Tolkien's hellish lair and the industrial Black Country: Art gallery opens The Making of Mordor

By Kirstie Brewer | 23 September 2014

Exhibition review: The Making of Mordor, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, until January 17 2015

Click on the picture to launch a gallery from the exhibition

Any exhibition which aligns a local area with the realm of the dark lord Sauron has got to be worth a visit. JRR Tolkien abhorred the industrialisation of the Black Country and this exhibition makes a compelling case that this inspired the fantasy author’s creation of Mordor – the hellish lair of evil in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

During the late 1800s, a young Tolkien moved to King’s Heath in Birmingham with his mother and brother. The place had not yet been consumed by the region’s booming suburban sprawl, but change was snaking ever closer.  

A photo of a red and dark brown painting of people holding flame-topped rods
Mervyn Peake, The Glassblower (1947)© Transferred to Manchester City Galleries by HM Government War Artists' Advisory Committee, 1947
“The industrial landscape of the Black Country was on Tolkien's horizon growing up – like a demon, encroaching on the green idyll he lived in,” says curator Carol Thompson. Tolkien’s vision of Mordor has strong parallels with the fiery factories and forges of the Midlands, she argues. 

Using this idea as a starting point, the exhibition explores a wide spectrum of artistic responses to the industrialisation of the Black Country from the early 1900s to the present day.

Olafur Eliasson’s majestic installation, The Forked Forest Path, graces the exhibition’s entrance.

As its name suggests, it cleverly forks in the middle, forcing its explorers to make a choice about the path they will choose.

Just as he brought the sun to the Tate Modern, Eliasson brings a ‘living forest’ to Wolverhampton Art Gallery, woven from local trees cleared from disused industrial land – representing the trees destroyed to create Mordor. The struggle for dominance between nature and industry are big themes for Tolkien and Eliasson alike.

The works on display strongly chime with Tolkien’s hellish vision of Mordor and the quotes from his books which pepper the walls are effective reinforcers.

A photo of gates in an urban area stained with red, blue and white paint
Euripides Altintzoglou, Sunbeam (Black and Red Gates) (2013-14)© Euripides Altintzoglou
The dark and ravaged landscapes of the late Black Country artist Edwin Butler Bayliss certainly don’t harbour any sentimentality. Nor do the orc-like workers depicted by Michael Ayrton, violently bashing at metal.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Out of Darkness Cometh Light appears on the city’s coat of arms, reflected by the exhibition. It is nicely balanced, both showcasing and confronting the industrial nature of the Black Country and exposing an uneasiness we harbour about technology and industry versus nature.

Brian Griffin’s portraits of real chainmakers have an edgy, rock star quality. These empowered workers are no orcs. Meanwhile, Mervyn Peakes’ long-limbed glassblowers dance across canvases and ‘Sunbeam’, a series of photographs by Euripides Altintzoglou literally permeates light.

“I don’t like pessimistic art and wanted my work to have a celebratory tone,” he tells me. “I spent a year waiting for the perfect blue sky.”

  • Part of the Black Country Echoes festival. Open 10am-5pm (closed Sunday and Bank Holidays). Admission free. A day-long symposium exploring depictions of the Black Country in 19th and 20th century literature takes place at the gallery on November 6. Find out more.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Follow Kirstie Brewer on Twitter @kirstiejbrewer.
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