Space Hijackers, May Day Cricket Match 2005. Image courtesy and copyright the artist.
What does England stand for and what does it mean to be English in the 21st century?
An ambitious and unprecedented collaborative exhibition has been staged at six galleries across Sunderland and Southampton to bring together a diverse group of artists to explore these fundamental issues.
North + South features 30 artists and includes 15 new commissions, and is showing at the John Hansard Gallery, Millais Gallery and Southampton City Art Gallery in Southampton until 2 September 2007, and at the National Glass Centre Centre, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art and Reg Vardy Gallery in Sunderland until 22 September 2007.
“Of late there have been numerous political attempts to define ‘who we are’ in terms of a national identity," said Robert Blackson, curator of Reg Vardy Gallery.
"In the face of varying religious, cultural and economic needs, North + South does not answer for this epistemological impossibility but instead challenges preconceptions of individuality, and examines its relationship to the ongoing formation of a national character.”
At the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, issues surrounding national identity are explored primarily through our relationship to our built environment.
A dynamic combination of six artists, including architects, photographers and filmmakers present a variety of thought-provoking works – some of which consider how we might rebuild our urban environment for the greater good while others ponder how we might be living in the future.
Space Hijackers , Circle Line Party, 2004. Image courtesy and copyright the artist
For Space Hijackers, a collective of artists, architects and activists who create unofficial interventions into public spaces, it’s how we relate to the space around us, the public space that’s important.
They use the element of surprise to stage their re-appropriation of public spaces and by doing so they hope to make us think about how we ‘fit’ with our larger world.
The Space Hijackers Circle Line Party may look like a bit of a nightmare for those of us who have an aversion to getting squashed on public transport, but they wittily make the point that public space can be hijacked to make an art statement. It’s the ultimate public art installation – made for the public, by the public.
Other work by the Space Hijackers has a political edge, such as the unannounced cricket party that appears on the green across from the Houses of Parliament, complete with banners calling for the end to spin, and the ‘Guerilla Benching’ projects that sees the removal of public seating for the civic good.
Susan Diab, Oh I do like to be beside the seaside! 2006. Image courtesy and copyright the artist
Susan Diab’s audio installation ‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!’ can be seen at all six venues. Her reworking of the popular song nostalgically recalls those bygone days when nearly the entire working population spent their holidays at England’s coastal resorts.
The big surprise here, however, and one that completely wrongfoots the viewer is that Diab’s version is sung in Arabic.
For Diab, Englishness is no longer a simplistic, easy to define concept: “identity is rarely monolithic, simple, or even necessarily to do with appearance,” she says.
Pippa Hale, Charge, desk flag, 2007. Image courtesy and copyright the artist
Representing the southern part of the country in this artistic survey of what England stands for in the 21st-century, Southampton City Art Gallery features the work of nine artists.
New commissions include work by Yvonne Buchheim, Andrew Cross and Pippa Hale. Charge by Pippa Hale is a series of flags based on St George’s Cross. Here, the familiar red cross has been abstracted and reduced to a simple red mark, giving the merest impression of St George’s Cross.
The results are startlingly powerful and surprisingly revolutionary. It’s not just that our nationalism and patriotism are being challenged by this seemingly inoffensive little desk flag. It’s as though something has been taken away from us. And it’s not just a little bit of red ink.
Yvonne Buchiem, Song Archive: Listen to England, 2007. Image courtesy and copyright the artist
Yvonne Buchheim’s Song Archive: Listen to England is a compelling video projection that explores the cultural complexities of contemporary England and its social history through song.
To create the archive, Buchheim made a 10 day journey on public transport from Southampton to Sunderland asking locals she met along the way to sing a song from memory for her.
The result is a rich and vibrant kaleidoscope of songs that reveal so much, in their many subtleties and nuances, about the multi-faceted nature of contemporary English culture.
Pauline Pratt, The Motley Collection, 2007. Image courtesy and copyright the artist
Pauline Pratt has used her experiences of working as an artist in residence at the cancer sciences division at Southampton University hospitals to create imaginative representations of DNA samples, with the aim of finding a key to human identity.
This ambitious collaborative project seems to take on an impossible task. Its aim is to explore the big questions of identity, of Englishness, of what England stands for today.
It investigates how we live now, how we will live in the future and poses the most difficult question of all - ‘who are we?’ And while North + South doesn’t have all the answers, it certainly has all the questions. That’s a great place to start.