The Ikon currently has three new exhibitions: The Colony by Dinh Q. Le, Varna Road by Janet Mendelsohn and 108 Leyton Ave by Kelly Mark. The former takes up the first floor of the gallery and the latter two the second floor and Tower respectively. All three exhibitions run from today (27th Jan) to 3rd April 2016.
The Colony is a set of films about the Chincha Islands which are based in the South China Sea and are rich in Guano, a bird manure of particular high quality. Upon first sight these films appear another twist on the theme of area of natural beauty which is blighted by now disused factories. The films are shot partly by drone and one gets the feeling that the artist is seeking to use the strategy of subversion in their work. You understand this when in some of the footage you see the drone at work.
It is a clever piece of art, but to me a distant piece. It had the feel of a documentary that you were removed from but one where you appreciated the work of the cameraman and editor. It has an associated event on 17th March, (as part of the Arts and Science Festival 2016), when Dr. Frank Uekotter, Reader in Environmental Humanities at the University of Birmingham is going to be looking at The Legacy of Guano.
It was unfortunate as I started to make my way around the second floor of the exhibition that the fire alarm went off. It was preview night and the building was full. Whilst the staff were very professional and calm in dealing with the emergency it did take some time to empty. I must admit it left me slightly perturbed. If there had been a real fire and it had taken hold would I have made it out? Yet I know this level of activity in the gallery is not the norm. This was preview night and normally the Ikon is less packed.
When I made it back to the second floor I entered the Janet Mendelsohn Varna Road exhibition. This is a piece of social history made up of black and white photographs which is well curated and presented. In addition to the main Exhibition Guide there is a sheet outlining the title (and subject matter of each photo). It is an exhibition of works lent by the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham.
Wandering round one was struck by the images of the period. Images one would not have been surprised to see in films such as Cathy Come Home. That is perhaps not surprising as that film was produced in the mid-1960s and these photographs were taken between 1967 and 1969 when Mendelsohn was a student at the University of Birmingham. She was studying within the renowned Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) with its neo-Marxist focus on cultural analysis.
Her photo essay of this area of Balsall Heath and particularly the life of a sex worker she befriended are a clear exploration of the connections between ethnicity, class and location. They do not seek to romanticise rather they seek to make the viewer question both their own assumptions and what they are seeing.
There is an associated People's Archive Event on 12th and 13th March where people are invited to come in and share their memories, stories, photos and memorabilia of this former red light district which was so much more than that as Mendelsohn shows us.
I really enjoyed this exhibition with its focus on social history and cultural studies. That of course is in a large part because it hit on my own area of interest, (in a way that the 1st floor exhibition hadn’t). I also was interested to see how, again, the legacy of the late Stuart Hall lives on in the work of the Ikon. I hope at some point they may consider a full exhibition dedicated to him and his influence.
In addition to being very clever in production it is also clever in that it is based upon a deceiving simplicity. I found myself connecting with this film much more easily than the Dinh Q. Le films because whilst it challenged me to think it was easy to connect with.
So an exhibition with three parts over two floors. All are worth a look and this is an exhibition that is definitely worth giving time to. With the films making up a large percentage of the work on display you need to allow time to watch a good chunk of each.
This is not the only art in the building though. On the way out I noticed a glass ear trumpet which I had not seen there before. This piece enabled one to listen to the outside world in a mediated way and was fascinating.
Then there was the temporary unintentional art left by people who had either left in a hurry or deposited glasses and guide during the fire alarm. I am a great believer in keeping your eyes open because you often find art in the everyday, not just in the work produced by great artists as are on display here.