Art/empire/industry: Alexander Scrimgeour on Nottingham Contemporary
IN LIGHT OF THE PAST DECADE'S proliferation of expensively built (or renovated) spaces for contemporary art--and perhaps also because the deconsecrated church next door is now a bar--Nottingham Contemporary prompts reflections on the shifting fortunes of public architecture in Europe. Opening November 14, the new kunsthalle, designed by the British firm Caruso St John Architects, occupies a prominent site in the heart of this central English town. The structure reaches heavenward like its neighbor, but the gold-covered boxes at its top resemble shipping containers more than spires. This gesture creates a sense of largesse while avoiding monumentality--perhaps the characteristic of the building's design that best correlates with its true inspiration, according to the architects, in the warehouses of Berlin and New York.
Such a mercantile source makes good historical sense. Nottingham was once a proud industrial city, famous worldwide for its lace (as well as for the worst shims in the British Empire outside Bombay). The fabric was traded in the part of town still called Lace Market, whose edge Nottingham Contemporary now marks. The new building makes direct reference to this site via its ornamentation, lace patterns digitally etched into the scalloped green panels that cover much of the exterior.
Tectonics, too, echo an industrial context: The building is predominantly concrete, and its total area of more than thirty-two thousand square feet establishes Nottingham Contemporary as one of the largest institutions devoted to the display of contemporary art in Britain. Thanks to the hillside location, the expansive windows make much of the interior visible at eye level from the street; the belly of the building holds a cavernous performance/film/conference space, which will provide an integral part of the program as envisaged by Nottingham Contemporary's director, Alex Farquharson.
A series of conferences, exhibitions, workshops, and other events organized in and around the city over the past two years suggested some of the ways in which Farquharson's notion of a "fluid institution" devoted to art "as a lightning rod for the cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas" (as he described it when 1 visited the site this past summer) might be represented. Preparing the ground--and no doubt testing the waters--before the opening of the new space, the programming included a monthlong commemoration of the legacy of May 1968, and a conference and exhibition devoted to the connections between lace and the cotton plantations of the American South; it culminated in a tour-de-force exhibition last fall that focused on Michel Foucault's investigations of power, with works by Vito Acconci, Harun Farocki, Thomas Hirschhorn, Artur Zmijewski, and others displayed in a former police station in Nottingham that housed a jail from 1449 to 1986.
The initial season of shows in the finished building takes fewer aesthetic and political risks, with concurrent exhibitions devoted to David Hockney's work from 1960 to 1968 and a survey of Los Angeles-based artist Frances Stark. …