British Art Show 8 in Leeds

Opening week round-up

On social media I’ve adopted the hashtag #ArtMarathon for the ‘feast’ of visual arts activity across Leeds and beyond triggered by the opening this past week of British Art Show 8 at Leeds Art Gallery. It’s the visual arts equivalent of three buses coming along at once. Here are my highlights so far.

Arts students await Ryan Gander and Lydia Yee in conversion at Leeds Art Gallery
Arts students await Ryan Gander and Lydia Yee in conversion at Leeds Art Gallery

On Tuesday evening at Leeds Art Gallery, British Art Show 8 artist Ryan Gander was in conversation with co-curator Lydia Yee. In front of a packed house (around 200 mainly students – great to see), Gander spoke candidly about making art, what objects are, philosophy and ideas, family and biography, money and the business of art, art education, and his artist-pseudonyms (some very funny). Everything except the wheelchair parked next to his seat. And that’s entirely his prerogative.

British Art Show 8 represents 'art on the move': Jude Kelly opening the show at Leeds Art Gallery
British Art Show 8 represents ‘art on the move’: Jude Kelly opening the show at Leeds Art Gallery

The artist invited the audience to text their questions to him on his second phone, the number (07864 693119) in use only for the duration of this project. Yee asked what came first, the objects in his current show at London’s Lisson Gallery, or the stories attached to them. Gander didn’t hesitate in replying that stories matter more to him and that objects are just the leftovers; the object ‘is like the exhaust fumes, or the receipt from a transaction.’ Gander produces compulsively and suffers from self-diagnosed ‘idea diarrhea’. He had stern words for some art students, criticizing those who find excuses for not making anything for weeks: ‘The people who keep making art are the ones who can’t stop making art’. Maybe, but that hardly accommodates serious and debilitating conditions against which some artists heroically battle all their lives, enforcing sometimes long periods of non-productivity. It’s not always a case of picking up where you left off when the condition improves, either, as if artistic production is always a simple linear narrative.

Thursday afternoon saw the launch of The Feast Wagon at The Tetley, the show I’ve co-curated with Zoe Sawyer and Irfan Shah, featuring new commissions by Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh, Simeon Barclay, and Delaine Le Bas (see my post on 6 Oct). It was wonderful to have the artists present, and the feedback from peers and visitors has been positive so far. Looking forward to reading review coverage that I understand has been commissioned.

Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh, The Feast Wagons, 2015 (courtesy the Artists)
Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh, The Feast Wagons, 2015 (courtesy the Artists)

The opening of the object-laden British Art Show itself, on Thursday evening, was a packed and noisy riot of people, outfits, half-heard speeches, and barely-glimpsed artworks. But Leeds Art Gallery looked splendid, better than it has for ages, newly painted and cleared entirely of its permanent collection to accommodate the entire BAS show in one space, against the form of recent incarnations elsewhere. Jude Kelly and Darren Henley used their speeches to politicize on the importance of the arts in today’s world; Councillor Judith Blake used hers as a rallying cry for Leeds’ bid for 2023. But the biggest cheer of the night, rightly deserved, was for Sarah Brown’s role in delivering BAS to Leeds. Installation of the show had gone down to the wire by all accounts, but everything was all right on the night.

Artists do it best: #whatadrag at Live Art Bistro
Artists do it best: #whatadrag at Live Art Bistro

We decamped for a while to the official after-party at The Tetley, before heading off to East Street Arts’ ‘totally unofficial, before during and after’ party at Live Art Bistro on Regent Street. Billed as ‘What a drag,’ a giant dressing-up box, glitter ball, dancefloor and anarchic art-DJs Tracey Emin Soundsystem awaited. I danced until 2am then wimped out. I hear others went on til 6. Leeds City Council and Arts Council officers were spotted dressing up, having fun and letting their hair down like everyone else. It was fun. A really great party by artists, for everyone.

It was an undeniably special night for Leeds, and I know that various venues (including The Tetley) benefitted from visits by London art world folk that we wouldn’t normally have had. That’s got to be good for artists based here. Some of those great and good even braved an early start the next morning to join About Time’s bus tour of several of Leeds’ artist-led venues, and it was good to watch them tweeting and Instagramming their way around the city.

On Friday afternoon it was over to Yorkshire Sculpture Park to hear Peter Murray and Sandy Nairne open the Bill Viola retrospective, taking place in the Underground Gallery and Chapel, in the presence of the artist and his collaborator Kira Perov, executive director of Viola’s studio and also his wife. The Underground Gallery was predictably packed, far too much to attempt to see new work The Trial properly. But arriving early, I managed to catch the two works on show in the Chapel (Tristan’s Ascent and Fire Woman, both 2005) in relative peace. Only a visit to see the works in situ will convince you of the massive emotional force of this experience. Don’t miss it. The presentation of these two extremely powerful films is further proof, for me, that the Chapel is now one of the very best spaces for contemporary art in the region.

Martino Gamper's 'Post Forma' for #BAS8 at Leeds Art Gallery
Martino Gamper’s ‘Post Forma’ for #BAS8 at Leeds Art Gallery

I returned for another look at BAS8 on Saturday. Great to see Leeds Art Gallery so busy, though unfortunately some video works were playing up and not available to view. The team were working hard to sort this out. There’s no way to make overall sense of such a large show (42 artists are taking part) and the number of video works will mean it takes time and return visits to absorb. Early favourites for me are Andrea Büttner’s Critique of the Power of Judgement, a visual essay riffing on Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790); Ciara Phillips’ poster installation in the entrance hall, produced in collaboration with print studios in the region; Martino Gamper’s animation of the gallery through live workshops by local craft makers (Post Forma); Anthea Hamilton’s perspex ant farm-sculptures; and Alan Kane’s bespoke seating for BAS8 visitors, made from gravestones and powder-coated steel (no-one knows whether to sit on them or not).

Rory Macbeth's Donation Box
Rory Macbeth’s Donation Box for Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun

Finally, on Sunday I went along to open studios at Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun on Wharf Street. This place, home to some of Leeds’ most promising artists, (see my post on 24 Sept) desperately needs support to survive the next few weeks. A print portfolio by studio artists is on sale to support the fundraising drive – save yourself a trip to Frieze and go shopping here instead. If nothing else, it’s worth going along to see Rory Macbeth’s wonderful donation box in the form of a motionless street artist. Please give generously.