The Feast Wagon at The Tetley

The Feast Wagon features Lubaina Himid & Susan Walsh, Simeon Barclay and Delaine Le Bas

7 October 2015 – 10 January 2016

I’m incredibly proud that this visually rich and rewarding exhibition is one of the last projects I co-curated at The Tetley, alongside Zoë Sawyer and Leeds-based researcher Irfan Shah.

The project began in conversation with Irfan, whose meticulous research into Louis Le Prince (begun for The First Film, the 2015 documentary directed by David Wilkinson) had led him to John Robinson Whitley, Le Prince’s brother-in-law and the Yorkshireman responsible for bringing Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West Show’ to England for the first time in 1887. Robinson, an industrialist whose factory stood just yards from the Tetley Brewery site on Hunslet Road in south Leeds, created ‘The American Exhibition of the Arts, Inventions, Manufactures, Products and Resources of the United States,’ staged on a patch of central London wasteland. This was the nascent showground later known as Earl’s Court.

At the heart of the ‘American Exhibition’ lay the Wild West Show, which made an early pin-up of its architect William F. Cody, the self-styled ‘Buffalo Bill’. Irfan’s research delves into this fascinating late Victorian environment where Indians and cowboys rubbed shoulders with the English monarchy and the country’s political and cultural elite.

Simeon Barclay, installation in progress, October 2015 (courtesy of the Artist)
Simeon Barclay, installation in progress, October 2015 (courtesy of the Artist)

My interest in this little-known story and the entrepreneurial figure of John Whitley lay in how we could use this story of cultural exchange to think through movement as an agent of change, and to add to the discourse around the arrival of British Art Show 8 in Leeds this October. The British Art Show definitely travels from London to the regions: it originates with the Hayward Gallery in London, and its curators and many of the artists are based in the capital. Its tour of the regions is not unlike the Wild West Show’s tour of England and Europe following its London premiere in 1887. But Robinson’s story encapsulates some neat reversals, bringing American culture with him from New York (where he first encountered Cody) to London via Yorkshire. His invention of the large-scale spectaculars at Earl’s Court instigated a model of mass entertainment as education that still echoes today, and fixed an image of the American west in the popular imagination that lingered almost to the end of the 20th Century. Completing the circle, Leeds Art Gallery opened in 1888, raised by subscription in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the previous year, the year she herself attended the Wild West Show. Leeds Art Gallery is, of course, the host for the opening of British Art Show 8 in a few days’ time. How important are ideas of nationhood in considering contemporary art, and what is ‘British’ anyway, are just some of the questions its presence will raise.

The to and fro of these exchanges (between London and the regions, between high- and low-brow culture, between nations) lies at the heart of The Feast Wagon project. Movement and exchange carry the potential for reinvention and advancement, by individuals as well as groups and entire societies. Those who would seek to close our boundaries to Syrian migrants fleeing across Europe are blind to the fact that exchange between cultures has always been fundamental to the development of human society.

The participating artists were asked to respond to this cacophony of historical detail with its endlessly circular spin-off stories, fascinating coincidences and larger-than-life personalities. Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh immediately found a link to an earlier aborted project sparked by their interest in Le Prince’s 1888 footage of carts crossing Leeds Bridge. Their installation of DIY carts painted with ‘exotic’ beasts in The Tetley’s atrium both suggests the possibility of individual choice, and simultaneously invites collective agency – visitors may animate and move some of the carts to create new relationships and configurations. Roma artist Delaine Le Bas has found a way in through her ongoing project looking at how the figure of the ‘gypsy’ is imagined, defiled and despised in popular culture; and Simeon Barclay has found resonance in the self-mythologising of both William F. Cody and John Robinson Whitley as early examples of how burgeoning pop cultural forms (mass entertainment, advertising, pulp fiction) could be deployed to fashion the ‘celebrity’. He cleverly links these to male icons of more recent times including Albert Finney, Bryan Ferry and Eric Cantona.

Delaine Le Bas, installation in progress, October 2015 (courtesy of the Artist)
Delaine Le Bas, installation in progress, October 2015 (courtesy of the Artist)

The resulting commissions employ large-scale sculptural installation, collage and text works throughout The Tetley’s gallery spaces and outside on the Brewery Green, and Susan Walsh’s double-ended cart collages will also be seen in expanded form across a series of billboard sites linking the north and south of the city throughout the exhibition.

All are welcome at the launch of The Feast Wagon at The Tetley on Thursday 8th October from 4-6pm.

Urgent appeal on behalf of Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, Leeds

On Wednesday I attended the opening of Set The Controls’ latest exhibition, Pedestrian Confetti, a solo show by Glasgow-based artist Toby Christian. It’s a great example of how this place invites artists from outside Leeds to show here for the first time and to play with reasonably large-scale, experimental installations. But there’s a BIG problem…

STCFTHOTS (the name is an artist’s commission by Rory Macbeth, referencing the 1968 Pink Floyd song) is an artist-led organization housing studios, a project space, a permanent collection and a bookshop across two floors on Wharf Street in central Leeds.

Since 2014, STCFTHOTS has run on a completely self-funded basis and worked with over 200 artists. They’ve built the space themselves and done a great job of it. Last week the group, led by Tavienne Bridgwater, posted an urgent call for help via Instagram. They face closure in a matter of weeks unless they can raise a few thousand to get them through the next few months. A Kickstarter campaign will go live next week, and a fundraiser followed Wednesday’s exhibition launch.

16 The group are also taking work to the Manchester Contemporary over the next few days and hope that sales there will help them reach their target.

This space is absolutely critical to the existence of a healthy artistic community in Leeds. It’s a social hub where artists and others can meet, and it supports emerging artists to make and show work. Crucially, it has drawn studio holders to Leeds from other major centres of contemporary art across the UK, and it regularly showcases the work of young artists based as far away as London and Glasgow, as well as giving a platform to home-grown talent and artists across the North. That should tick a whole load of boxes for the ideals of the Northern Powerhouse, retaining creative talent in the city, and the Leeds 2023 bid campaign, right?

It would be bitterly ironic if this space closed at a time when the British Art Show arrives in Leeds. The fact is that without spaces like STCFTHOTS, there won’t be artists of the future to fill shows like BAS. It’s exactly the kind of place where young artists base themselves, commit to their practice, socialize, become part of something, and lay the groundwork for the future of contemporary art. That’s how Project Space Leeds [PSL] started out (the space I co-founded in Leeds in 2006) and several others that have come and gone since then.

Having founded PSL, I know the pressures of starting out with zero funding, working long hours on low (or no) pay, and sinking heart and soul into something with an uncertain future. But this is the way it goes – people doing things they truly believe in, for no greater reason than the fact that it’s important, it matters, and someone’s got to do it. The money this place is aiming to raise to continue their work is peanuts compared to, say, the money being spent on the new south entrance/exit from Leeds train station. But it could help secure the future of dozens of young artists.

What can you do to help? Well, please donate if you can. Or get along to the Manchester Contemporary this weekend and buy some art by a rising star from STCFTHOTS’s stand. But if you can only give a little, Membership costs just £12 a year and each studio holder is on a mission to sign up 12 new members immediately. If you do one thing today or tomorrow, please do this!

Contact them here now:
Instagram: s_t_c_f_t_h_o_t_s

Image credits: Free Things (2015) curated by Jack Fisher. Pictures of Spring (2014) by Phil Coyne.