Text by Alan Sykes
John Constable, John Sell Cotman and William Blake are not often to be found in exhibitions of live art, and vice versa. Which is a pity. All art was contemporary once. The Contemporary Art Society has been celebrating this fact for over 100 years now. For this exhibition they, in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery, have borrowed works from some of their member museums, and placed them alongside documentation of more recent works of live art. We’re lucky to have the Cotmans in the exhibition, as they were among the bequests to Norwich Museum by the mustard millionaire Russell James Colman which were specifically left on condition that they not be lent to “any other institution or gallery”.
The curator, Helen Kaplinsky, explains that the show is “about landscape mediated by technology and it goes back to the 19th Century, looking at the early art schools, especially Norwich and then looks in parallel at Hull, which had a time-based course in the 1990s.” Kaplinsky adds that “issues are in regard to privatisation in the 1990s with Hull Time-Based Arts and the Thatcher period and, earlier on in the 19th Century, the privatisation of common land and how artists have envisioned that local landscape in relation to property.” Among the historic works which best fits that theme is Cotman’s sketch “Kett’s Castle” of about 1809. This shows the site of the headquarters of a 1549 Norfolk rebellion against the enclosure of common land, led by local landowner Robert Kett, who was executed for his involvement. The most recent work is Oliver Laric’s “The Lincoln 3D Scans project”, in which the artist made 3D scans of objects in Lincoln’s Usher Gallery and made the works freely available as online file downloads, while Heath Bunting’s early use of the internet to create artworks helps to show how far technology has advanced in the last 20 years.
It is a slight pity that, for the live art elements of the exhibition, Kaplinsky concentrates solely on Hull Time-Based Arts in the 1980s. At the same time, the Newcastle-based Projects UK was also highly active in the field, and adopted a more internationalist approach, commissioning works by Karen Finlay, Marina Abramović and Mona Hatoum, amongst many others, as well as works by the likes of HTBA’s Mike Stubbs.
One of the displays devoted to Hull Time-Based Arts’ activities in the 1980s shows live art works created as part of a mini festival called “The Blue Line”. This was a 12 hour event at locations around Hull, broadly examing images of water and its relationship to the city. One of the performances was “Blue Bondage Line”, in which Silvy Szulman tied her belongings along a long rope and dragged them on her hands and knees through Hull on a busy spring day, to the general bemusement of the passing shoppers. Later on that day, the double decker bus that toured visitors between the sites of the event was briefly turned into “a funeral cortège for the people who worked in the fishing industry” as part of an installation/event by Tim Brennan.
Damn braces: Bless relaxes is an ambitious and largely coherent look at how art has responded to certain political issues down the ages, and how it continues to do so.
Image: John Sell Cotman, Mousehold Heath, c. 1835-1842, pencil and watercolour drawing. Collection of Norfolk Museums Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery). Image courtesy Norfolk Museums Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)