A large hangar like space with white walls and a light grey floor. In the foreground a box-like sculpture with plastic flames. Behind that a partially built circular wall and in the background a large inflatable pig laying on its side. On the wall to the right hundreds of small images displayed in a block.

Middlesbrough Art Week

Installation view of Measure at The Auxiliary. Image credit, Rachel Deakin.

Arriving for Middlesbrough Art Week (MAW), the first thing that strikes me is how densely packed the city is with exhibitions, events, screenings, talks, and performances. Hub gallery The Auxiliary hosts six exhibitions, the majority of them group shows or collective projects, as well as multiple performances. There are twenty other venues, some also containing multiple exhibitions, and almost all group projects. Faced with this volume of artwork, the relative positions, rhythms and relationships are as much at the forefront as individual works. More than this though, patterns run through many of the works that grab my interest and stay with me.

The Auxiliary’s voluminous main gallery contains the group exhibition Measure, a title that doubles as the theme of MAW as a whole. Measure is primarily concerned with time or timing, and this framing is established by two works shown next to each other at the entrance: Zbigniew Rybczyński’s 1981 video ‘Tango’ and Mike Nelson’s ‘Amnesiac Beach Fire’, originally from 1997 but remade for this exhibition. ‘Tango’ presents an unmoving view of a one-room interior as the background on which increasingly complicated interlocking choreography plays out. Different figures are introduced, performing cyclical routines that utilise parts of the domestic space. As more are introduced, with longer loops that require more of this same limited floor, the figures need to slot around one another as much in time as in space. The actions being performed are theatrically simple and slip into the background. The viewer is left to focus on how an object placed by one performer might be picked up by another, and anticipate how a momentary gap in the space might be used. It is a video about form, rhythm and disappearance.

 In Nelson’s ‘Amnesiac Beach Fire’, remnants of burnt driftwood and shredded red plastic traffic cones are reassembled into a non-functioning symbolic object. In the context of Measure, what is arguably one of the artist’s more modest works becomes richer than it might be otherwise. The press release states that this work is remade from 1997, but staring at this beach fire, I’m sure that I remember encountering it before. A little while later I’ll recall that I have in fact seen multiple versions of this work. I’ve come across this same simple form of wood and red plastic in a number of Nelson’s exhibitions over the last twenty something years. Seeing a version on its own sets it out as an unstable marker, a beat within a slow rhythm, a mnemonic trigger.

Somewhere between the patterns actioned in ‘Tango’ and ‘Amnesiac Beach Fire’ exist methods for approaching this year’s MAW, and they stay with me through the next dozen or so exhibitions. Deeper into The Auxiliary is a space where Bordello Collective present Pier 52’ (2023), an installation and performance-set through which Gordon Matta-Clark’s ‘Day’s End’ (1975), Arch Brown’s pornographic film ‘Pier Groups’ (1979) and David Hammon’s ‘Day’s End’ (2021) are folded into one another. I arrive at the space on a day between the performances which are intended to activate the films, photographs and furniture, and the gallery is especially serene. This down beat provides space to think about how such a response resonates with other presentations that have addressed similar material. In 2014, Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool showed a comparable pairing in Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here. In that instance, the archive of Matta-Clark’s construction was positioned alongside Baltrop’s photography, in which ‘Day’s End’ forms the backdrop to the pier-side cruising scene being documented. In both the Liverpool and Middlesborough exhibitions there remains a sense of punctures and rhythms in Matta-Clark’s work finding rhymes beyond its perimeter. Matta-Clark cut holes in the ceiling, walls and floor of the dock building to pull the patterns of sun and water into the space, with the aim of creating a new public park out of what he interpreted as an abandoned building. However, contrary to Matta-Clark’s interpretation, it was already a park with a preexisting public of primarily gay men. Baltrop documented this community, marking a continuity from before ‘Day’s End’ begins to after it is shuttered, and through the point where the cruising spot is itself folded into fiction in the form of Brown’s sex film ‘Pier Groups’. What is apparent with Bordello Collective’s rendition is the tension between support and erasure. The space that Matta-Clark aimed to establish would have almost certainly displaced its existing community, and to a degree Brown’s exposure of its comings and goings would have done the same, were it  not released in the same year that the piers were demolished. It’s very fitting that Bordello Collective incorporates David Hammon’s tribute to Matta-Clark, also entitled ‘Day’s End’ (2021). In that work, the piers are a ghost rendered in polished steel tubing. Bordello Collective documents the transformation of industrial hub into cruising park, to sculptural canvas, to cruising park again, to trash-bordered void and, lastly, to clean outline. All those tangoing moments now replaced by a description, a non-functioning form.

Two pale skinned people dressed in white t-shirts and pants are holding a length of white fabric, about three meters away from each other. Behind them is a brick wall and a white screen with an image of a building frame projected on. there are four people in the audience watching.
‘Pier 52’ (2023) by Bordello Collective. Image credit, Rachel Deakin.

While there are a lot of exciting and varied works that ask different things of their audience, something that becomes apparent elsewhere in MAW is the weighting towards safe and simple works which focus on a single idea. Across the dozen or so exhibitions I was able to visit, a surprising theme emerges of clean concept-focused objects, performance remnants and videos. I do appreciate the context of MAW means a broader audience, but I would argue that such an audience is better served with more points of entry. An example like Madelon Hooykaas & Elsa Stansfield ‘Horizontal Flow’ (1977) in People Powered: Stories from the River Tees at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art stands out because it pursues multiple avenues, even while beginning a formal enquiry into medium and landscape. Against this are multiple exhibitions dominated by what read as vessels for safely broad concepts. This conservatism leads to some occasionally infuriating experiences. Curated by artist Will Hughes, From Urban to Rural at The Auxiliary is a beautifully rich and thoughtfully put together assemblage of art works and relics that came out of a research residency of a group of artists. It’s both coherent in its overall themes, but full of experiments, risks, and some singularly arresting works such as those by Nell Catchpole, Dianne Bowell, and Vision 25-C. However, this exhibition is crammed into a subdivided space at the rear of The Auxiliary, with an equally sized area on the other side of the partition being given over to a single video work.

There is, though, a chaotic fringe to MAW, and it is in a shopping centre warehouse space and curated by The Word, something between a collective, a scratch lab for works in progress, and a party. The emphasis on the latter is perhaps not evident from the fact that the space has no lighting other than the original fluorescents, but it does have at least one bar and a sizable sound system. Nominally, this is an exhibition based around works that were submitted for, but rejected from, the MAW open call show. When I ask the member of The Word present, they cryptically explain that this both is and isn’t true. The next layer of fiction is the connection of all works using red string and map pins. I ask, and am told it’s about ‘conspiracy theories’. I have no idea how to take this information, but am now absolutely invested in this show. The curatorial conceit is sufficiently balanced between sincerity and humour for it to hold together both the work and the chaotic space, with its improvised video tent slung from rack shelving and rear film screening area which doubles as storage for trip hazards. The show is fun, and work by artists such as Roma, Barbi, and Gerb especially thrive in this arguably hostile environment while also suggesting what could be done with more resources.

The work of these three mononymous artists are examples of the breadth of this exhibition, and the openness to risk taking. If what has stood out in MAW is its patterns, The Word show what can happen when this is stretched to breaking point. Alongside From Urban to Rural and ‘Pier 52’, they demonstrate how much depth, excitement, and plain weirdness is hiding in the back rooms. With the huge number of spaces that MAW incorporates, I would love to come back next year and find the diversity and ambition of these exhibitions is at least given equal footing with the more conservative parts of the programme. 

Middlesbrough Art Week 2023 ran from 28th September – 7th October across various sites in and around Middlesbrough. MAW’s core programme was curated by Kypros Kyprianou, Liam Slevin, Will Hughes and Penny Payne.

Uma Breakdown is an artist and award-winning game designer interested in animals, horror, and queer feminist literature.

This review was supported by The Auxiliary Project Space.

Published 06.12.2023 by Lesley Guy in Reviews

1,506 words