In the centre of Middlesbrough, nestling between the library and the town hall, is MIMA – the town’s Institute of Modern Art. This striking contemporary building currently houses some impressive exhibitions, and as a first-time visitor to both MIMA and to Middlesbrough itself, I was unsure of what to expect. Needless to say I was not disappointed, and the following review provides a whistle-stop tour of MIMA’s current exhibitions.
Cobbing’s work – produced during a residency at Newcastle University – greets visitors from the foyer itself. Clusters of books are embedded in large boulders; references to the Duddo Five Stones – Northumberland’s own Stonehenge. These evocative figures of rock and clay transform the books they imprison into impenetrable veneers; extensions of the materials that bind them. Trapped inside are pages that no one will ever be able to read.
This theme continues upstairs. Multiple over-sized book-shaped sculptures (made from clay) feature a variety of imprints based on actual ancient rock formations. The title text on each appears fossilised. Without pages or textual content these objects question the nature of knowledge and language, re-defining both in terms of landscape and materials – heavier, murkier and inevitably more tactile.
In the heart of the gallery a fire burns (not literally – I’m referring to a film!), a large bell is forged in a pit and a bizarre human form oozes dripping clay. The charred aftermath is also shown: the excavation of textual fragments of text and clay from the rubble, along with remnants of the human figure mentioned above.
The video provides a link between the sculptures in the gallery and the landscape that produced them, whilst also referencing the industrial heritage of the North East. Indeed, there are archaeological undertones running through the pieces – each, in its own way evokes the visual language of excavation – but at the same time these pseudo relics are perpetually bound to the landscape. In this sense clay is the binding agent – it renders everything forever part of the earth itself, and firmly locates us in the material world.
Chance Finds Us considers the process of making – the strategies and likewise, the unexpected occurrences that underpin the work of any artist. It’s a fairly broad remit, but the show is exquisitely assembled and allows us a glimpse into the practices of eight different artists – all based in the North East. The results are both thought-provoking and witty. Highlights include a series of automated Spirograph-type devices, housed under transparent domes. Like bizarre clocks, Nick Kennedy‘s whirring machines generate continuous geometric patterns, depending on their individual (and differing) configurations.
On another table the same artist provides a portfolio of intense compositions consisting of thousands of tiny numbers, written on top of one another in swarming clouds. Part of a participatory drawing project with clearly defined rules, the nearby gloves, framed certificate-style document and list of names reference the visual languages of archiving and academia. Framed on a nearby wall are a series of large scale pieces on paper by Anne Vibeke Mou – subtle pencil shading creating barely-there cloud-like expanses.
In one corner, Rachel Clewlow‘s journal lies open; its pages covered in tiny writing that appears to document places and times. Similarly her painting nearby represents fragments of journeys with singular lines of colour. Together they form a series of stripes – each aspect; the text, the times, the places, and the colours create a multi-dimensional voyage across landscape(s) navigated by the artist.
The absence of explanatory text and artist details on the walls (although this information is available in accompanying leaflets) provides space for the audience to imagine the narratives between and within each piece. It is always refreshing to see an exhibition that allows the work to speak for itself.
Indeed, each piece is beautifully conceived and presented, and I’ve only mentioned a few of the exciting works on display. Although the artists have responded differently to the theme – they are united by elegance of execution, and each piece is underpinned by the systematic mechanics of making – repetition, routine and, conversely, the serendipitous role of chance.
Bourgeois was a connoisseur of materiality and theory – her work is sophisticated and yet retains a directness that speaks to anyone who enters into a dialogue with it. I had the pleasure of witnessing a young boy weaving imaginative narratives around the exhibits as I made my own way through the rooms, and his rendition of the poetic ‘I Am Afraid’ piece had a gentle poignancy; particularly given the maternal ambiguity that underpins much of the artist’s work in the exhibition. The stumbling voice of this young visitor opened up a conversation with Bourgeois and her work, demonstrating its emotional depth.
I am afraid of silence
I am afraid of the dark
I am afraid to fall down
I am afraid of insomnia
I am afraid of emptiness
(extract from Bourgeois’ I Am Afraid, 2009)
Bourgeois’ spider sculptures are arguably amongst her most iconic pieces – it was no surprise to see two here. The largest of the two (Spider, 1994) loomed over me, its steely, pincer-like legs pinned imposingly to the gallery floor. Both material (bronze) and form implied industry, machines, strength, and yet its exposed egg sac, with a single white egg, gave it an inner vulnerability that challenged the threatening veneer. These kind of tensions, references to motherhood, relationships, and arguably life itself, punctuate much of Bourgeois’ work.
The nearby large-scale drawings depicted forms that referenced pregnancy – one could imagine a struggling foetus, or the strangling tentacles of umbilical cords; organic, jellyfish-like scrawls stained red. Indeed, Bourgeois re-imagines motherhood beyond the reductive maternal ideal. Infant becomes parasite, mother becomes ambiguous; torn between love and abandonment, with undertones of violence and a prevailing uncertainty.
These ideas are stunningly rendered in a bronze sculpture – a single arm; on one side an outstretched palm, and the other – a clenched fist. This and accompanying blood-red drawings beside it, explore giving and taking; the tug of war that characterises the relationships between us. The drawings are punctuated by a single matrimonial ring on the finger of one hand – indeed, marriage is perhaps the primary struggle here, but these powerfully human battles between hands could apply elsewhere – to parent and child, to friendship, even to life and death.
I could go on and on about the work – the cushion of multiple breasts, the sinister hanging stuffed fabric pieces or the opening piece; a stunning bronze female head, her body reduced to little more than a club. Bourgeois reveals the darker side of femininity, of relationships and of childbirth. Her use of colour, form and materials is visceral without losing any subtleties in the process. I urge you to go and see this deeply moving and thought-provoking display.
My only gripe was with the amount of text on the walls – I have no problem with this contextual information being included in a booklet, for instance, but as it is, the excess of information potentially compromises the immediacy of the work, which invites a creative dialogue based on the pieces themselves, not what they are ‘meant’ to be about.
That aside, MIMA is a real Northern gem. It feels inclusive – there was a large group of children playing in the entrance, a seemingly diverse array of visitors in both café and galleries, and I loved the peep-holes that allowed passers-by to glimpse the unfinished jewellery gallery upstairs. The minimal architecture and clear, spacious galleries enabled the work in the exhibitions to speak. It does everything a quality arts centre should – welcomes you in, gives you space to think and consider the work, and fills its galleries with exhibitions that combine pieces of both global and local significance. Go and visit!
1. Chance Finds Us at MIMA. Exhibition photograph: John McKenzie.
2. Anne Vibeke Mou. ‘Illumination I’. 2010. Photograph: John McKenzie.
3. Rachael Clewlow. ‘Notebook’. 2014. Photograph: John McKenzie.
With thanks to Nick Kennedy for these images.
Sarah Coggrave, 17th August 2014.