Text by Robert Clark
As I write this, the Bloc Projects gallery is occupied by Rebecca Lennon’s mischievous installation of absurdist mixed-media make-believe. I was prompted to describe the show in last Saturday’s Guardian as “ … something like a joke-shop version of Eliot’s ‘not with a bang but a whimper’ … it is dada’s anarchist nihilism brought up to date in an age of eBay shopping and internet sampling.” The exhibition title is a heavily ironic take on the reported last words of the assassinated Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Ville: Don’t Let It End This Way Tell Them I Said Something.
It occurs to me when thinking back on a decade of Bloc Projects that Lennon’s exhibition is somewhat typical of the almost-uniqueness of a gallery that advertises itself as being open to “artists at a point of change or risk in their career.” Where else in Sheffield can artists with such seriously adventurous creativity let go and let loose, play about and fool around? There is something about the relative smallness of the space and the culturally irreverent friendliness of its atmosphere that allows artists to give fresh form to unformed ideas. It’s perhaps no coincidence that so many of its shows emerge from a collage or assemblage tradition. Media, techniques and images are taken from diverse sources, disorientated and reorientated just to see what might happen, what creative surprises might be catalyzed. This is surely precisely what a contemporary art gallery should do: provoke new work rather than merely serve as a public resting place for the old.
As I have lived and worked as an artist in Sheffield throughout Bloc Projects’ ten lively years and beyond, the gallery has been of continuous importance to me. It’s always been good to know it’s there, half-hidden away amidst the post-industrial back streets abutting the city’s Cultural Industries Quarter. In a city that houses a plethora of artists’ studios yet a dearth of contemporary art venues, Bloc Projects has become essential to any kind of feeling that we are living in a city that in any way recognises and celebrates contemporary culture. Just up the road, S1 is now flourishing and providing an outlet to international names, but its establishment has been relatively recent. Just down the road, Site Gallery has long distinguished itself as the city’s central contemporary art venue on a par with Birmingham’s Ikon, Bristol’s Arnolfini and Manchester’s Cornerhouse, but it also has nowhere near the floor or wall space of such venues and, up until recently, has tended to exhibit mainly lens-based work. In comparison Bloc Projects, seemingly so approachable and informal, so not-for-profit and apparently humble in its financial clout, has consistently shone as the city’s artists-run contemporary art star-turn, a place where awkwardness and strangeness reign, where occasional failures are allowed to take place as well as tried-and-tested successes, precisely because creative failure is of course an utterly necessary risk factor in any genuinely ingenious and courageous contemporary art.
Like any other Sheffield artist, I have far from seen every last one of Bloc Project’s ten years of shows and the ones I have seen have often tended to be by artists whose work I have, for one reason or another, already been familiar with in earlier incarnations. So for me to single out a selection from the gallery’s decade-long history would be shamelessly subjective and perhaps open to accusations of bias or favoritism. Nevertheless, to give these recollections a bit more specific focus, here goes. Highlights for me have included the following. Samantha Donnelly’s Workroom, a deliberately daft yet undeniably sensuous sculptural mix-up of bodily fragments. Frances Hegarty’s paradoxically bold and heavily physical drawings embodying ephemeral and elusive states of mind and emotion. Nikos Mantzios’ Laocoön, collaged collisions of drawing and painting that accrued in violently shattered yet precisely observed portraits. Maud Haya-Baviera’s Delightful Desuetude, a wonderful culturally literate installation of enigmatically composed photo-sculptural image elements. Emma Talbot’s shelf-stack installation of exquisitely sensitive drawings A Sheffield Song, collating memories and reveries of her visits to the city, memories and reveries that were bound all the more to touch my heart as I was flattered to be the subject of not a few of them. Chloe Brown’s deceptively simple yet deeply affecting tableaux featuring the suspenseful sculptural confrontation of one little white mouse and one big black storm cloud. Simon Le Ruez’s appropriately titled Threats and Promises, an immaculate staging of sculptural scenarios that were as charming as they were acutely unnerving. Paintings by Salvatore Fiorello that came across in all their eerie calm and technical cool as somnambulistic daydreams of nocturnal cityscapes in which the dreamers had well and truly given up the ghost. Finally the collaborative meeting of Andrew Curtis and Vivien C Lee produced a detailed mixed-media archive of their highly personal perceptions of various mini-dramas of the Sheffield day-to-day scene.
Then, behind the scenes, there’s been the ten year host of gallery directors, administrators, curators, invigilators and layers-on-of-hands. They are too innumerable to list here but Bloc Projects currently continues to thrive under the joint directorship of Lesley Guy, Becky Bowley and Dominic Mason. And any Bloc history would be blatantly incomplete without tipping an appreciate wink to the long-term management and simple hands-on hard-graft of artist Richard Bartle, a true Yorkshire-born, downtown Sheffield artworld mover-and-shaker if ever there was one. Cheers to him and to all who have been involved with Bloc Projects on this its ten year birthday.