Milton Keynes is quite unlike any other place in the UK. A new, modernist town built in the 1960s to provide somewhere to live for people who worked in London. A town built out of concrete, marble and glass. A town built on a grid. A few decades later the place became known as a haven for various subcultures; ravers, skateboarders and boy racers all flocked to the town, youthful rebellion disrupting the grid.
Since 1999 MK Gallery has ensured that the town reflects on what makes it unique and that the town’s inhabitants, who are no longer so intrinsically tied to the capital, have access to some of the best of international contemporary art. Following a major redevelopment of the galleries and surrounding public realm, MK Gallery reopened its doors in March 2019 by working with almost 100 artists and architects to create ‘The Lie of the Land’.
This dense group exhibition includes objects which explore the history of the local area, some dating back several hundred years before the new town was built. Others are objects which have emerged from the town but have since become staples of British urban planning, such as the iconic ‘Milton Keynes Bench’, designed by Brian Milne in 1970. These art historical or more museological objects enter into close dialogues with a wide variety of contemporary artworks.
Jeremy Deller’s ‘The History of the World’ (1997), one of the very first artworks you encounter upon entering the gallery, seems to act as a precursor for a vitrine of early 1990s rave flyers, which advertise Seduction, Swan-E and Altern-8 playing in the town.
An uncredited and untitled pair of minimal wall drawings by Boyd and Evans, marking two of the gallery walls with a green pencil grid, feels closely related to a pair of ‘Lecture Diagrams’ (1810) made by J.M.W. Turner while he was Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy in the early 1800s.
Other works in the show engage directly with Milton Keynes’ rebellious, activist outlook and identity. William Morris, Buckminster Fuller and Olivia Plender present critical commentary and attitudes from across several hundred years. Plender’s board game ‘Set Sail for the Levant’ (2007) suggests to visitors that they have agency to participate in the political life of their town and deeper into the exhibition audiences can explore Lawrence Lek’s virtual reality work ‘Play Station’ (2017), which provides a possible insight into Milton Keynes’ future - should it continue to grow.
Across the room from Lek’s VR headset, installed well above head height, is a small sculptural work called ‘Blind’ (2017) by Emma Hart. Taking the form of a satellite dish, but made of ceramic, this personified work speaks of the built environment in a very playful way.
Another standout moment in the show is ‘Modern Art, Disco Drawing’ (1982) by John Yeadon. Installed in a room filled with predominantly historic works, Yeadon’s drawing of the interior of a 1980s gay bar, complete with rainbow flashing frame and made during the early days of the AIDS crisis, contributes to the exhibition’s narratives around defiance, solidarity and community building.
These themes and the new additions to the building, including a large event space, cafe and smaller studio-style space, along with an outdoor play area, show that the gallery is deeply committed to the communities which surround it and that Milton Keynes will remain disruptive in the most exciting ways.