A black and white photgraph of two movie stars kissing, their faces overlaid with a sepia illustration of a landscape with a river running through it.

Deep Horizons

John Stezaker, 'Pair III' , 2007. Photo credit: Jason Hynes.

As I enter Deep Horizons, I’m struck by the irritating sound of eight ticking metronomes. Their noise floods the first gallery, forming a soundtrack to my encounter, and spills into the other three spaces. Each metronome is set to a different pace – hence the title, ‘Work No. 180 Largo, larghetto, adagio, andante, moderato, allegro, presto e prestissimo’ (1995-2004), Italian names for different music tempos in ascending order – causing them to ebb and flow in expanding and contracting staccatos. I imagine that Martin Creed, an artist known for his conceptually Draconian yet humorous work, would take pleasure in the hold that the bothersome work has over this otherwise peaceful project. Peaceful, that is, in atmosphere, not in thought.

Deep Horizons exhibits forty-seven artists whose work, most of which have not been previously displayed, speaks to the theme of ‘excavation’. They are selected from MIMA’s and the David and Indrė Roberts collections and span sculpture, drawing, painting, installation, ceramics, photography and moving image, with the addition of a specially curated online playlist by exhibiting artist Lonnie Holley to accompany the show. The exhibition was developed and artworks chosen through conversations between curators and seven specialist collaborators: Sir Tony Robinson (broadcaster and actor), Liliane Lijn (artist), Fiona Crisp (artist), Dr Greg Kenicer (botanist), Chamkaur Ghag (Professor of Physics), Dr Julietta Singh (writer and academic) and Geoff Taylor (former Tees Bay pilot). Their interpretations feature alongside some of the works, making associations across politics and folklore, the local and the global, the prosaic and the scholarly (e.g. ‘I married the daughter of the Chairman of Stoke City Football Club…’; ‘…like a Kōan, a paradoxical statement used in Japanese Zen Buddhism’).

Eight black metranomes site on a low white plinth in a white walled gallery space.
Martin Creed, ‘Work No. 180 Largo, larghetto, adagio, andante, moderato, allegro, presto e prestissimo’, (1995-2004). Photo credit: Jason Hynes.

Until the foundation of MIMA, its current collection of over 2,350 works of art and craft by British and international artists from the mid-1800s to the present was split across Middlesbrough Art Gallery, Cleveland Gallery and the Cleveland Craft Centre. It had also expanded through cultural communities and initiatives including Linthorpe Art Pottery and Cleveland International Drawing Biennial to include post-WWII British painting, contemporary American drawing, twentieth-century British ceramics, contemporary European jewellery and twenty-first-century installation.

The David and Indre Roberts Collection is managed by the Roberts Institute of Art (formerly known as the David Roberts Art Foundation, 2007- 2021) which is committed to providing access to the collection through active lending, research, commissions and collaborations. Founded in the early 1990s, it now comprises almost 2,500 works by 850 international artists from the mid-twentieth century to the present, comprising sculpture, painting, photography, video and installation. The task of selecting from such a rich and dynamic collection around an equivocal theme should not be underestimated.

Neil Brownsword’s ‘Transition’ (1999) showcases twenty discarded ceramic and industrial objects from closed potteries in Stoke-on-Trent, the artist’s hometown and a central site of pottery production since the seventeenth century. The objects are distributed across five low plinths that give a bird’s eye view, reminiscent of the specimen trays that litter archaeological digs sites. They are peculiar and uncanny masses that invite further questions – ‘could that be a…?’, ‘that looks a bit like…’ – that expose the visitor’s own sphere of reference or expectations. This work is by far the most literally aligned with the overarching theme of excavation, and its central position in the first gallery eases the viewer in, setting the stage for some of the later, more esoteric inclusions.

Although the four galleries are not explicitly sub-themed, an argument could be made for the first being ‘time’, and the next ‘politics’ or even ‘violence’. A temporary wall divides the lofty space but is a mechanism for installing the haunting and disorienting ‘Atribilarios’ (1996) by Doris Salcedo, in which worn shoes are placed inside a hole in the wall, patched with a cow bladder attached above the hole with surgical thread. The shoes belong to some of the hundreds of thousands of victims of ongoing conflict in the artist’s native Colombia while the bladder alludes to the treatment of people like cattle. Its hazy membrane reveals a ghostly shadow of the shoes within, all details erased. Salcedo’s convening notions of truth, humanity, the personal and how we disseminate information speaks to these modern atrocities and threads through many of the other works in the room.

Alongside Salcedo’s work is a Sonia Boyce installation examining the contributions of 200 black female musicians (2008-2020), a hanging sculpture by Theaster Gates referencing police brutality (2013), a single-channel video exploring the exploitation of Black people by Keith Piper (1996), and a morbidly beautiful work on paper by Teresa Margolles created from autopsy water (‘Papeles de la Morgue [#9]’ [2003]), amongst other works. One of the most imposing and least overtly connected to ‘excavation’ is Ellen Gallagher’s ‘DeLuxe’(2004-2005), a grid of sixty printed advertisements from the 1930s to the 70s from Ebony, Our World and Sepia, aimed at the promotion of Black hair products. The adverts were borne of consumer capitalism with the dual aim of whitewashing and cashing in on Black audiences. Gallagher edits the images, cutting, painting and etching, adding glitter, plasticine and googly eyes, removing them from their context and isolating them as bizarre, malleable pieces of aspirational fiction. Her treatment of the glamorous subjects renders them grotesque, funny, wild, interesting, both posthuman and subhuman.

A grid of white-framed images on a white wall, each a collaged or manipulated 1930s-70s advert for Black hair products.
Ellen Gallagher, ‘DeLuxe’, 2004-2005. Photo credit: Jason Hynes.

The next space, the largest, contains work that seems to strongly link people and place, either through connection or consumption. This is perfectly manifested in John Stezaker’s collage ‘Pair III’ (2007), part of his Masks series, where the faces of movie stars captured mid-kiss have been replaced by cleverly chosen landscapes whose terrains mimic the form of the couple beneath. In Otobong Nkanga’s ‘In Pursuit of Bling: Indulgence’ (2014-16), the artist is depicted close up, from her eyebrows down to her shoulders, emerging from darkness with her hands in front of her face, bringing a glossy orb to her open mouth. She is about to consume mica, a mineral excavated primarily by women in Africa and South America, visualising the damaging nature of processes that are built on colonial power and greed. 

This gallery is much busier, with display cases and a range of work in different mediums and scales,  from Emily Hesse’s modest sculpture made of bricks salvaged from the Tees Valley (‘Alcmene and Glanthis’, 2015-16) and Man Ray’s singular, solemn black glove mixed-media work where the fingers are gently encased in a halo of string (‘Le Gant Perdu [The Lost Glove]’, 1967-68), to Subodh Gupta’s colossal dome made of stainless steel utensils from his home country of India, where the convening power of food is fundamental to everyday life (‘Untitled’, 2007). Opposite this, seemingly precariously propped against one wall, is Raphael Hefti’s ‘Subtraction as Addition’ (2013), a two-metre-high pane of bluish double-glazed glass. Its unusual hue and highly reflective surface were created by the over-application of LuxAR, a chemical treatment used to achieve the ideal balance of transparency, non-reflectiveness and UV protection in museum glass. Hefti is interested in the limits of chemical processes, mistakes in technical procedures, and the aesthetic potential that arises from these. Here, the results manipulate the space around the work, disappearing the area behind the pane and reflecting the gallery in high definition and vividly refracted light.

A three-tone ochre geometric painting on canvas hangs on a white wall.
Onya McCausland, ‘Saltburn 54°34 07.37 N 0°57 42.87 W No.3’, 2019. Photo credit: Jason Hynes.

In the final space, works are mainly wall based (apart from Anna Barham’s ‘Crystal Fabric Field [MIMA]’, 2020, which doubles as a functional bench), gravitating around ideas of land and environment. A serene Ana Mendieta photograph of the imprint of her foot in the Oaxacan ground, ‘Untitled from the Silueta Series’ (1980), is beautiful and immediately tied to the theme yet perhaps done a disservice in its underwhelming placement, whilst the burnt orange of Onya McCausland’s ‘Saltburn 54°34 07.37N 0°57 42.87W / No.3’ (2019) shouts in a gallery that is otherwise visually quiet. The title coordinates of this large geometric painting refer to the location of a mine water treatment site in Saltburn, about twelve miles east of Middlesbrough, where McCausland sourced the ochre used to manufacture the paint. This process of recycling ochre minerals that form as waste residue along industrial landscapes into paint is now the remit of McCausland’s Community Interest Company in South Wales, which also tackles industrial pollution via talks, workshops and events.

Conrad Atkinson’s ‘No Compensation’ (1977) uses photographs, photocopied forms and pieces of iron ore to document the life and death of Billy Hunter who, after twenty-five years as an iron ore miner in West Cumbria, developed a respiratory condition but was ineligible for the compensation package negotiated by the National Union of Mineworkers with the National Coal Board, due to his belonging to a different union (General Municipal Workers Union). This telling of one man’s story brings into focus the tangible emotional and political effects of mining in the postindustrial landscape of the North East, where similar experiences and resulting trauma are passed down through the generations.

It is with this idea of chronic suffering that I complete my circular tour of the four spaces and arrive back to the metronomes. Yet now their noise is a blur, ingrained into my mind, so prevalent that I realise I haven’t even registered it since the second space. Like an audio rendering of our constant excavation and extraction, not just from the earth but from each other and from ourselves, eventually it too becomes the norm and goes unnoticed. This exhibition features some outstanding work and there is no lack of beauty, but as I leave and the ticking of the metronomes truly fades away, I finally feel the levity of quietness and can’t help but think this is a perfect metaphor for not knowing what is there until it’s gone.

Deep Horizons is at MIMA, Middlesbrough, 10 March – 18 June 2023.

Laura Biddle is an Assistant Curator at Tate Liverpool and writer based in Manchester.

This review is supported by MIMA.

Published 21.04.2023 by Lara Eggleton in Reviews

1,677 words