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Waterfront Festival

Exhibition Review: Our Silver City, 2094 at Nottingham Contemporary

9 February 22 words: Ewan Cameron

Sci-Fi and contemporary art join together in Nottingham Contemporary's first exhibition of the 2022 season, Our Silver City, 2094. A time machine to a future Nottingham, where remnants of an old world exist in a vision of the city shaped by an all too familiar climate crisis... 

Our Silver City, 2094, the latest exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, is certainly an intriguing premise. A novella by Liz Jensen greets visitors to the first gallery with a tale that, in these times of climate emergency, feels stunningly and alarmingly possible. We are told of a great flood and subsequent freeze that occurred in 2071 and so set the stage for a re-christening of Nottingham as  Silver City, a place 'locked in by ice’, home to a gradually thawing sense of community regenerated through art and a new sense of spirituality. There’s something beautifully effective to this narrative of a future not orientated around flying cars and space travel, but rather a story of the future as a common thread of humanity and value. 

Some pieces will leave us cold, while others will speak to the parts of our souls we had thought hidden. Our Silver City raises many questions, with no easy answers.

The exhibition itself is split into 4 galleries, curated by London and Milan artist Celine Condorelli, British-Kenyan video and performance artist Grace Ndiritu and Netherlands-based visual artist Femke Herregraven.

The first room, Time of Change, is themed around artefacts of a future past and a past future and has some very intriguing videos that seemed to function as time capsules, perhaps from a future already preordained. I was particularly struck by the mock interview with Jorge Luis Borges, amazingly acted by 'Borges' and the Interviewer and filmed on real Betacam to give the uncanny 80s look. On the wall at the back hung some stretched out clothing that was something between a beekeeper outfit and a spacesuit which seemed to embody that general feeling of technocratic dreams crumbling and a more grounded, earth-centred existence emerging from the rubble.

There were other artworks that left me as cold as the imagined silver city. A stack of tablets made from soil offered little in the way of stimulation, which is shame because John Newling’s work, which often combines images of nature with themes of language, can be so eye-catching, and yet this was simply a stack of brown cards carefully guarded by a perspex shield, which only served to further alienate visitors from any tactile potential such an work might have. Similarly, an On Kawara date painting; a canvas that simply read 'Nov, 8. 1989'. Would it have been any different if it was November 9th 1989? Unlikely, which raised the question of what the value of this was here and how it related to the other works. Like the Newling piece, technically very well put together, but alienating and impenetrable to us mere mortals without any context. Perhaps these works might well have thrived in their own environments as part of a wider collection, but here they floundered and felt pretentious. 

Wet Spells, 2021 installation by Femke Herregraven. Our Silver City, 2094. Image courtesy of Nottingham Contemporary and Stuart Whipps.

The second room, themed around ink and light, has its entrance garlanded by a huge waving ribbon covered in a pattern that seemed both organic and industrial. It led down to a tableau of objects, that gave the appearance of an archaeological dig from some far off future that had found artefacts from our own past and present: ancient statuettes sitting next to a concrete block with aerials sticking out of it to resemble a radio, a computer keyboard encrusted with coral-like material. This room certainly had an great atmosphere and mood, although a few of the objects and artworks didn’t quite hit the mark; a floating rock held up in the air by electromagnetism would have perhaps been amazing 30 years ago, but it felt like a dated magic trick here and was unimaginative in its design. The table of artefacts didn’t quite work as a holistic entity and looked somewhat empty, like a tombola stall at the end of a fete. 

Room 3, The Temple, is a bright space filled with beautiful tapestries and crafted items, the most startling being New Zealand artist Vivian Lynn’s Caryatid, a huge totemic sculpture of cardboard and hair. Swedish weaver Charlotte Johannesson’s World, a stylised map on fabric and Armando D Cosmos’s tapestries of the Kon Tiki voyage and future cityscapes were also brilliant to see. Like the other two rooms, this one is a curated space of many different art works, but, for me, this was the room that came closest to a coherent feeling: that of history and marronage, a place where modernism meets escapism.

The Temple, 2021 installation designed by Grace Ndiritu. Our Silver City, 2094. Image courtesy of Nottingham Contemporary and Stuart Whipps.

Room 4, Wet Spells, feels most connected with the theme of the ‘Silver City’. Around the walls are a system of glyphs developed by Femke Herregraven, with visitors encouraged to become shamans themselves, by placing rocks closest to the glyph they saw as a herald for the future. Perhaps one may feel transported to a future Nottingham, a place devoid of smartphones and weather apps. The imagination that blossomed through the creation of a new type of language - one intimately connected with nature -brought to mind Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, her classic novel of anthropological fantasy that imagined a future society and their customs that brought them closer to the earth. This too felt like an intimate archaeology of the future; an interactive exhibit that asked visitors to carefully consider their prediction. The signs, like tarot cards, may not always have the same meaning as their face value. I chose to place my rock near the sign for bees staying close to the hive, perhaps driven by a sense that in the uncertain times ahead community remains our strongest weapon. 

Our Silver City is an escape into an ambiguous and thought provoking utopia, with crafted excellence from world class artists.

Overall, we can sense a path the exhibition takes. The dying elements of our world are broadcast out as emergency beacons in room 1, before falling deep into the abyss in room 2 and then emerging again in room 3 and 4 as new wisdom is made practical and spirituality is rooted in mother earth’s gifts rather than ethereal mysticism. In this sense, Our Silver City is an escape into an ambiguous and thought provoking utopia, with crafted excellence from world class artists. Yet it doesn’t quite meet the challenge of being a sum of more than its constituent parts. The weakness of Our Silver City is the discord between the concept and the execution. While the curators have managed to tell a story, it never really feels like this exhibition is rooted in the city itself, despite the general idea that this is an imagination of the city’s future. 

Sure, there are a few nods scattered through the galleries; the odd artefact from a local museum, a few old maps in a corner, but it’s hard to shake the idea that this could be an exhibition pretty much anywhere in the world. And that would be fine normally. After all, the Contemporary is one of the jewels in Nottingham’s crown precisely because it’s a worldwide hub for art. However, at a time where our culture is more cognisant of representation in art, it feels strange that an exhibition premised on an imagined Nottingham, doesn’t represent the city as much as it could have. We would at least expect that, in this case, Nottingham artists would be prioritised as curators and exhibitors. Otherwise, there is a problematic juxtaposition between the deictic use of the word “Our” in the title and the actual material reality of how the exhibition is organised. In short, Our Silver City is certainly a space, but it fails at being a place, a centre of lived experience and meaning.

Installation by Céline Condorelli. Our Silver City, 2094. Image courtesy of Nottingham Contemporary and Stuart Whipps.

Still, like all Contemporary exhibitions this is certainly worth visiting and even coming back to. Perhaps you might find that the object you dismissed on Saturday morning has become something quite more meaningful on Tuesday afternoon. There’s a dualism hardwired into contemporary art that means that its output is either an authentic voice of society’s rebels bringing forth aesthetics from the void, or alternatively an overly commodified expression of bourgeois sensibility for a well-connected elite. Some pieces will leave us cold, while others will speak to the parts of our souls we had thought hidden. Our Silver City raises many questions, with no easy answers. Its vision of the future may stay with you for a long time.

Our Silver City, 2094 is currently on view at Nottingham Contemporary until April 18. 

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