Soil Culture Peninsula Arts

Soil Culture: Dig It

Breaking new ground in the Peninsula Arts Gallery Soil Culture: Dig it, curated by Sarah Chapman and Mary Costello

Soil Culture: Dig it (15 April – 30 May 2015) is a pilot exhibition for Peninsula Arts. We wanted to challenge the traditional experience of the white cube gallery – where objects and ideas are commonly presented in a static and unchanging environment. Most of the time you will find me arguing that the traditional context of the gallery and museum is of immeasurable intrinsic value to society. For the very young to the specialist academic the gallery and museum provides a contemplative and reflective space, removed from the noise and clamour of everyday life, where new ideas and perspectives can help extend knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live. Traditionally by the time the gallery doors open to the public, all the labels, gallery guides and positioning of exhibits have been considered to the last millimetre. In this way the gallery is a highly controlled environment even when it is displaying the latest ground breaking ideas and practices within contemporary art. For Soil Culture: Dig It we turned this idea of a static exhibition on its head and transformed the Peninsula Arts gallery into a real live artist studio/laboratory. This approach meant taking a risk – of not knowing the outcome. In effect, it meant lessening the control. Peninsula Arts gallery sited on a city centre campus of a multi-disciplinary university presents many interesting opportunities. Roger Malbert, senior curator for Hayward Touring, has noted the increasing importance of university art galleries and venues within the cultural landscape of the UK. Acting as a barometer for new art practice the critically renowned British Art Show 8 tours to four UK cities later this year, where it will be hosted by three university galleries; University of Edinburgh, Norwich University of the Arts, and John Hansard Gallery, Southampton University. In a recent conversation with Roger he reflected how, unlike the traditional museum or white cube gallery, the university gallery presented a different environment one associated with production and making, where ideas are challenged, reconsidered and produced. Interestingly it is not only the environment that offers a different experience but also the content. Being part of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at Plymouth University enables Peninsula Arts to draw on a range of expertise – resulting in a diverse programme of exhibitions that explore all art forms, and with each exhibition seeking to showcase artists breaking new ground either historically or contemporaneously. In addition the university location enables the development of exhibitions and cultural events that are interdisciplinary and which potentially cross the art/science subject divide.

“University hive-mind”

Much is said about the virtual hive-mind of social media where a web of networks can be summoned at a click – however the heterogeneous and internationally reaching hive-mind of a university has enabled Peninsula Arts to develop some amazing cross disciplinary projects, including the Making of the Modern series (2014/15), the Contemporary Music Festival (2005-15), the Moby Dick Big Read (2013) and the Whale Festival (2011/12). Similarly, having this range of expertise so close to hand assisted hugely with the development of Soil Culture: Dig It, curated in response to a larger three-year project conceived by the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, in collaboration with Falmouth University. We wanted to develop an exhibition at Peninsula Arts that not only looked at the cultural and scientific significance of soil but also revealed the constant exchange of ideas and knowledge that is necessary to further understanding about this important substance.

“Ideas are being challenged”

We invited Plymouth University third year Fine Art students Esme Stewart and Jamie Morrison to re-construct a working studio within the gallery, testing out and developing new work ready for their Degree Show in June this year. Unlike the pared down and hushed minimalism of the traditional white cube gallery the studio/lab is often messy and disordered – not as a Baconesque paint splattered studio – but as a place where ideas are forming until ready for public disclosure. Nor is the studio/laboratory necessarily an isolated environment rather are conduits for collaboration, shared conversation, argument and disagreement, all essential for the development of ideas.

As a space that has hosted many debates and conversations over the years, providing a physical and conceptual link to a place of learning and production, it seems quite apt that the Peninsula Arts gallery should now have the opportunity to transform into an active place of cultural production. Supporting artists development Working in this dynamic and changing environment is Lisa Hirmer (DodoLab), the artist in residence who has set up a live survey Peak Peat inviting gallery visitors to participate, in an attempt to map the complexity of debates surrounding peat. Unsurprisingly passions run high – soil provides the very foundations for landscape onto which we project ideals of beauty. Whether referring to the moorland wilderness or manmade environments, these constructed notions are embedded with value judgements that themselves reflect shifting social mores and concerns.

Peak Peat Survey, DodoLab (Photo: DodoLab)

Peak Peat Survey, DodoLab (Photo: DodoLab)

The artist Emma Saffy-Wilson adds an interesting perspective to the idea of moral viewpoints. In her provocative and beautiful earth paintings and sculptures Emma reveals how the language of soil is used to pass judgement as used in common parlance to describe the following: ‘dirty war’, ‘dirty rascal’ or ‘dirty laundry’. The exhibition hosts a live research project with Robert Donnelly and Jane Akerman from Biological Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering) measuring daily the number of bugs within soil taken from the local environment. Visitors are invited to view the hidden, microscopic world beneath our feet through microscopes at a viewing station within the gallery. Accompanying the live laboratory are drawings by Fergus McBurney (School Biological Sciences), which document the most common bugs found in the locale. In addition the exhibition explores the importance of soil from an architectural perspective with an installation of earth bricks and materials, a practice adopted across the world and seen more locally in the construction of cob buildings. With thanks to Linda Watson (School of Architecture, Design and Environment) for providing the materials and information for the exhibition. Soil Scientist Dr Rob Parkinson (School of Biological Sciences) has been a key advisor to the project, letting us have access to the soil laboratories to display soil samples, scientific instruments for collecting and measuring, as well as entrusting us to use the microscopes and making live the Tullgren Funnel experiment. Rob also took a group of artists and scientists to Fox Tor Mires on Dartmoor to learn about peat and carbon sinks, and chaired a lively public debate in the gallery that looked at the scientific and cultural importance of soil.

Peak Peat visit to Foxtor Mires,  Dartmoor (Photo: DodoLab)

Peak Peat visit to Foxtor Mires, Dartmoor (Photo: DodoLab)

The exhibition continues to change with recent workshops on how to make paint pigment from soil led by artist Pete Ward, as well as sessions with Emma Saffy-Wilson on making the jewel-like Japanese hikaru dorodango mud balls. The gallery now hosts a mini garden growing vegetables as part of ‘Growing Futures’ – Plymouth University’s Secret Garden project, which similar to guerrilla gardening encourages vegetable growing in the most unlikely of urban spaces. Finally, reflecting on the exhibition thus far and the role of the university gallery within the wider cultural landscape I have been struck by two recent comments. The artist Roger Hiorns talking about his recent exhibition, which re-examined the development of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) as part of the History Is Now exhibition (10 February – 26 April 2015) at the Hayward Gallery, asserted that artists/curators should challenge the experience of art spaces. Whilst artist and curator Richard Wentworth comments in the accompanying catalogue of the same exhibition: “There is an interesting gap between the correctly curated show – with its very punctilious hanging – and the space that artists operate in”, reflecting how he wanted to create a show that “is true to the experience of being alive.”[1] As a hot house for new cultural ideas and thinking, and belonging to a larger network of knowledge production and exchange, perhaps it is for university galleries to lead the way in presenting new and alternative ways of how we experience culture within and through the public sphere? Dr Sarah Chapman Director of Peninsula Arts [1] Richard Wentworth in History Is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain (2015), Hayward Publishing,18. Soil Culture: Dig It is a free exhibition running in Peninsula Arts Gallery until 30 May: http://www.plymouth.ac.uk/whats-on/dig-it

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#TheBigNo Protest campaign

As part of the Peninsula Arts summer exhibition we are working with Effervescent, a vibrant new cultural organisation in Plymouth that works with young people outside of education and employment to help raise aspirations, boost confidence and to find pathways into Higher Education. Working in a University environment, Peninsula Arts has a particular commitment to providing valuable learning experiences for all ages, ensuring everyone can access and experience high quality culture. With this in mind we are delighted to have partnered with Effervescent, who working with the School of Art & Media, Plymouth University, will be delivering ‘Incubate’, a two year engagement project that provides a framework and pathway for young people into Arts Education.

Effervescent is not your average run-of-the-mill arts engagement centre. They do things differently, with real creativity and flair; underpinned by research and most importantly transforming the lives of the young people involved. The young protégées become activators of their learning as opposed to passive participants – the ideas come from them, kicking off the debates and discussions led by Effervescent. Of course this is what art education is about – challenging and expressing new ideas, and engaging with wider debates about the world in which we live, however for many of these young people this is often the first time they have been provided with this opportunity. And the results are startling.

We gave the group of protégés two weeks to come up with a response to George Grosz: The Big No that sought to engage visitors to the gallery with the issues arising from Grosz’ work. We provided an introduction to Grosz’s work, emphasising his ability to puncture the status quo through his hard hitting and acutely observed drawings. We discussed the role of artists today, who use many different ways to question and criticize everyday assumptions – the 2001 Turner prize winner Martin Creed was cited as an example of an artist, whose works test the boundaries of art practice whilst providing an insight into contemporary life.

Hot housed and supported by Effervescent the protégés came back with a wonderful engagement and interpretation activity, that sought to illustrate the importance of dissent and protest in art as a way of exposing the hypocrisy and contradictions of society. The activity invited audience members to make a protest poster of an issue that concerns them today, then to dress up (optional) as one of the four key characters depicted by George Grosz: the bourgeoisie, the canon fodder, the bourgeois woman and the loose woman, take a photo of the poster and tweet to the world using the hashtag #TheBigNo. The results have exceeded all expectations with an entire wall of the Peninsula Arts Gallery covered in posters that decry a number of contemporary issues concerning the lack of political ideas, issues of low pay, expensive childcare and the various military interventions happening currently across the world.

Of course behind this lies a much bigger debate that we hope to unravel over the next period as to whether artists really are offering a critique of society or are reinforcing what has now become part of the status quo and expected image of the artist as a laid down by Grosz and others some 100 years ago. This debate also highlights how art and culture absorbs and reflects the period of the time. The early part of the 20th century went through massive social and technological transformation creating a zeitgeist of change and possibility, as seen so aptly by a number of artists working during that period. Compare this to today and whilst it may seem that the pace of change is one of high speed, with the ever-advancing methods of digital communication, in reality perhaps, when we look at the structures Grosz was railing and protesting about, how much has really changed? Is this a good thing or ultimately detrimental to society—where there is no space left for real dissent or serious contestation?
The debate is up for discussion….

Dr Sarah Chapman (August 2014)
Director of Peninsula Arts
http://www.peninsula-arts.co.uk

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George GROSZ - Bow to the authorities jpeg

Peninsula Arts reflects on the cultural legacy of World War One

Around the wider world people are marking the centenary of the First World War. In response to this, over the next four years, part of the Peninsula Arts programme will examine the legacy of the changes and advancements made within music, art, literature, philosophy and science in the early part of the twentieth century.

We launch this series with our summer exhibition George Grosz: The Big No (Hayward Touring) in the Peninsula Arts Gallery (19th July – 31st August 2014), featuring over 100 black and white prints and eight watercolours selected from George Grosz’ seminal portfolio’s Hintergrund and Ecce Homo produced in Germany during 1915-1922. The title ecce homo refers to the words “Behold the Man” claimed to have been spoken by Pontius Pilot as he pointed to Christ on the cross, whilst also referring to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’ interpretation: ‘This is what has become of Man’.

Grosz’ gritty graphic observations sought to expose the hypocrisy of the political and ruling classes of the time. His simple use of line is unflinching in its satirical and grotesque commentary, depicting scenes of sexual debauchery, grotesque greed, wanton excess and alienation. It is this combination of risqué and critical subject matter alongside a free use of graphic line that makes Grosz’s work seem so startlingly contemporary and pertinent today, with his cutting graphic observations comparable to the black comedy of recent Turner nominated artist David Shrigley, albeit with a devastating political critique and without the cynicism. Writing about the period he was working in Grosz states:

“Humanity has created a vile system – with a top and a bottom. A few earn millions, while thousands upon thousands get by on little more than the subsistence level… But what does that have to do with art? Just that many artists and writers still tolerate these things, without deciding unambiguously against them… What is needed is to take action against all this shabbiness, this cultural hypocrisy and this damned lovelessness. The dominant belief is that private ambition alone brings blessings. The aim of my work is to help smash this belief.”

This concern about the purpose and function of art is as relevant today as it was within Grosz’ time. The period of the early 20th century, leading up to WW1 and shortly after, was a time of momentous change politically, economically and socially. Key artists of the period, including Grosz and his fellow Dadaists, John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, reflected this period of transformation and turmoil within their work, which sought to critique and overturn prevailing assumptions about art and society. Likewise the boundaries and understanding of classical music were being challenged (Strauss, Stravinsky) whilst art movements across Europe, such as Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism and Dada, were transforming the understanding of art through both content and a new experimentation of form.

The cultural legacy of this time arguably shaped the entire 20th century. The seeds of post-modernism were sown during this period, with Dadaism daring to undermine and question the elevation and authority given to art by celebrating the ordinary and the everyday. It is a fascinating and important period within history and one that throws a light on our own society and time. The historian and cultural commentator Frank Furedi refers to the cultural legacy of World War One as a war that is still going on. Ideas about nationhood, identity and self underwent a seismic shift during this period and over the next four years Peninsula Arts will seek to examine the wider context of the war, looking at the lead up from the early 20th century through to the devastating aftermath and the cultural and social disruptions and shifts that are still unravelling today.

Our forthcoming autumn programme in partnership with the Plymouth Historical Association marks the commemoration of the beginning of the war with a series of talks that include an exploration of changing attitudes to pain relief, psychological and physical, by Joanna Bourke author of From Prayer to Painkillers (2014); a historical critique of how the demise of old empires and changes in the economy played a major part in the build up to the conflict, by Professor James Woudhuysen; whilst Suzannah Biernoff examines ‘The Ruptured Portrait: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement’ and local historian Chris Robinson discusses the reasons behind the amalgamation of the three towns into Plymouth and the impact of the war on the city. Later in the year, marking the armistice, we are screening a number of films: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930), ‘La Grand Illusion’ (1937) and the epic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962), each accompanied by a brief introduction that looks at how the great war has been romanticised through film, which in turn influenced wider opinion and the understanding of the period. Our music programme examines the ‘Edwardian Legacy’ and the changing musical styles in Britain from 1899 to 1914, with a concert by the Ten Tors Orchestra playing the music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Grainger on the 1st November.

These debates concerning the importance of history and how the past continues to exert influence on our society today are on-going and I do hope you are able to enjoy and take part in this exploration of ideas and culture.

Dr Sarah Chapman (July 2014)
Director of Peninsula Arts

References
Frank Furedi, First World War: Still No End in Sight (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
Lutz Becker, ed., George Grosz: The Big No (London: Hayward publishing, 2012).
GROSZ - Bow to the authorities jpegGROSZ - Friedrichstrasse jpeg