Smith, Stoker, Sutherland: Three to see at Grand Union for New Art West Midlands

By Mark Sheerin | 11 March 2014

A showcase of graduate talent in the Birmingham area has thrown up exciting displays by three bursary recipients at an artist-led space in Digbeth

Anna Smith piece at Grand Union, Birmingham© Anna Smith. Image courtesy NAWM
Five chosen artists are currently showing at Grand Union, Birmingham, in a group show which belies the inexperience of its participants: Leah Carless, Sarah Sehra, Anna Smith, Glen Stoker, and Hannah Sutherland. Note those names because, as umbrella scheme New Art West Midlands ably shows, the graduate potential in this region is strong.

Across Birmingham and into Wolverhampton, four more venues are showing the 23 artists selected by artists Mel Brimfield and David Harding OBE, plus curator and theorist Paul Goodwin. But here on the top floor of the Minerva Works building, in post-industrial Digbeth, the artist-led setting is ideal for those bridging the gap between art school and a career in the art world.

Three of the Grand Union exhibitors, all of whom received a £500 bursary and critical support from the gallery, were there on the day of my visit to tell me about their work.

Anna Smith has created a darkly comic installation which consists of a melted ladder, an empty light socket, and a spare bulb on a high shelf. Together, the well-crafted elements formed a concise and absurdist comment on the everyday challenges of living with a physical disability.


Smith: “A lot of my work deals with bodies of difference, so disability, impairment. This piece is an unusable ladder. Then you have the lightbulb on the shelf, and the light socket overhead. So the audience has the experience of impairment, of not being able to do a very mundane simple task.

It’s just trying to get the audience to consider what it means to have a body of difference or a disabled body. Maybe to think a bit more about how it’s not just a visual impact, it’s a physical thing, just trying to encourage people to think a bit less visually.

Usually I’m quite intuitive and I work in clay, because we had this bursary it was an opportunity to work in a new material that I hadn’t used before. It’s silicon which is used quite a lot in prosthetics and the metal parts are mobility handles.

So it’s all quite new actually; it’s quite a change. My piece at BMAG was the clay sculpture, the little one on the floor with the pallet so that’s quite different to this. I think I wanted to move away from creating something which was visual to something where you create the experience for the audience.

I actually used guttering for the mould from the side of my house, then the two struts were a two part mix for the silicon. I think originally I just made the ladder and this space, but with the other artworks, it was really dwarfed. So I had to create other elements to give it a bit more presence.

And I think it’s worked out better for that. Having to think of it more as an installation. We tried to be a bit deceptive, so it looks like it’s part of the architecture.

It’s a very good platform for me to launch at the moment. I’m doing my MA at Wolverhampton, so this will be the launch into the real world. I kind of think of myself as a classical sculptor. Really it’s quite a serious subject, but it’s done in a comical way.”

Glen Stoker has installed a fully furnished bedroom from a terrace house and wrapped the frame in building tape until it is completely hidden. Peering into the interior provides the unexpected delight of a sculpture within a sculpture, with a wonderful , satirical sideswipe at Tracey Emin.

Glen Stoker in NAWM© Glen Stoker. Photo courtesy NAWM
Stoker: “It’s called Hermetically Sealed #2, Bedroom and basically it’s part of a bigger bit of work made in response to land use in cities, particularly around areas of brownfield sites which have become quite prevalent as the result of a failed housing scheme called Pathfinder.

So really my work’s generally about pointing out gaps. And this is what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years, really: just pointing out to people that these spaces used to be communities and there used to be houses with all the associated human occurances and memories which happened there.

I’m particularly interested in this work in the fact that these of land get cordoned off, get fenced off by private landowners, private developers or city councils so, you know, the ubiquity of the palisade fence or the security fence, almost sealing the land off from human consumption.

It’s quite interesting to watch what goes on inside the fencing. Nature takes hold and reappropriates the land. But this construction would not normally sit in the gallery. It’s always a public realm thing.

They’re performances really. I’m building a set, in this case a room, and then enclosing it and wrapping it and sealing it off. I’ve never been stopped yet. It’s a day long process so I start in the morning and get in there and build and hopefully attract some attention, some conversation.

It’s based on a typical terrace house, but it’s only a segment so...people might not do this but if they do. [Glen parts the tape which wraps his sculpture to reveal a furnished room inside] They’re pretty much found objects.

To be honest, when I applied for New Art West Midlands this was the reason I applied for it, for the chance to get selected for the bursaries. For the chance to, first of all, focus on making your work and then all the things which come from being at Grand Union, the association with Cheryl [Jones, Gallery Director].

Her experience and knowledge is amazing and then all of the crit sessions and the mentoring, the introductions to other artists and the knowledge that certain people are going to come in and see the work. All of that’s really invaluable at this stage.”

Hannah Sutherland is exhibiting a multi-channel video, featuring a hectic montage of screenshots and pop ups as she searches the web for the term ‘internet freedom’. A stirring soundtrack from the film Inception brings home a cogent message in waves of both fear and excitement.

Hannah Sutherland at Grand Union© Hannah Sutherland. Image courtesy NAWM
Sutherland: “The first idea for my video at BMAG was changing the reliance between us and televised news media. So in the current culture we don’t rely on say the 6 O’Clock news or the 10 O’Clock news. Instead, we are given our news from the internet.

We control our searches. We have the freedom to look at it at a time we’d like, what kind of news we want to view and read about and watch from all different areas of the world. But this piece is more looking at if that freedom or control actually really does exist.

So I researched what were the top news sites on the internet and they were all American. I was in these screenshots, which are screen recordings from my laptop. You see me going through all the different American news sites looking up the term ‘internet freedom’.

And that term, internet freedom, from the past year or two, goes to stuff like Wikileaks and Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. And all that kind of contradiction to this internet freedom and with the audio as well, with Hilary Clinton’s speech on internet freedom, which is contradicting what you’re actually seeing on the aesthetic.

So it’s really playing with that idea of whether internet freedom does exist with all this information overload that we’re seeing as well. And once you walk through the rooms you come to the back screen which is the opposite of what you’re seeing here.

Instead of being the American news media, you’re then looking at the Americanised opposite, which is the conspiracy theories, how they differ, and yet they’re the same the imagery. They’re made to look like their different, but they’re formatted the same and in windows.

So you’re still constricted by the internet. It’s playing with the ideas that we don’t have control of our own freedom. We think we do and that’s why the country’s changed from televised news media to internet news media.

It was very hard to put all this together. It was something that I wasn’t used to before but i’m so glad I did because now I have the opportunity to do something that I wasn’t used to and it’s really kind of expanded where my work can go.”

  • The five bursary awardees can be seen at Grand Union, Birmingham, until March 15 2014. Open Thursday-Saturday 12pm-5pm.
    Admission free.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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