so often seemed on the cusp of the future. It’s there in Jacob Epstein’s ‘St Michael’s Victory over the Devil’ (1958) on the new cathedral, proclaiming the city’s rebirth; there in Alma Ramsay’s ‘Sir Guy and the Dun Cow’ (1952) now obscured in the shadows of the modernist shopping centre; and there on Millennium Place where Jochen Gerz’s ‘The Future Monument’ (1998) is vaulted by the vast sweep of the Whittle Arch, stained with seaweed greens and decked with pigeons.
‘The Future is already here’, Hughes told me, and it is being built by the city, its citizens and its artists. Even acts that might seem insignificant or evanescent – I think of Yelena Popova’s ‘Evaporated Paintings’ installed in the journalists’ offices, grey linen panels with the merest traces of their marking – might change the course of what’s to come, shifting the ground upon which our future is built.
Out round the back of The CET Building Coventry’s future manifests itself, with tower blocks set to house Coventry’s booming student population being harried into the air. Before the next biennial, work will have started on the transformation of The CET Building into a boutique hotel and more student halls. The search for a new venue is already underway. Meanwhile, in what is still a parking lot, positioned to face these construction sites is the latest of Hipkiss and Graney’s ‘Dead Shrines’ (2017). It too is somewhat bleak, an arch of burnt, now soggy timber. But the cinders in the metal barrels evidence yesterday’s festivities, the duo’s post-apocalyptic mead tasting ritual, and the shrine seems to stand for art’s ability – whether through silliness or cynicism, melancholy or exuberance – to sidestep the futures being set for us so as to make the paths that will be our own.