In the Round is a group exhibition curated by Jed Buttress of Brass Tacks as part of a six-month programme of events, skills development and exhibitions for artists in the North East supported by Creative Central: NCL, funded by the North of Tyne Combined Authority and Newcastle City Council. Iris Ollier, Kitty L. M. McKay, Nat Loftus and Place Holder were selected via an open call and have assembled work that examines the effort required to recall memory and shared histories, how we create new spaces for memories to be created in, and how memory interacts with nostalgia. The work provokes thinking about shared experiences in spaces that might no longer exist, about how we remember things differently, and how the reconstruction implicit in memory can evoke a sense of loss and emptiness.
Upon entering the newly refurbished gallery, my eye is initially drawn to the spinning artwork on the floor, McKay’s revolving ‘Dance Floor’ (2023). Mention a rotating dance floor to anyone that spent time in Newcastle in the 90s and no doubt they will recall the infamous floating nightclub, the Tuxedo Princess. With its rickety walkway, dizzying drinks deals and sticky carpets, this former ferry defined Newcastle’s clubbing scene in the 90s.
McKay’s kinetic sculpture consists of a circular surface about 100cm wide covered with garish paint scrawls, a lost solo stiletto and broken glass. It is amazing how simply contemplating a spinning object can produce a sense of unsteadiness that sets the tone for experiencing the rest of the exhibition. Did the owner of the lost stiletto have a good night or does the shoe alongside the smashed glass imply a more sinister turn of events? Was it a night to remember, or not? The work is deliberately ambiguous: a smashed glass could be the result of an over enthusiastic dance move, the aftermath of a confrontation or a simple accident. In addition, experiencing the work provokes broader existential questions: when the ground appears to move beneath us and the walls are spinning, do we reach out for stability or do we sit with this discomfort and embrace its disorienting effects?
Continuing to explore the recollection of memory are Loftus’ delicate pencil drawings which appear to float like little patches of mist within concrete-skimmed frames. The juxtaposition of materials of contrasting weights emphasises the barely-there quality of fading memories. Her work ‘Overworld 1’ (2023) is marked by the use of coloured embroidery thread literally stitching a line that connects the found photographs, perhaps attempting to make sense of a chain of events by imposing a narrative. The construction of a story, in which one thing appears to lead to another, calms the disquieting effects of a more chaotic reality.
‘Overworld 2’ (2023) consists of a found photograph of rocky terrain that has been reproduced six times. Each reproduction comes with a new version displayed alongside made from collaged magazine images. None of the recreations come close to the original, perhaps this is a comment on how the desire to recreate a moment often produces a sense of loss in the act of reconstruction. Her other works in the show begin with black and white found photographs with small additions of bright colour, perhaps attempting to haul these scenes into the present. How might someone breathe life back into the image of a former time (bringing the colour back into its cheeks, metaphorically speaking)?
Then there are Ollier’s untitled steel sculptures (2022-23), which incorporate glass lenses. They invite you to see the other works in the show as inverted images, turning your perspective upside down. Through one lens, McKay’s plasticine piece ‘Panoramic’ (2023) depicting sunbathers and swimmers, becomes inverted and doubled, transforming the scene so that divers leap into the air instead of into a pool. In another lens, peer closely and your own face is turned upside down. It is playful and yet unnerving, slightly reminiscent of a circus hall of mirrors.
Pondering the intangibility of memory in this way produces a sense of unease. Whether navigating around the spinning disc of ‘Dance Floor’ or Ollier’s curving steel forms to find a lens to look through, these works draw attention to how you move through the space. In that sense, the audience is brought on stage, rather than seated around it as the title of the show alludes to.
Again, thinking of how the different works relate to each other in this group show context, McKay’s use of plasticine to construct her scenes of social gatherings contrasts with Ollier, Loftus and Place Holder’s tendency to draw upon the rigidity of concrete. Not only is plasticine endlessly malleable and flexible, it makes me think of Outsider Art. It is a material that is accessible, familiar and, in its associations with art practices outside of the sphere of traditional art education, speaks to the experiences of everyone regardless of training or socioeconomic background.
It is also fitting that it is a material invented by a local artist. William Harbutt (1844-1921)was born in North Shields and created Plasticine out of frustration with other forms of clay that dried hard and were not able to be reused. This endless mouldability conjures a sense of fluidity and temporality. It seems perfectly suited to the scenes that McKay chooses to depict: youthful visages of children enjoying a sunny day together (‘Panoramic’, 2023); and drunken nights out at a time when getting into a club still felt like a buzz (‘Out Out’, 2023). It is impossible to talk about memory without acknowledging the passage of time and the inevitability of ageing. We are all older than we are in our recollections.
Place Holder is the name of the joint creative practice of artists Jill Tate and Matt Denham, whose first body of work, Degrees of Freedom, was presented at the NewBridge Project last year. Their contribution to the exhibition riffs on indoor, domestic references but continues the exploration of site and psychology.
In the life-size sculpture ‘Reframing II’ (2023), a concrete mantelpiece holds several picture frames inside of which are pictures of empty picture frames. ‘After the Fact’ (2023) is a painting of a cell-like room lit with a barely-there window. Their two-channel film ‘I stop noticing some limits and start noticing others’ (2022) shows similarly brutalist interiors. One includes a sofa and mug of tea and yet these indicators of human presence don’t alleviate the claustrophobic, crushing sense of emptiness within these concrete structures. Despite the signifiers of ‘home’, these spaces feel uninhabited and lacking in intimacy. They feel simultaneously occupied and yet vacant, compelling us to imagine the person or people who might frequent this place.
Reflecting on what home might mean, we may think of warmth, safety and retreat, but Place Holder strip back these associations to reveal the cold, unnerving material structures left when subjective experience and memory are removed. In 1958, Gaston Bachelard wrote that the house ‘is a privileged entity for a phenomenological study of the intimate values of inside space…For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.’ To me, Place Holder’s work clearly embodies these ideas, their focus on the construction of domestic contexts could be interpreted as explorations of the psyche and the externalisation of this ‘inside space’. How we personalise our homes (or not) can perhaps provide insights as to how we may construct the world around us. It smooths any divides between self and environment to reveal a more symbiotic relationship, one in which our state of mind is influenced by our physical environment and vice versa. We leave our mark on the places in which we live and they leave their marks on us.
There is a value to critically reflecting on the things closest to us, perhaps especially the things that seem most familiar and that we learn to unsee. In order to learn more about our cultural mentality and psychological states of being, we should look close to home and ask, what spaces do we inhabit, what marks do we leave on them, and what memories will we recall of these in the future?
In the Round was on from 8 September to 14 October at Newcastle Arts Centre. There was Q&A with the artists on Friday 13 October, 17:30-19:00.
Brass Tacks will hold a second exhibition from 20 January – 24 February 2024 with Laurie Powell, Bethany Stead, Mani Kambo and Sean Alec Auld.
Kin is an artist, writer and PhD researcher based in Newcastle.
This review was supported by Brass Tacks.