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The British Art Show 7

18 October 10 words: Frances Ashton

The British Art Show happens once every five years, its importance to the UK art scene cannot be overestimated - and the seventh incarnation is being held over three months in little ol’ Nottingham. On the eve of the most important cultural event to happen in Notts since time, we talk to curators Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton…


How did you become curators for BAS7?

Lisa Le Feuvre: I have been working as a curator and writer for the last decade, and was invited by Hayward Touring to respond to the ways one might approach curating a British Art Show in 2010. Following my responses, the selection panel invited Tom Morton and me to curate this seventh edition of the British Art Show – it really is such an honour to curate this exhibition and to add to its 35-year history. I work as a curator and a writer, activities that I see as being intertwined, working on exhibitions in artist-run spaces, national museums and public galleries as well as contributing to publications. Right now I teach on the Curatorial Programme at Goldsmiths College in London, and over the last couple of years have curated a number of exhibitions working with artists including Jeremy Millar, Alexander and Susan Maris, Renée Green and Joachim Koester.

Tom Morton: The short answer is that I was invited to apply for the post by BAS7’s organisers. The longer answer is, I guess, my CV. I started writing for frieze magazine a few months after I finished my MA. Four years later, Catharine Patha and I set up a year-long, itinerant project space in London, Man in the Holocene, where we showed a number of the artists featured in BAS7 (Charles Avery, Roger Hiorns, Nathaniel Mellors, Keith Wilson, Olivia Plender, Gail Pickering, Steven Claydon, Milena Dragicevic) alongside international artists such as Trisha Donnelly, Makoto Aida and Erik van Lieshout. Following that, I was appointed curator at Cubitt, London, and curated sections of the 2007 Athens and Lyon Biennales, and the 2008 Busan Biennale. I currently spend a couple of days a week working as curator of the Hayward Gallery’s Project Space, as well as continuing to write for frieze and other publications, and working as an independent curator on projects like BAS7.

Lisa: Although Tom and I knew each other, we had not worked together before British Art Show 7. It has been really inspiring to work with Tom and we are both very excited about how working together has developed an exhibition that we both are incredibly proud of, and that we would want to see if we were not involved with it.

What does curating a show of this size actually entail? It sounds like a huge logistical nightmare…

Tom: BAS7’s administrative staff and the host venues are responsible for the day-to-day
organisation of the show, so Lisa and I really don’t have too much to do with the logistical side of things, outside of cutting our curatorial cape to suit the cloth of budgets, space, etc. For us the main task is working with the artists, and configuring and reconfiguring the ‘hang’ of the show across different venues in four host cities. It’s like a game of three dimensional chess...

The theme of BAS7 is In the Days of the Comet. What’s that about?

Lisa: It’s named after HG Wells’ 1906 novel – which was set, for him, four years into the future and, for us, a century in the past when the 75-year elliptical orbit of Halley’s Comet made its predicted return. We are fascinated by the ways that the comet is a sign mistaken for a wonder, be that cataclysm or rapture, and a figure of looping obsession. It is something that’s always with us, no matter that it is sometimes far out of sight. For Tom and I these imperatives seemed very pertinent to the ways in which artists respond the particularities and peculiarities to our time. It was very important to us that this British Art Show was led by artists’ work in the first instance, and our subtitle provides a soundtrack against which these artworks reverberate.

Were you part of the decision to bring BAS7 to Nottingham? If not, who was?

Tom: The show’s organisers pick the venues, not Lisa and I. That said, Nottingham is a great spot to kick off.

How important is it to have shows of this magnitude outside London?

Tom: Very. Many of the artists who feature in BAS7 (the vast majority of whom grew up outside London) have told us how important seeing previous iterations of the BAS in or near their home towns as teenagers was to their decision to become artists. More broadly, it’s obviously important to reach out to people who don’t usually have this volume of contemporary art on their doorstep.

How British is the British Art Show?

Lisa: Well, we don’t really see the exhibition as celebrating Britishness per se; rather, it is a celebration of the ways in which artists who live and work in Britain are making art today. To be based in Britain is not to be British: the ever-developing network of connections that makes up the contemporary art ‘world’ in Britain - art schools, artist-run spaces, public galleries, etc - has made it a location international artists choose to reside in by dint of its vibrancy, making ‘British Art’ something that is defined both by artists born in Britain and those who live or work in Britain.

What will be your personal highlights of the show?

Lisa: Well, in Nottingham the exhibition stretches across Nottingham Castle, New Art Exchange and Nottingham Contemporary and the lion’s share of the work has never been seen before. It’s hard to select highlights – there are so many great works.

Tom: We’ve invited 39 artists to take part, all of whom we’re really excited about, so it’s impossible to pick one highlight. That said, I’m really looking forward to Keith Wilson, Mick Peter and Cullinan Richards reaching a wider audience. These artists are very highly valued by their peers, but haven’t really had this degree of institutional exposure before.

Lisa: In the Castle I think Nathanial Mellors’ new work Ourhouse will be really stunning – it’s a brand new work that will develop over all of the stops of the British Art Show. Formed of videos and an incredible animatronic figure, this work undoes and restructures language in a narrative that loops between stock footage of television soap operas, science fiction and the impossibilities of managing to make sense. At the New Art Exchange, look for Elizabeth Price’s User Group Disco: Hall of Sculptures, a series of reveries and hallucinations built from functional household appliances (from sieves to Soda Streams) set to a soundtrack of a-ha’s Take on Me and sentences stolen from philosophy. At Nottingham Contemporary, make sure you go to the first programme of
events on 20 November where Olivia Plender will premier a performance that takes the form of a script spiralling around a fictional experimental filmmaker.

Presumably, you’ve already scoped out Nottingham Contemporary. What do you think of the place?

Tom: It’s great. The opening David Hockney / Frances Stark two-hander was an inspired choice, and I think the way in which the group shows Star City and Uneven Geographies have underlined the - horrible word - ‘relevance’ of contemporary art while respecting the viewer’s intelligence is something many other British institutions would do well to note. The building and gallery spaces look fantastic, too.

Sideshow will be taking place at the same time – will you be checking it out?

Tom: Of course.

What do you know of the local art scene?

Tom: Enough to know I want to know more. Sideshow should help...

Lisa: Nottingham has such a strong artist-led scene, whose reputation stretches far beyond the limits of the city. For me, meeting artists and sharing ideas is the driving force of how artwork enters into an engagement with the surrounding world from where it questions assumptions and turns what we think we know onto its head.

Nottingham Contemporary is understandably keen to project art as something more than a niche activity for students and poshos. How will BAS7 support that view?

Tom: None of the artists in BAS7 address their work solely to ‘students and poshos’.
Contemporary art often demands a bit more from the viewer than, say, Hollywood films or reality TV or airport novels or manufactured pop songs - all of which can at their best be amazing - but it also often offers potentially much, much more in the way of - as the writer Jeanette Winterson put it - ‘reminding us of the possibilities we’re persuaded to forget’. What’s really important is that viewers feel confident in the fact that, whoever they are, art is trying to communicate with them. Maybe the best way to think of it is as an alternative news service - something Chuck D of Public Enemy once said of hip-hop. We all know that there’s a lot more to the world than is presented in the mainstream media, and art is one the ways in which our species articulates that missing information. It does so in a manner that may at first feel unfamiliar, but it’s that very unfamiliarity that holds the key to new thoughts, and perhaps new freedoms. This is why the proposed cuts to arts funding are so damaging. The people you call ‘students and poshos’ will always be able to access art through their educational and financial privilege. It’s people who fall outside these groups who will suffer.

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet, Nottingham Contemporary, New Art  Exchange and Nottingham Castle, 23 October – 9 January. Free.

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