ART REVIEW: Chiharu Shiota, The New Art Gallery, Walsall.

26Feb14

This is a blog about modern art.

I know, what a pretentious twat.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming to be an art expert, or even that I know the slightest thing about the subject, because I most certainly do not. I just like looking at it.

Modern art is much maligned, and I can understand why. After all, I leave my bed unmade most days, and there’s nobody queuing up to come and look at it. But modern art makes me think, it challenges me, and it makes me want to understand what makes it art, what was the artists’s inspiration, and how it came to be.

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IS THIS ART? – Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’

I just don’t get this with traditional portraits, landscapes, sculptures and the like. I mean, I completely appreciate the immense talent involved in the craft of it. I certainly couldn’t do it myself. But I’m largely unmoved when I look at them. Essentially, I find a strong reaction infinitely more entertaining than no reaction at all. Even if that reaction is just ‘What the hell is this crap?’

Put it this way: I’ve never heard a piece of classical music I really dislike, whereas I actively despise the work of many current artists. Yet, given the choice between listening to Classic FM or Capital, I’m going for the hit music station every time.

During my recent trip to New York, its renowned Museum of Modern Art was right up there on my list of places to visit. I spent a hugely enjoyable couple of hours ambling around its famous galleries, a journey which brought feelings of awe, confusion, intrigue and, at times, sheer bewilderment. It was good. It was very, very good.

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Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ at MoMA, New York

 Fast forward a couple of weeks to yesterday. The excitement of my adventure in The Big Apple all but a distant memory, it was back to the mundaneness of real life as I dropped off my car for its MOT. Little did I realise that this would be the gateway to one of the most breath-taking interactions with art I’ve ever experienced.

The New Art Gallery in Walsall has always stood out in a town which has for a long time been pretty rough round the edges. Upon its opening in 2000, despite its largely drab surroundings, the eye-catching building would quickly make its mark, winning several architectural awards, including a nomination for the prestigious Sterling Architecture Prize.

Needless to say, the building divided opinion. From a purely aesthetic point of view, there were those who questioned whether such a modern and striking building was in keeping with Walsall, if a more modest construction may have been more appropriate. Many queried the cost of the building, and whether the money would have been better spent elsewhere. Many simply wondered if the project was something of a white elephant, if an industrial town like Walsall could sustain such an ambitious cultural project.

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The New Art Gallery, Walsall

Since then, a sustained regeneration project in the area surrounding the gallery means that today, it looks altogether more at home in its environment, and the sheer quality of its exhibits has established its reputation as a widely respected gallery, and a genuine jewel in the crown for the town.

As I say, I know nothing about art whatsoever, and my occasional visits have always come at times when I’m wondering around the town with not much else to do, rather than any pre-defined appointments to visit.

And so, with an hour or so to kill before my MOT was complete, off to the gallery I went. And boy was I satisfied with that choice.

After ambling around the more traditional artworks on the second floor, I made my way up to the modern art mecca where the gallery’s guest installations usually reside. As the lift doors opened (these days sadly lacking the accompaniment of Noddy Holder’s voice, much to my chagrin), I was greeted by two things: firstly, the smiling face of my friend Zaynul, who works at the gallery, and hilariously seemed almost to be expecting me despite the spontaneous and unannounced nature of my visit. Secondly, behind Zaynul, was the most visually stunning cascade of battered and worn suitcases, each one suspended from the ceiling.

I would soon find out that it was part of the gallery’s current Chiharu Shiota exhibition, showcasing a host of the Japanese artist’s dramatic and spectacular work.

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Before even contemplating the artistic nature of the piece, the sheer scale and craftsmanship of the installation was absolutely breathtaking. The installation became all the more fascinating as Zaynul explained that it is made up of over 400 suitcases, each of which tell the story of a different person. From the places they’ve visited, the things they’ve experienced, and the belongings they took with them along the way. It sums up journeys and the individuals behind them, the loves, the losses, the adventures and the new beginnings. The nature of the installation means you are able to walk all around, and even underneath it, enabling you to explore the art from every angle, and become fully immersed in it.

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We ventured into the adjoining room, where we were greeted by – and please forgive this uncouth comparison – what looked to be a giant spider’s web of pubic hair, arranged into a tornado shape surrounding its focal point.

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Naturally, it wasn’t. The structure is made of unraveled balls of black wool, painstakingly arranged to surround hundred of handwritten letters sourced from Japan, again containing a wealth of thoughts, feelings and experiences from a host of people unknown to us. The piece allows you to walk around its focal point, again resulting in a fully immersive experience to be enjoyed and explored from all angles. It’s a truly visually stunning piece of work.

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It’s funny sometimes how you can ignore what’s available on your own doorstep. I traveled to New York and went out of my way to experience to MoMA’s assortment of works. Yet, it was just circumstance and time to kill that led me to venture into Walsall’s New Art Gallery yesterday. Who knew that it would be there that I would see art that left me truly inspired?

Shiota’s installation will remain in place until March 30th, and it’s absolutely FREE to visit. If you’re shopping in Walsall, or just have some time to kill, pop in and have a look. Pictures cannot do it justice – it just has to be seen.

You know it does. It really does.



2 Responses to “ART REVIEW: Chiharu Shiota, The New Art Gallery, Walsall.”

  1. You were brave using the lifts. I only heard how they creaked as they went up and down and I took the stairs. I used to be a lift engineer so I’m a bit biased. I didn’t make it to the upper floors. I do occasionally review art exhibitions, but sometimes for art investors. No one will invest in a pile of old suitcases. Right? At least Damien Hirst’s pickled sheep has gone. I did like the pharmacist’s creed even though he has an army of helpers to help him to the actual work involved.

    Interesting blog post. I like the photo of the gallery. I never thought of photographing it at night.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mike – can’t say I noticed any lift troubles, but then it sounds like my ear is untrained compared to yours!
    The photo of the gallery was lifted straight from the Gallery’s website.


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