In each of its exhibitions in 2018, an artist will reveal a brand new body of work for the first time, starting with a major new commission by artist Fiona Crisp. The gallery's opening programme celebrates the achievements of artists living and working in North East England, who share new visions of how we live now. We speak to Alistair Robinson, the gallery's Director about the last one and a half years and the upcoming programme.
What have you been doing to keep your audiences engaged while you’ve been closed?
We’ve been doing three different things during the interim period since leaving the City Library building and opening our new space inside National Glass Centre.
The first is to do things that we wouldn’t or couldn’t have done otherwise – which has included offsite projects in historic sites. One of these was an exhibition with 13 artists in a fourteenth-century library in one of the oldest Universities in the world, Montpellier, pairing their work with artworks and artefacts from their astonishing permanent collections, which includes drawings by Brueghel, Tiepolo, the Carracci, and objects from medical history and natural history. They were also one of the first universities to teach medicine and have the most astonishing archives and object collections we were able to explore.
The second has been to start a collection of contemporary art for the city, which has been a long-term ambition that is now starting to come to fruition. That came out of the simple observation that we’d given the first public shows to artists from Sean Scully, back in 1972, to Sam Taylor-Wood, to Glenn Brown, to Cory Arcangel, and not kept anything. If we’d had just a small amount of money to keep hold of their works, Sunderland would have a museum of modern art better than any in England out of London. Though several of the works we’ve premiered or commissioned have wound up in national and international collections. Instead, it’s one of the largest cities in the country, or further afield, without a dedicated city art gallery.
Several artists have been extraordinarily generous and gifted us entire bodies of work in recognition of our support of their work when they really needed it. Others have similarly given us individual works that they want to share with a public, rather than being in private collections. This marks a new beginning. It also means that we can work with artists differently – if you are keeping someone’s work, you enter into a long-term relationship with them rather than just giving them a show. It means we can keep conversations alive over years or decades, and place our faith in artists who really keep pushing their practice forwards, and audiences can benefit from those relationships.
The third is to reignite a publishing programme with international publishers in relation to the collection. So we have a major monograph by Dan Holdsworth just out, with Hatje Cantz, and an unusual book about John Kippin published by Kerber, also based in Germany, in which eight different writers take a different look at his forty years of work. What we want to do is what all serious museums do, which is underpin their work in research. So four other books are in the early days of production, and authors commissioned from both sides of the Atlantic.
So in terms of keeping audiences engaged – we have had a continuous presence in the National Glass Centre’s collection gallery, starting to reveal what we’ve been collecting as much as undertaking events month in and month out. We want to make ‘news’ – but also tell other stories that aren’t being told at present.
When the doors open to the public at the end of March, what are you looking forward to them seeing the most?
The new space offers enormous possibilities. The work is, as always, the thing.
Fiona Crisp, the artist who has the first show, has spent two years working with three laboratories and institutes investigating the structure of the universe – ‘fundamental science’ as it’s known. Her approach is exemplary: it is extraordinarily considered in every aspect and concerned with what the experience in the gallery really involves, or what experiences a gallery can afford, as they say in the sciences.
She’s done something unusual to animate the space and to present her photographic and video work as forms of sculpture. This is to build a scaffolding framework upon which all the works are hung, and place steel benches throughout the space to enjoy and watch the works. The experience of her work is incredibly powerful: some of the videos reveal the journey deep underground towards a laboratory that is nearly a mile below the surface, where there is little background radiation.
You open with a new commission from Fiona Crisp. Can you tell us about its links to the North East?
Two of the three laboratories that Fiona has been working with over the last two years are actually based in the North East: Boulby Underground Laboratory in County Durham, sited in the UK’s deepest working mine; and at Durham University's Institute for Computational Cosmology. There is also Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso, the world’s largest underground laboratory for particle physics, housed inside a mountain in central Italy. But the labs are literally invisible, being underground; and the knowledge generated by Durham University doesn’t easily get assimilated by the wider world. So we’re able to reveal spaces and sites almost under our noses, and which are changing the way we see and know the world, but are equally almost completely unknown.
What can we look forward to over the next year?
The first year highlights artists in this region who deserve wider exposure, and who we have helped to or been instrumental in making an entirely new body of work. One criticism of the programme at our old site was that in trying to bring new work to the region from the wider world, we didn’t always celebrate those on our doorsteps; and in trying to reveal a breadth of new work from across different countries and generations, we neglected showing artists’ works in depth and in detail. Swings and roundabouts of course. But in the new space what we want to do is on occasion to give people not just one solo show, but two. That’s quite a change. They could be consecutively, to reveal the variety and breadth of their ideas, or across a distance, to reveal the trajectory of their work over time.
Is there another exhibition on currently in the region that you would recommend?
I’ve long had the most enormous admiration for what AV Festival have been able to achieve. Theirs has been an exemplary approach: intellectually adventurous and rigorous, Catholic in tastes, cosmopolitan in inclination, and disinclined to take provisional art world hierarchies as the measure of all things. They’ve both looked beyond what is merely ‘current’ whilst being incredibly clear about what is urgent, now, artistically and politically. ‘Meanwhile, What About Socialism?’ (Part two) echoes the structure I mentioned above, of exploring an idea in depth, over time. Our (wholly unwitting) imitation of it is also the sincerest form of flattery.
Fiona Crisp: Material Sight takes place from 24 March - 13 May 2018. The preview takes place on Friday 23 March from 6-8pm.
AV Festival 2018: Meanwhile, what about Socialism? takes place until 31 March, at venues including: Assembly House, BALTIC 39, NewBridge Books, Side Cinema, Star & Shadow Cinema, The Mining Institute, Tyneside Cinema and Workplace Gallery.