It’s been 50 years since art gallery Ikon in Birmingham, UK, was established by an artists’ group that wanted the space to be “an antithesis to exclusive art establishments and galleries.” This weekend it’s celebrating that anniversary by teaming up with event space the Hippodrome for an inaugural free four-day video art event, About Town. Ikon dug into its extensive catalog to review its moving image work, having decided that film was the medium that best suited the area where the exhibition is held—Birmingham’s Southside, a vibrant neighborhood that encompasses Chinatown, Theatreland and The Gay Village. “Film is a very versatile medium, meaning that we could easily adapt the pieces to various locations. The opportunity to fill such vast spaces with large moving imagery was just too good to pass up,” says Ikon director Jonathan Watkins.
The works, which all explore everyday urban life, are displayed in four Southside locations, including the Route 2 Havana and Gallan carparks as well as a 1930s-styled National Trust cottage house. Two of them are new commissions, Dean Kelland’s “Just Like That” and Perry Roberts’ “Best Day/Worst Day,” which is shown on a huge screen outside the Hippodrome. At first glance “Best Day/Worst Day” looks like an ad for an upcoming event. As the film plays out, you realize that the thought-provoking piece compels viewers to reconcile that for someone, this is the best day of their life, for someone else, the worst. While the people in the video are just going about their business in the city. We talked to the artist about “Best Day/Worst Day,” and to Watkins about Birmingham’s vibrant art scene.
How come you decided to focus on the lives of everyday people in “Best Day/Worst Day”?
Perry Roberts: What does “everyday person” mean? That suggests another group of people who aren’t “everyday.” Hopefully the work addresses everyone, everywhere. It’s about a common understanding of the language but an individual interpretation to the message.
What is it that makes the urban landscape a fascinating subject?
PR: In this case, the city is the focus for human interaction. The area around the theatre is filled with people having a night out as well as the homeless begging. That illustrates the point of the work.
What reaction have you gotten, or hope to get, from the piece?
PR: The reaction last night (at the opening) was brilliant. Some people told me they were very moved! Although I don’t know about the homeless guys. I want people to think about what is really important in their lives.
One of the films, Gillian Wearing’s “Broad Street” from 2001, was filmed close to the Ikon gallery and you were one of the people who made the film happen back then. How has the area changed since?
Jonathan Watkins: The area has changed as society has changed as a whole. It’s now interesting to look back and see people smoking indoors and walking down the street without mobile phones. However, Broad Street is still the main drag for entertainment and leisure in Birmingham. The clubs and bars are still there, but now with different playlists.
As more and more people live in cities, do you think we will see more art about urban life in the future, or perhaps the opposite?
JW: I think art is essentially an urban phenomenon. Artists since time immemorial have focused on the built environment; I don’t see this changing. A lot of the work shown as part of About Town was commissioned by Ikon and so it is perhaps no surprise that Birmingham is often the subject.
What’s the art scene like in Birmingham at the moment?
JW: There are more and more alternative spaces are opening up, especially in developing areas such as Southside and Digbeth. There is a lot to offer those with an interest in contemporary art. Also, Birmingham is more affordable than London and artists are increasingly taking advantage of the opportunities available in this city.
About Town is running at Ikon through 16 November 2014.
Installation image from New Street (2012-2013) courtesy Beat Streuli, image from Best Day Worst Day (2014); photo by William Fallows; courtesy Perry Roberts; The Hippodrome and Ikon, image from Parking (video, 2001) courtesy June Bum Park, image from Broad Street (video, 2001) courtesy Gillian Wearing and Maureen Paley