‘The Twin’ is the second edition of the Coventry Biennial, predominantly hosted across the twinned sites, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum and The Row, a former NHS facility. Alongside these two figureheads, the Biennial also spills out into other spaces in and beyond the city; Coventry Cathedral, Arcadia Gallery, The Weaver’s House, St. Mary’s Guildhall, Leamington Spa Museum and Art Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, Lanchester Gallery, The Pod, Bell Green Library and Class Room among others. For the first time in its history, New Art West Midlands, the annual group exhibition for recent graduates in the area, has been integrated into the Biennial, levelling and flattening the distinctions between ‘graduate’ and ‘artist’.
The figure of the twin is one that resonates with the history of Coventry, one of the first cities to form an international partnership, first twinning with Volgograd 75 years ago. The Biennial draws on this theme, showing work from artists based in several of these twinned cities, alongside recent graduates from the area, and both local and international artists. Besides exploring international relations in the current political moment, themes of the Anthropocene, nature and technology, pairing artistic practice and academic research and acts of repetition emerge throughout the exhibitions.
Until recently The Row was a functioning NHS rehabilitation facility, utilised by the Biennial through Axisweb’s Vacant Space scheme. The building itself still bears all the traces of its former life – meeting rooms, waiting rooms, the familiar blue curtains, all the old signage intact with peeling layers of paint included. The honesty of the architecture of the space resists the sleek biennials of other cities and is fitting with the brutal and constantly developing architecture of Coventry. The exhibition inhabits every aspect of the building, taking the visitor through winding temporary walls and into old offices and treatment rooms. Even the seating throughout the exhibition is an artwork, Mathew Parkin’s ‘Comfort Objects’ appear throughout ‘The Twin’, an appropriate act of care towards the viewer – care being the duty of both the NHS and the curators.
One of the first rooms inside The Row retains the most features from the building’s medical past. Dylan Fox’s ‘Nobody Passes’ glows in blue and pink neon, framed by blue hospital curtains. The use of the trans+ flag colours interrogate the question of passing (as a cisgendered person), yet framed within such a medical environment the use of the term ‘passes’ brings to mind the medical weight that this term has on many queer identities. Anne-Mie Melis’ ‘Nurturing Prototype #4’ turns the function of a former server room from the maintenance of technology (and by extension, the treatment of patients) to cultivating plant. Melis uses this industrial office equipment to create nature; shoots of leaves, mud and branches are uncovered beneath masses of tangled wires and high-power lightbulbs. Jacqueline Donachie’s two-channel video installation ‘Hazel’ (2015) reflects on sibling familiarity and the medical history of The Row. ‘Hazel’ details the lives of siblings where one of the pair has inherited the myotonic dystrophy gene, depicting the line where genetics can separate, as well as create familiarity, are blurred.
The Biennial has an extensive public programme, yet in addition to this one of the exhibition spaces has been given over to further programming. The Partisan Social Club have papered the room in political slogans and created a workshop manual, which reads more like a political manifesto. For the exhibition the room will be activated with several events, encompassing everything from recording podcasts, fabric printing and tracking the data trail kept by your smart phone.
Continuing into the Herbert, ‘The Twin’ retains its integrity in showing work both from within and outside of the city. Instantly recognisable works such as Mona Hatoum’s ‘A Couple (of swings)’ sit next to graduates from Coventry University. Here the links between Coventry and its international twins become more apparent. Artists based in the city have undertaken residences abroad and international artists have been invited to work in residence within Coventry. Themes of collaboration are particularly visible in this space. Anna Columbine works over Adele Mary Reed’s photographs, meticulously mixing paint to match the colour of Reed’s photographs of Coventry and its twinned cities. Marion Piper and Bharti Parmar, who met at the first Coventry Biennial, have created their ‘Hybrid Painting Project’ through detailed letters and “notes on notes” to create a collaborative painting from their respective homes in Birmingham and High Wycombe.
The exhibition is much slicker and more professionalised within the context of the museum and art gallery than The Row, yet still allows for spillages and seepages throughout the building. Hidden in the undercroft, buried beneath the building, lurks a neon beast. Grace A. Williams’ ‘A Forgetting of Light’ was developed in commission from and through working with academics at the University of Warwick. Taking her research from the German philosopher Jakob Böhme, Williams has created a haunting gothic print that glows in UV light and lights up the overlooked space beneath the museum.
Coventry Biennial’s artist-led approach is tangible, it is messier and stickier than other more sleek, professionalised, outwards-looking art Biennials. In this, ‘The Twin’ is a biennial for Coventry and those working and living within the city, not showcasing international artists over local ones but representing both equally. With Coventry set to become the UK’s City of Culture in 2021, questions are already looming over the fate of the next Biennial, particularly around the sustainability of this mode of working, as The Row is being converted into artists’ studios and the venue for the first Biennial, the former Coventry Evening Telegraph building, is in the process of being converted into boutique hotel. I hope that, as well as a trail of repurposed buildings, the Biennial will leave a revitalised space for practicing artists and creatives in its wake.