When James Thompson took up residence at Leeds Art Gallery four years ago, he was one of the first people in decades to see its Central Court up close. Though a focal point of the building when it opened in 1888, the room’s classical flourishes and glazed ceiling were abandoned by the 1960s. The roof was sealed off with cladding and the upper reaches were converted into a screening room. Its stately grandeur went unnoticed until 2017, when refurbishments were carried out on the building and the Central Court was unveiled once more.
However, I’ve arrived at the Central Court without knowing the back-story, so when I overhear a man explaining to someone that the whole room was once hidden by a false ceiling, I can’t work out what that even means. He’s gesticulating extravagantly at the vaulted glass roof, now rescued from a lifetime of obscurity. With all that daylight flooding in from above, this feels like the most natural place in the building to show sculpture. The idea of it being boxed away for years, like old decorations in an attic, just seems baffling.
But Thompson created Spatial Drifts with those lost years in mind. He started the project using research as a kind of ‘performance’ tool; making audio recordings, casts and digital scans of the room as he surveyed its layers of damage and decay. The result was a series of sculptural works referencing the room’s original design and bringing its unusual character back into focus.
You see this most vividly in four Jesmonite casts taken from the room’s Victorian doorways. They’re mounted on trolleys, but away from their original context look as delicate as splintered shells, as if they’ve slipped from the walls. Along the narrow ledges of the space, which once were lined with balconies, there are mounds of what look like large, rough-hewn discs, formed out of clay from a local building site and contrasting starkly with the sleek surfaces and strong lines of the architecture.
In another corner, a tall vertical screen transmits blotchy linear impressions from a scanner. There’s also a large, boulder-like form speckled with bright blue fragments, the texture recalling the ornate tiles throughout the building. Fooled by its sturdy appearance and outlines of brickwork across its surface, I have to double-take when the work suddenly deflates. It’s as though the room itself needed to exhale.
Thompson often uses performance to activate his work, but without his presence, the sculptures feel like the mysterious spoils of a lost civilisation. If Spatial Drifts had been installed by the shadowy Victorians of the gallery’s early days, maybe it would come with rigorous indexing and obsessive taxonomy, every detail explained. But instead it’s as if the Central Court were coy about its makeover: there are no labels or even titles, as far as I can tell. The works hint at the building’s hidden histories, but won’t spell them out.
Spatial Drifts, after all, isn’t about one specific historical moment, but about echoes of the past and how the same forms can have multiple lives across time. In a way, we’re confronted by parallel histories in any high street setting; yellow McDonalds arches over former tailors, or new branches of Wetherspoons muscling into faded cinemas. These overlapping histories aren’t unique to Leeds Art Gallery, obviously: it’s just that Spatial Drifts creates a place where time stands still long enough for you to notice.
Even without overt explanation of the work, there are more branches of Thompson’s research on display, for example, copies of a map cataloguing former exhibition spaces and studios across Leeds since 1888. Many were contemporaries of this gallery; all of them are gone. Given the shaky position of cultural institutions right now, it’s hard not to speculate how many more of the map’s coordinates could be filled before the decade is out.
These concerns are explored further in the short film ‘Re-Imaging Central Court’, which looks at different cycles of Leeds’ cultural landscape. One section overlays construction site footage with photographs of former art spaces and studios, their stories lost to the shifting topography. Another scene shows a hand clasping a lump of rubble, while physical attributes and key words appear around it, suggesting the potential of the raw material. The film also includes architectural simulations of a future Leeds, but these start to lose their aspirational gleam after the sight of so much debris.
A week later, I join Thompson for a tour of the phantom art spaces dotted along the map. He reads from a script woven together from old publicity materials and various memories gathered from friends, reanimating the cultural landmarks which once populated this area. A fellow guide introduces herself as an estate agent, rounding off each stop with a sales pitch. In the gilded language of property development, she invites us to nod approvingly at glass-fronted everything, to jangle our change at big car parks and ozone-piercing student accommodation as passing freshers peer suspiciously at our group.
But then the tour draws to a close, and she flings down her clipboard in obvious relief: ‘Enough horrible luxury flats!’ We stalk back to the gallery, with the Leeds old-timers reminiscing about their city before all the glittering new developments, while an artist contemplating a move up from London quizzes them about what’s left.
From one angle, then, Spatial Drifts feels like a cautionary tale, foreshadowing the decline of civic spaces and urging us to make the most of our surroundings before they crumble to dust. From another, it’s a matter-of-fact commentary on the changing face of urban centres, and the possibilities of renewal and rediscovery. Thompson has said he hopes drawing attention to the hidden histories of buildings can offer ‘a sense of reassurance for the future’. In municipal buildings like Leeds Art Gallery, where visitors can still wander freely without money changing hands, this may be the case. But the tour was a stark reminder of all the stories that get drowned out when cities are redrawn by private investors, their deputies tapping impatiently at clipboards.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.
This review is supported by Leeds Art Gallery.