Sam Thorne has been director of Nottingham Contemporary for over a year now. The first show he had a hand in curating within the organisation, The Place is Here, set the bar high to say the least; championing the work of over forty artists locally and internationally, as well as delving into the British Black Arts Movement of eighties Britain.
“One of the reasons I moved here was because I loved the exhibitions so much,” says Sam. “I’d always travel to see them, and had tremendous respect for what was going on here already. My first thought was that exciting feeling of ‘Well, there’s not a huge amount to change here,’ and it felt like a good moment to think about what happens next.”
The gallery has always had a massive focus on engaging more hard-to-reach audiences, not only by exhibiting art that makes you tilt your head, but by working with community partners and hosting a full programme of live music, film screenings, workshops and study sessions. The ambition of their projects, though, is something that really puts the institution in the top tier.
“Alex, my predecessor, really established that reputation,” says Sam. “What we’re aiming to do is help artists to realise super-ambitious work. Looking out onto the street and seeing this cloud rising from the building, I’m really excited to be helping with that tradition of producing projects that could only be happening here.”
Lara Favaretto is the artist behind the big cloud, otherwise known as Thinking Head. Inspired by the late Alighiero Boetti’s bronze, self-portrait sculpture My Brain is Smoking, the installation looks at the mind of the artist, and the intensity of thought that exists between those synapses. Boetti’s sculpture presents him holding a hose, jetting water onto his head, and a cloud of steam emerging when it hits the surface.
With Thinking Head, Favaretto has taken that metaphor of ideas rising, of thoughts burning, and applied it to the entire gallery. “The thoughts, questions, conversations and ideas you have within the art gallery are creating this head of steam coming out,” says Sam. “On our busy days, there’s a lot more being pumped out, and on days when maybe not so much is happening, it’s a bit more mellow. Lara’s been wanting to do this for about ten years but has never been able to.
“After a lot of research, we finally got there. We were looking into creating steam from what would essentially be a hot plate on the ceiling; boiling water. For a million reasons, that wouldn’t work; not least, the amount of energy we were expending. Then there was the idea of dry ice, which is too expensive. I got in touch with Danish artist Olafur Eliasson who’s worked extensively with the elements. In the end, it needed to be water vapour.”
The installation works by pumping water from the bottom of the building up to the roof and through water-nebulizing devices, which produce vapourised, cold water. “You can feel it,” says Sam. “It’s like a mist, but it behaves a little bit like steam.”
Favaretto’s Thinking Head commission will be running at Nottingham Contemporary until the end of the year, whereas her current gallery exhibition, Absolutely Nothing, will be running until August. “It was really important for her that the project started before, and ended after, the exhibition,” says Sam. “She wanted to think about stretching the exhibition space and time.”
Inside the building, the concepts follow a similarly antagonistic-yet-beautiful line. Absolutely Nothing brandishes huge, forgotten paintings concealed by tightly wrapped, single pieces of wool; large plaster casts of carnival masks; and massive car wash brushes that churn and smack the walls in the corner of the room. “One is vivid orange, one is dark brown, and they’re really striking, kinetic sculptures,” says Sam.
“The way she works is often to produce these machines, or automatic processes, and then completely removes herself. She sets up the system or the rule and just backs away. The car wash brushes are about eight-foot high and they’re clamped to an iron slab, so when they spin really fast they whip and leave behind a plastic residue. It’s like an automatic painting. It’s quite a destructive exhibition that’s often about what gets left behind.”
As part of a private performance, a moped has been ridden around the gallery space, leaving dents and marks on the walls to create the piece Di Blasi R7. The title of the exhibition lends a clue to the thought behind the work: “It’s her nihilistic, melancholic sense of humour coming through; to make a show of nothing, or try to become nothing,” says Sam.
Alongside Favaretto’s woolly pictures and Wheel of Death, Wu Tsang is exhibiting Devotional Document; a body of work made up of two film installations and one video. “Wu is trans, and she talks about these magical, realist portraits of different queer communities,” says Sam. “Her work is often dipping between fiction and documentary in the way that it’s not clear if it’s scripted or not. She works very closely within communities to produce these kinds of projects; collaboration is really very important.”
It’s impressive; the ways double exhibitions marry up at the Contemporary. Sometimes work complements the art found in a sister show through unlikely connections, and I wonder where Sam sees the bridges between the creations currently on display.
“It’s quite tangential between these two shows,” he says. “Lara’s work is often pushing the limits of what can be represented: What can a sculpture be? Can it just be a remnant or a relic, or a mark on the wall?
“In the same way but from a different angle, Wu is really thinking about the limits of representation within a film; how can you adequately represent a person or community? Wu also includes archives and sculptures around the films, almost as an acknowledgement that a film can never be a whole story. It’s only ever partial, only ever a part of the picture.
“Both artists are grappling with the limits of what you can do. That, for me, is the connection. But there’s also an ambivalent sense of both celebration and melancholy. Wu’s films are often full of party scenes, but there is a real sadness to them. Just as with Lara’s work; it’s shot through with this melancholia of ‘What is an artist today?’ It’s almost kind of funny, wanting to call an exhibition Absolutely Nothing.”
Lara Favaretto and Wu Tsang’s exhibitions run until Monday 28 August 2017
Nottingham Contemporary website