Monday, 21 May 2018

Cultural Quarter

Southampton Guildhall Square
(seen from within the new Hansard Gallery)

A lot of time, effort, and money – really lots of it, £30 million is the usual quoted figure – have gone into developing a new "Cultural Quarter" for Southampton, which is now pretty much complete with the opening of the re-located John Hansard Gallery. We have always had an outstanding City Art Gallery (that's it, in the picture above, or rather, it's within that collonaded building, the Guildhall and Civic Centre), but it seems to have been felt that something more needed to be done to counterbalance our reputation as the Shopping Centre and Clubbing Capital of the South Coast. You know, raise the tone a bit. So, some of the town-centre blight created by the West Quay shopping mall around Guildhall Square has been tidied up and opened out, and on a sunny day you could almost be somewhere ... other than Southampton. [1]

The new Nuffield Theatre was opened back in February: we went to see the specially-commissioned opening production, Howard Brenton's Shadow Factories, about the distributed manufacture of Spitfires in Southampton during the Blitz. I wish the theatre well, but its subsequent productions have not tempted me back. Facing it is the new John Hansard Gallery, also originally located on the University campus, where it occupied a building hidden away in an obscure corner that had been built to house a large tank of water modelling the tidal movements of Southampton Water. In fact, the Hansard had initially been a photographic gallery, where I saw four exhibitions that had an enormous influence on me (by Thomas Joshua Cooper, Josef Koudelka, John Goto, and Richard Ross) and where I even showed some of my own early work in a group exhibition of local photographers.

Director Stephen Foster developed the gallery away from its narrow photographic brief into a major space for contemporary art but, being on a campus miles from the city centre where parking is next to impossible, it never got the "footfall" it deserved. I used to know Stephen, as we sat on some committees together (he also took a polite interest in my work, several times giving me some useful advice [2]); the move into Guildhall Square was both his pet project and a major source of frustration. It has taken many years of headaches and false starts to bring off, and Stephen has now finally retired. I made my first visit into the new gallery – new location, new management, new everything – on Saturday.

It is certainly a wonderful improvement in terms of space, with four large, high-ceilinged galleries, not to mention media suites and workshop spaces, although it is all a bit South Bank, beige and white and chrome in the classic modernist gallery style. Regrettably, they've decided to open with a show of Gerhard Richter, than whom a more rigorous test of one's sympathy with the outer reaches of contemporary art practice it would be hard to imagine. I confess I don't "get" Richter at all, and didn't get the impression that any of the other visitors that afternoon did either. It's baffling, emperor's-new-clothes stuff, but his reputation and standing in the art world couldn't be higher, so what do I know? Other than the fact that his work bores me, with its repertoire of charmless signature moves. But: visitors there were, nonetheless, in a steady trickle. It was hardly like the sharp-elbowed crowds around the Andreas Gursky photographs at the re-opened Hayward Gallery in London back in February, but compared to the echoing void of the old gallery it was very encouraging. I sincerely hope they've got some real crowd-pleasers in the pipeline, so as to establish the new venue in the local mindset, but – knowing something of the way gallerists think about their curatorial mission – I fear there will instead be a series of rebarbative, mainly conceptual shows that will simply serve to reassure the local populace that art, after all, is not intended for them.

 Yep, it's meant to be blurry

It seems to help if you wear the right hat

These are actually woven tapestries (not woven by Richter himself, obvs).
I don't know about you but I find their facile mirrored symmetry
deeply annoying... Same with Gilbert & George's recent work.
Such a lazy use of digital tchnology.

1. Although any long-term Southampton resident standing within "Studio 144" (holding both the theatre and the gallery) will always also be standing within the ghost of the old Tyrrell & Green department store.
2. I wish I could say this included "Don't give up the day job", but I don't think that possibility even occurred to him.

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