A New Reality – Part 1, The Tetley

Part One of A New Reality at the refurbished Tetley is a dialogue as labour exchange; a push-pull conversation between art labour and the now historicised labour of the former brewery. The programme, developed by Project Space Leeds, establishes this dialogue by way of talks, workshops, exhibitions, and residencies. Together, these different elements attempt to combine an experience of the building’s heritage with contemporary art. Applying such a wide range of projects to interrogate the two contrasting purposes of the space is ambitious, and at times the two struggle to comfortably co-exist. A New Reality‘s romantic interrogation of the Tetley’s past life makes the inaugural exhibitions less of a celebration of contemporary art than a negotiation between past and present. As a curatorial experiment in fusing histories it is fascinating, as exhibitions of contemporary art it seems undecided.

The first floor galleries demonstrate effective use of an awkward space. Two of the modular rooms display objects selected by the curators and archival material relating to the Tetley’s history. The most arresting of these is a selection of large gilt letters. Having once adorned the front of the original building, they are now piled atop one another as a lonely gold non-monument in the centre of the room, entombed by the architectural features of the space. Oak wood panelling, parquet floors, copper radiators and sash windows re-incite memorial tribute to the building’s heritage. The rooms are an alluring nod to tradition, where object identity is interrupted and reinterpreted by the art gallery agenda.

Adjoining these rooms is James Clarkson’s ‘Smooth Flow’, a retrospective commentary on the social history of manufacture at the Tetley through documentary photographs and found objects. The exhibition is eerily dislocated from labour. The noise, dirt and movement captured on the photograph-pasted columns are calcified in the small space. Site-specific labour becomes reductive. Objects of rust and pot sit atop clinical white plinths; their forms made monstrous by the photographs of hands below them. Office labour is formalised into shape and line devoid of narrative action, to be admired for the plasticity of its composite parts. A perpetual suspension between tradition and exhibition, which worked well in the archival rooms, is here problematised by the architecture of the space. You succumb to an oak-overdose. Here, the wood panelling, parquet floor and copper radiators visually stifle the work on display, distorting the relationships between tradition, labour, social history, architecture and contemporary art.

The central atrium gallery, which spans two floors, plays host to Simon Lewandowski and Sam Belinfante’s ‘Reversing Machine‘; an exhibition centred around the eponymous machine. Perceiving the passage of time through a palindromic mechanism, you are invited to take part in a metaphysical suspension aided by sculptural automata. The exhibition is fascinating in its conception and reframing of the historical story-telling that is taking place in its vicinity.

The aforementioned talks, events and workshops which have taken place as part of A New Reality are impressive in their scope and too numerable to mention here. As only the first part of an ongoing project curated by a body striving to avoid institutionalisation, A New Reality is too apologetically history-heavy, and the identity of contemporary art sometimes gets lost. However, the thematisation of the first exhibition is only one part of the Tetley’s master plan, and although the arts council syringe of funding is empty for now, the project’s potential to become an autonomous arts organisation is clear from their commitment to a diverse and inclusive projected programme.

A New Reality – Part 1 continues at The Tetley, Leeds until 28 February 2014.

Rebecca Senior is a writer based in Leeds, and a Phd candidate in History of Art at The University of York.

Image by David Lindsay.