Art Takes Over A City For Sheffield 08 - Yes, No, Other Options*

By Richard Moss | 21 February 2008
a photograph of a curved steel sculpture with illuminated flats in the distance

The Park Hill Flats lit up for Sheffield 08 by Annika Errikson. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

Review - Art Sheffield 08 - Yes, No, Other Options*, various venues until March 30 2008.

Sheffield 08, the steel city’s triennial celebration of contemporary art, has once again exploded across the northern city, taking in established gallery spaces as well as artist-run studios, site-specific locations, billboards and even a notorious local block of flats.

As is now customary, the catalyst for the festival is an essay by an art critic and thinker. This year it is the turn of Jan Verwoert, whose long and often baffling essay asks amongst other things: “What would it mean to resist the need to put up resistance against a social order in which high performance and performance-related evaluation has become a growing demand, if not a norm?”

The crux of Verwoert’s essay is that in a post-industrial condition we have entered into a service culture where we no longer just work, we perform in a perpetual mode of ‘I Can’.

a photograph of an indoor winter garden with arched glass ceiling, tree and leaves strewn on the floor

Roman Ondak’s unseasonal carpet of autumn leaves in the city’s arboretum Winter Gardens. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

The art in Sheffield 08 (subtitle - Yes, No, Other Options*) responds to this conundrum in challenging, refreshing, rewarding and sometimes puzzling ways. Yet despite its portentous beginnings, it manages to challenge whilst reaching out to the ordinary people of this vibrant northern city.

Witness the reaction of children and families confronted by Roman Ondak’s unseasonal carpet of autumn leaves in the city’s arboretum Winter Gardens, or to the assorted billboards carrying the strange messages of Esther Stocker – some of which were nestling next to a poster for a Gary Numan comeback tour.

Even the Park Hill Flats, which for many Sheffielders have come to symbolise the city’s struggle with its own identity in the post industrial age, became beacons of light on the opening night – illuminated by Annika Errikson.

a victorian style playbill with the words WELCOME IGGY FATUSE

Janice Kerbel, one of a series of Victorian style playbills at Site Gallery. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

As well as presenting contemporary art in the raw, Sheffield 08 offers the chance to get to grips with Sheffield’s vibrant local art scene, which whatever is happening to the city, seems to be very much alive and well.

The Park Hill Flats crop up again in the slide projections of Hilary Lloyd, which can be seen with a slew of other artists just a short stroll from the railway station at the city’s Site Gallery. Like many of the interesting locations in Sheffield 08, it also doubles as a vibrant art space for many of the city’s local artists.

Silke Otto Knapp’s works are drawn in silver monochromatic tones and luminescent watercolours and the results are strangely svelte paintings with the indistinct shapes of ballerinas lost in the ether. They contrast neatly with the impactful work of Janice Kerbel, whose series of Victorian style playbills promote the imaginary appearances of vaudeville acts – among them the Regurgitating Lady and the Shyest Person Alive.

a photograph of billposters in a row on the side of brick apex roofed building

Esther Stocker’s billboards at Bloc. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

As with many of the works at Site, and indeed throughout Sheffield 08, there is a complex back story or theory to these works. Kerbel is ‘transcending actuality’ whilst Knapp’s paintings evoke a ‘utopian state of exuberance’.

These ideas echo some of the themes in Verwoert’s essay and some are helpful, others are not. Kirsten Pierto’s scheme to get a cycle courier to deliver a silver engraved bicycle pump from Manchester to the gallery has the makings of an interesting art intervention. The resulting set of four photographs and the pump itself are strangely underwhelming. But perhaps that’s the point?

At they have given over a whole gallery to the challenging video work of Chinese artist Kan Xuan, and it’s playful stuff. Pound is a film of all the guff you can buy for a pound; a pot pig, a frame, a roll of film, a tea towel, some socks. The banal list rolls on and on… It’s all about notions of the monumental collapsing, apparently. Another film shows hands rooting around in a bag, pulling out sweet wrappers, a rotting orange peel, fag butts; each discovery accompanied by a childlike whisper.

a photo of a tent with a sink in one corner

Private War by Kerstin Kartscher. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

Making your way into the old industrial heart of the city, you wander past steelworks, cinemas, clubs and other former manufacturing buildings to find Bloc – a studio space and gallery complex situated in the heart of Sheffield’s changing post industrial landscape – now reconfigured as the Cultural Industry Quarter.

Walk past the old workshops, now artists' studios, through a cobbled yard, and you will be hailed by the shrill tones of Joan Baez – and her political anthem, ‘Here’s to You’. It’s the work of George Henry Longly, who has borrowed Baez’ homage to two Italian American anarchists sentenced to death in 1927 to make a minimal installation featuring theatrical lighting that transforms the small gallery into a stage.

On the exterior gallery wall, in the street, you can see three of Esther Stocker’s billboards, whilst Eveline Van Den Berg’s ‘Colliding Sides of Unwillingness’ – a peculiar large scale photograph of industrial greys – is pinned to a brick wall. It makes for stark, uncompromising viewing.

a film still of two men standing next to each other in a marbled hall

Revisiting Solaris by Deimantas Narkevicius at S1 Artspace. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

Any piece of work that contains the lines: “A flower had grown out of the ocean and its calyx had moulded to my fingers,” gets my vote. The words are taken from Stanislav Lem’s sci-fi novel Solaris, and are uttered in a beautiful film work by Deimantas Narkevicius at S1 Artspace, another artist-led organisation providing studio space for more than 20 local artists.

Revisiting Solaris was shot on site in a former Soviet television station and features the Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis, who played the protagonist in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 cult film of the novel.

The piece owes more to Tarkovsky’s film version than it does to the novel. Apart from the atmospheric locations and the actor, Narkevicius borrows the famous Tarkovskian device of lingering upon a landscape. This time it’s a real snowy landscape as opposed to the snowy landscape of Breugel’s Hunters in the Snow in the original.

a photo of paintings of dots and lines on a wall

Turner Prize Winner Tomma Abts' Untitled #1 - #7. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

S1 also boasts the work of 2007 Turner Prize Winner, Tomma Abts, with Untitled #1 - #7. Abts' work here is a series of geometrical dot paintings, whilst Nicole Werner’s Double Sandtable, two interconnected tables with their tray tops filled with sand and fag butts, manages to be mocking of modern formalist sculpture whilst cheekily stretching the bounds of postmodern conceit.

At Sylvester Space, Sheffield’s newest exhibition facility housed in a former disused cutlery works within the city’s Cultural Industry Quarter, you will find one of the most tangible works in Sheffield 08. Private War by Kerstin Kartscher is an installation that juxtaposes a rural idyll with drawings of modernist towers via a pleasing assemblage of found objects, a canvas tent, old tiles and a washstand.

The piece and accompanying video work by Gitte Villensen, Katy Woods and Frances Stark, makes for a contemplative journey through stillness, memory and anticipation. Villensen’s accompanying vitrines are strangely compelling, crammed as they are with crumbling documents and model trees, like a kind of sanitised Joseph Beuys.

a photo of a man lying on the floor in a studio

Wolfgang Tillmans' ‘Morrisey, Studio’ at The Millennium Galleries. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

The biggest cluster of art in Sheffield 08 is at the Millennium Galleries, where you can find light relief in the videos of the interventionist antics of Taiwanese artist Kuang-Yu Tsui as he makes a slapstick rush through a city, changing costumes according to the surroundings. Tim Etchells and Vlatka Horvat’s film, Promises and Threats, sees the duo trade insults and praise; when they have exhausted the praise, they start in with the insults.

There is also another Turner Prize winner in the city in the shape of Wolfgang Tillmans, whose raw portraits seem to evoke the quality of a bad hangover. In ‘Morrisey, Studio’, he makes Morrisey look tired, uncomfortable and bloated - like a dyspeptic concierge at a 1950s Odeon cinema.

The work of another Turner nominee, Phil Collins, is also here with his synchronised two-screen videos of young Palestinians dancing. It’s a voyeuristic and joyful piece of work – or could that be the thrill of hearing Human League and Beyonce blasting out in a darkened soundproof room? The piece is, however, suffused with the tragedy of young people living in the midst of violent conflict, so some viewers will have an ambiguous experience.

a photo of poster on a brick wall

Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

Andrew Cooke’s offering is a series of printed sheets – free to be taken away – which offer advice on maintaining dignity in the workplace through strategies such as procedural sabotage, theft, absenteeism and the withholding of enthusiasm. It’s nice to see an artist engaging in practical advice for the rest of us trapped in the modern workaday routine. He takes it a bit far, though, when he turns his head into a vacuum cleaner. A fag break or a trip to the canteen would probably make for a better strategy.

But this is the kind of bold and brazen art actively embraced by Sheffield 08 of which there is much more: End Gallery out at Sheffield Hallam University also hosts the work of Ines Schaber and others. Schaber takes the premise of failure to interesting places with a set of photographs and film of a slide presentation about the secret underground Corbis photographic library in rural America.

Yes, No, other Options* seems to be exploring the kind of postmodern schism that has been explored often in contemporary art. It’s the kind of burn out that in some cases reduces painting to the point where it is merely a black square, although the absence of painting is perhaps an indicator of the bravado that underpins the ethos of the festival.

The art in Sheffield 08 is bold and brave and although varied it manages to keep to a strong curatorial theme - and it offers the chance to discover some major contemporary artists spread across a vibrant city scene.

For more information about venues and openings see the Art Sheffield Website

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