Firstsite opens doors to Colchester past, present and future with Camulodunum

By Mark Sheerin | 26 September 2011
Photo of interior of a curved gallery
© Richard Bryant/Arcaidimages.com
Exhibition: Camulodunum, Firstsite, Colchester, until 22 January 2012

1960s New York may seem like a long way from a provincial market town in Essex, but the inaugural show at Firstsite bridges the gap with ease. The local oysters, which are one of Colchester’s claims to fame, appear to provide the ingredients for one of the cans of soup for which Manhattanite Andy Warhol is also reasonably well known.

It is a witty touch which brings Warhol face-to-face with black and white photographs of burghers from the UK’s oldest recorded town. They line up on board a fishing boat ready to taste the fruits of Colchester Oyster Feast. Not everyone likes oysters, and not everyone likes contemporary art.

A graphic painting of a Campbells soup can
Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup II - Oyster Stew (1969)© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ DACS, London 2011
Firstsite appears to have divided opinion round these parts. But sceptical visitors who drop in on the first show, Camulodonum, could not ask for any gallery to go to greater lengths to include the very people who may have balked at the building’s £22 million price tag.

For starters, there is plenty of local historical ephemera. Along with photos of mayors and molluscs, there are more photos, posters, tickets and fliers for the 1909 pageant, perhaps the last headline-grabbing celebration of all things Colcestrian.

A photo project by Aleksandra Mir forms a chain of pictures linking, as if by 99 degrees of separation, the present Queen to the town’s civil war past, via members of local pop group Blur.

Surely no-one can object to such archival exhibits, because to do so would be to reject the town itself. The new commission by Mir is both accessible and deeply ponderable, reflecting as it does the many layers of history which Colchester can boast.

If proof of that were needed, a permanent space has been cleared for a 1,800-year-old mosaic. After a century in Colchester Castle Museum, the nautical-themed Berryfield Mosaic is now back on more or less the very spot it was found. Serious archaeology is as much a speciality of the region as oysters and many other artworks reflect this.

Qing and Yang dynasty vases have been apparently unearthed, but in fact recreated, to adorn five thick pillars of bamboo. This piece by artist of the moment, Ai Weiwei, links the nearby Roman past to an oriental past and a global present in one fell swoop.

Colour photo of an art installation featuring Chinese vases and bamboo
Ai Weiwei, Bamboo and Porcelain (2008-09)© Ai Weiwei and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne
Two more living artists supply work which a dig might have thrown up. There are two more vases by Grayson Perry, who also has a knack for fusing classical and primitive times. Meanwhile, Sarah Lucas arranges flint, obscenely.

But one or two exhibits are baffling discoveries. Subodh Gupta’s bronze bicycles may be as out of place here as they would be in a town centre cycle rack. The vast digits of Danh Vo’s piece, meanwhile, represent a coup for the gallery, but the debut of his exhaustive take on the Statue of Liberty is not an obvious choice for the show.

Later on, works from all timescales, all lands and all angles get sucked in to a "mirrored clock" by Robert Smithson, with chalk rocks crumbling across the gallery floor. His is a past comprised of ruins and reflections of ourselves. It is not a cheery work to dominate the largest open space in the show, but it is succinct.

It is also rare to see work by this epic land artist in the UK. Chalk-Mirror Displacement comes out of storage after more than 40 years with something of the force of myth. Now it represents one more facet of history in a town with more than its share. Let us hope Firstsite proves to be epoch-making. 

A colour photo of chrome milk flasks hanging from two bronze bicycles
Subodh Gupta, Two Cows (2003-2008)© Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zurich. (c) Subodh Gupta
A colour photo of Roman helmet modelled out of strips from car parts
Bill Woodrow, Car door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet (1982)© Bill Woodrow
Vintage photograph of costumed participants in a pageant
Sir Benjamin Stone, Warwick Pageant (Cymbeline Group)© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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