Now in its third year Middlesbrough Art Weekender followed last year’s theme of ‘connectivity’, with the focus this year on ‘autonomy’, although the common theme of the festival remains its inclusivity and all-ages approach to visual arts.
The weekend’s centrepiece was Karina Smigla-Bobinski’s interactive ‘ADA’ (2011) sculpture on display in the town’s iconic Town Hall. In a captivating preview on Thursday night the artist explained: ‘I dig the hole into Wonderland but you have to jump in’, before an aspiring nine-year-old art writer specially chosen by the artist got the ball rolling. The plastic orb starting its weekend long journey around its white enclosure, marking the gallery walls with every touch. The piece has travelled the world since its creation and no two displays are ever the same.
Michelle Atherton’s ‘ARP (Absorbing red photons)’ (2016), with disquieting audio accompaniment, straddles the line between audio art and experimental drone music. The fifteen-minute video shot deep underwater is an absorbing and thoughtful installation that challenges our perception of submersion in perpetual darkness in a suitably claustrophobic and dark room in The Auxilliary. In the same venue, part of the Autonomy exhibition, Chris Dobrowolski’s celebrated tank piece, ‘Landscape Escape No.2’, built from old lawnmowers and wheelbarrows is covered in John Constable landscape reproductions like one would cover an old exercise book in school. Process has always been central to the artist so the piece’s real delight is in the way the tank is displayed on top of a TV playing a film of the tank driving over a television playing a video of the tank mise en abyme. Seemingly on a whim, the artist starts the tank’s engine and attempts to drive over the TV and crush it. Upstairs in the warren-like warehouse artist-led Dark Matter includes, amongst others, Meghan Graydon Darby’s ‘Untitled’ (2019), wooden cut-outs on a pallet, is a study on consumerism, while Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ bleeds in from WET Production’s neighbouring ‘Untitled’ (2019), a Pepsi influenced installation but also, in itself, a neat but unsettling metaphor for the way product placement has engulfed us as a species.
Down the road in a disused solicitor’s office Poppy Whatmore’s ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Office Party’ (2018) features old office furniture subverted into illogical Kafka-esque imagery. Chair legs become a prehistoric backbone and a buckled metal blind is twisted into a black phoenix on the back wall. While the installation is intended to be humorous and light-hearted, it can trigger the anxiety for anyone who has worked in an office environment and and travelled the claustrophobic yet empty corridors of bureaucracy.
Continuing a dystopian take on the autonomy theme in an old New Look unit in the town’s Hillstreet Shopping Centre, Pineapple Black has been making a name for itself with a string of excellent, and occasionally controversial shows. Its newest, Sider, makes good use of the traditional juxtaposition of collage, politics of nature and re-positioning of images to explore current affairs. Katy Cole’s space station/ lake transposition (‘Untitled’) at once explores humankind’s achievements in contrast to our insignificance in the natural order of the universe, while Sarah Tulloch mocks public figures with overlaying images – Boris Johnson becomes a hippo and Theresa May is helpless in John Bercow’s grasping hand. Annie O’Donnell’s trademark take on pop-art up-cycles everyday industrial items into a wall mounted piece based loosely around industry and productivity.
Upstairs in the same venue, in The Art of Being Queer, Melajuana takes traditional imagery and gives it a queer makeover to signify its historical continuity in society, even when suppressed. Gavin Vaughn’s ‘Untitled’ (2019) piece, with its hidden face, needs little explanation positioned next to Slutmouth Design’s more overt screenprints, ‘Utter Filth’ and ‘Where’s it Gone’ (both 2019). A further twenty-three artists from around the world share their own take on glam and camp, from perverse and ironic to poignant, tender and romantic. Outside, in the celebrated Window Gallery, Saud Baloch’s ‘Nowhere To Land’ (2019) offers a meditation on the fragility of the heart with a series of gilded relics.
In a busy pedestrianised shopping area Lisa Lovebucket’s ‘Teesside Rising’ (2019) turns an empty unit in the town’s shopping area into a live interview-based installation. This is directly linked to Living Archive, found in a pre-furbished shop unit in the Albert Road North development, which uses AI voice recognition tech to link key words in video, thus making the process of archiving more chaotic and arbitrary.
Materials at Platform A (confusingly at the end of platform 1 at the train station), includes Annie O’Donnell’s ‘Queensway’ and Alan Hathaway’s ‘Problems (silver/silver)’ and ‘Problems (matt black/gloss black)’. Brought together here is a selection of objects that have been displayed over a number of years in different exhibitions. Suzie Devey’s series of linocut and drypoint images, ‘Face Value’ (2018), in the Tunnel Gallery underneath the railway lines is a celebration of local people who have embraced the influx of asylum seekers into the town. Dawn Felicia Knox’s ‘Transpire/Respire/Inspire’ (2019), commissioned by Festival of Thrift which took place in nearby Redcar last month, focuses on clean air in the Tees Valley and was the third and final of the rail station’s loose travel theme.
Outside the Town Hall in Centre Square (and perhaps the antithesis to ‘ADA’ inside), Tom Dale’s black PVC bouncy castle, ‘Department of the Interior’ (2014), is simple in creation but onion-like in its layers of references – from children’s plaything to the towers and crenelations (and corruption) of parliament.
In addition to exhibitions, the so-called ‘town takeover’ included workshops and happenings throughout Middlesbrough over the weekend, exploring the autonomy theme further by framing current economic and political realities alongside the the town’s identity and its people. This, in the broader sense, is the real ethos of Middlesbrough Art Weekender.
Middlesbrough Art Weekender, Middlesbrough, 26 September – 29 September 2019
Steve Spithray is a writer based in Middlesbrough