Wander right through Kelham Island Museum, past the tools of the Hawley Gallery, and suddenly you are met face to face with a golden tree, the centrepiece of a huge art installation. This roundabout-like and rather kitsch construction, comprising a circle of 15 uniquely built and decorated chairs, positioned inward like some kind of fairground ride, and accompanied by a strange vocal soundscape, is a new venture in reinterpreting the museum’s collections through contemporary art.
In his introduction to the exhibition at the preview, the museum's interim manager Chris Keady introduced three key themes represented at the museum: people, power, and process. He explained that Stand, this current Arts Council funded partnership with Arts & Heritage (an organisation bringing artists into heritage spaces), will go on tour around the country, and aims in particular to draw out one of these themes: process. Although the museum focuses on making processes, what it perhaps lacks, he explained, is reflection on links between these processes of making, the products made, and mental wellbeing. This is where Stand comes in.
The result of an incredibly complex partnership, this installation is the brainchild of composer Gwyneth Herbert and artist Mel Brimfield, working with over 100 participants from across the UK – from an assortment of Men’s Sheds, prisons, mental health organisations, choral groups, and with museum volunteers (including those from Kelham Island Museum). Brimfield has previously undertaken a residency at the National Psychosis Unit and Kings College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, which included making a recording of an inpatient who had been sectioned for 30 years, reciting poetry. This was developed into a choral piece that has now become part of this installation.
Each divergent participating group has also independently created a chair, and these chairs have been brought together to create the final piece in situ (it must have caused palpitations for staff as it only just squeezes into the space). The exhibition’s focus is on process, though it doesn't reveal much about the processes involved in its coming together. Lyrics from ‘Are you Lonesome Tonight’, a giant birdcage made by an inpatient but then destroyed, and a budgerigar sitting on the branches were all topics covered by the artists in their introductory talk at its launch – though without the makers being present to share these stories, they may be lost to visitors.
Given the social and political motives of the artists, and their call for unity and collective action where mental health is concerned, I would have liked to find out more about the groups and stories of individuals involved. Seeing some film footage or sketchbook material from the workshops would have added to the experience; while I do not doubt that the process for participants has in many cases been rich and transformative, the final piece left me baffled at times.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed trying to make connections between the disparate places and details in their chairs (Norwich’s canaries, for example). The installation brings together some beautiful sign-writing and an emotive soundscape, and these quite extraordinary objects will definitely appeal to people who like finding socially engaged arts projects in heritage settings.
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- Alex Woodall
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