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.
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.
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.
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.” 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  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