The University of Birmingham Arts & Science festival, now in its second year, ran for a week from 16th – 23rd March 2014.
The festival was described as “a week-long celebration of ideas, research and collaboration across campus” and as my research looks at the cultural festival and how universities are engaging with it, I went along to a few of the events to see was happening.
The 1960s Art & Architecture walking tour of Edgbaston campus was part of the Arts & Science festival’s programme, presented in partnership with Ikon gallery’s Ikon 50 programme, a special series of events and exhibitions marking the gallery’s ‘milestone year’.
Last Saturday afternoon at 1pm, a group of around 25 people converged in the sunshine at Eduardo Paolozzi’s huge bronze Faraday sculpture at the edge of the campus. Claire Mullet, Deputy Curator of Research and Cultural Collections at University of Birmingham, and one of the collections’ other curators, Chloë Lund, met us there. Claire explained that the University’s Research and Cultural Collections contain around 1,500 objects and artworks, many of which have been commissioned by the University and many acclaimed artists have leant or donated important pieces. This collection is separate to the Barber Institute’s collection and much of it is exhibited in the departments and public spaces around campus.
So began a fun two hours or so of discovery within the campus boundaries!
Now, I am a veteran of many public walks and have a great enthusiasm for them, so it came as no surprise when within minutes the sunshine was replaced by a sudden hail storm – this seems to happen all the time. Claire was prepared and undeterred, and from under a frilly umbrella she described the circumstances in which the 1970 Barbara Hepworth sculpture Ancestor I (pictured right) was bequeathed to the University by the sculptor, following the award of her honorary degree in 1960.
Thankfully, we were then lead us inside Staff House and into the warm. It is worth mentioning that the University boasts a huge amount of astonishing and extraordinary spaces within its buildings and the top floor of Staff House is definitely one of them. At the top of this building, almost hidden away in a corridor with an elegant roof that floods the space with natural light, is one of the most notable works of the tour, a framed blue abstract painting by Robert Groves. He was one of the Ikon’s founding group of artists and the man who gave the gallery its name in 1964. We had to take turns to see it, there is only room in front of it for a few people to stand.
There are many other wall-based art works on display in this building, one particularly notable one is a huge John Walker canvas called Anguish at an intersection in the stairwell.
While we stopped to admire it, Claire mentioned the artist’s connection to Birmingham and Chloë offered a more personal observation of how the piece visually fits with the space where it is presently hung.
Next we headed across an open space to the Finance office and clustered around a really unusual piece of public art, situated in a less airy stairwell.
The legend attached to Anguished Skein by Patrick Maher, a ‘punk orange’ painted metal squiggle, it is incredibly significant to the tour, as it turns out the piece was commissioned for the University’s former Finance Officer, Angus Skene, a ‘character’ who was also instrumental in setting up Ikon gallery. Angus was a collector of contemporary art, he and his partner donated a large amount of money to start the Ikon gallery and he urged the University to make funds available for commissioning and collecting work from this period and investing in public art around campus. It is likely that his story is pretty fundamental to the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural Collections and one member of University staff I spoke to was certainly interested to hear the story behind a piece of sculpture she sees frequently. But soon we’re off again, this time to the Law building, to see Moonstrips Empire News (1967), a collection of up to 100 screen prints installed in the entrance lobby to the Law building and the stairs leading up to the Harding Law Library.
The recent refurbishment of this space combined a £4000 grant from the School of Law and Claire’s own vision for the space, she explained that the bold colour scheme was designed specifically with the work in mind. The investment in the space created a serendipitous opportunity to have the work that had already been adopted by Research and Cultural Collections properly framed and mounted so that it could be displayed publicly.
The combination of colourful elements sets up an excellent and very pop-arty juxtaposition between what was probably a neat but stuffy institutional lobby and the riotous colours, kitsch and logos of the 1960s prints. It is a complete surprise, it works and I love it!
As we left the Law School it was nice to see that the sun had come out again. Claire explained that it is not only 1960s art that the University could offer to Ikon on this tour, but examples of architecture too.
The Grade 2 listed Muirhead Tower could be seen from here, somewhat dominating the campus, and this is one example of these. It was built in 1963, although it was modernised with a £27 million refurbishment in 2007. Chloë adds that in the early 60s the university experienced a big expansion in student numbers. This must be the 1963 Robbins committee report on higher education that I have already read about, in which it was suggested that universities should become more democratic, with places available to all who attained the relevant qualification for them. The expansion led to a new phase of building and consequently a new style of architecture appeared on campus.
There are other examples of 1960s building directly next to the Muirhead Tower, but just before we set off towards them, I notice a poster for The Handsworth Scroll on a pillar next to where we are standing.
The Handsworth Scroll is an item from the CCCS archive that was on display earlier in the festival, in fact the festival guide listed that event alongside today’s walk.
Claire tells the group that the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) resided for many years at the Muirhead Tower. There is currently an AHRC funded project at the University to mark the 50th anniversary of that institution and the Arts & Science Festival presented John Akomfrah’s new film The Stuart Hall Project (read my review of the film here) this week too.
At this point, a member of the group mentions another 1960s related event taking place on the following Saturday at The Library of Birmingham which is also part of Ikon 50. Those Were The Decades is a day-long event with an Illustrated talk about the CCCS by Dr Kieran Connell, a panel discussion on Ikon in the 1960s with John Salt, the first artist to exhibit there, plus other events including film screenings of Motorcity Music Years: Second City Sinners (1992) and Medium Cool (1969) – this 2nd film is part of Flatpack Film Festival‘s programme.
This had become a truly fascinating walk, connecting so many of Birmingham’s cultural organisations and innovators to the times when these things were made and revealing some of the cultural developments that link them together. We still had a couple more places to see too, so we headed to the Arts building to look at one of the last major commissions by Cornish modern painter Peter Lanyon. His ‘Arts Faculty Mural‘ (1963) fills the whole of one wall inside the school’s lobby and extends up over the door. It was imagined as an abstract representation of elements of the campus that could be seen from either side of the lobby and it is reported to have cost £13.23 per foot. This expense had provoked some opposition at the time it was made, as quotes from Redbrick, the university’s own newspaper, confirmed. Claire had prepared many of these sorts of notes and had also printed out pictures to hand round, all of which added extra context to what we observed.
Next we were taken to see the prefab Modern Languages building, built using innovative methods for its time, with a surprising, elegant interior space and so much natural light!
We ended our walk at the Metals and Metallurgy Building situated at the North of the campus, looking at a set of reflective grid paintings with geometric shapes painted onto mirrors by David Prentice, another of Ikon’s founders. This work, Pleides, was commissioned and designed especially for the building, which is built as a grid itself (below is a picture of the ceiling at the Metals and Metallurgy Building).
This tour was completely fascinating (and free, as was much of the Arts & Science festival programme!) Claire and Chloë provided ongoing, valuable contextual information, helping us to understand some of the hidden meanings in the buildings and art that we saw. Writing about it has also made me wistful for something else that I’d really like to see, but never will to be able to: Ikon’s first home, the glass-sided kiosk in the Bullring shopping centre.
Created to be mobile and ephemeral, a so-called ‘Gallery without walls’ – would it be have been called a ‘pop-up’ gallery, today, I wonder?