When Art Is Just an Everyday Happening; Terry Grimley Meets the New Director of Birmingham's Ikon Gallery

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Jonathan Watkins, newly-appointed director of the Ikon Gallery, paid a flying visit to Birmingham from Turin yesterday.

He is one of four guest curators currently putting together an exhibition of 20th century art linked by the theme of the everyday, a subject which it transpires is close to his heart, at the Castello di Rivoli just outside Italy's motor city.

The other three curators are Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, and Americans Ida Gianelli and Richard Ross.

"Do you know, it's the only contemporary gallery in Italy?" he pointed out. "There are a lot of commercial galleries and a lot of collectors but not many subsidised galleries.

"It's amazing how much the state doesn't support. The same applies to Belgium. I think in England we're a lot better off than we think we are."

Watkins, aged 41, was director of London's Chisenhale Gallery from 1990 to 1995 and curator of the Serpentine Gallery for the next two years. Since going freelance two years ago he has been artistic director of the Sydney Biennale, selector of the Hong Kong Biennale, one of five guest curators of the exhibition Europarte in Venice and guest curator of an exhibition of contemporary Japanese art which will be seen at the Hayward Gallery, London, in the autumn of 2001.

Several of his exhibitions, like the one in Turin, have explored the relationship between art and the everyday world. The writing has been on the gallery wall for an ivory-towered art-for-art's sake attitudes since the birth of modernism, he suggests - since Picasso introduced cane seating into a painting and certainly since Duchamp brought his ready-mades like the bottle rack into a gallery.

One of the most astonishing works he was involved with at the Chisenhale Gallery was Turner Prize nominee Cornelia Parker's garden shed, blown up by Army explosive experts and then painstakingly reconstructed around a light bulb to show it at the instant of disintegration.

This has now been acquired by the Tate Gallery, where Jonathan Watkins is pleased to point out that it has been reunited with another piece showing Parker's fascination with the violent transformation of ordinary objects. This was the piece, previously exhibited at the old Ikon in John Bright Street, in which she laid a collection of old household silver in the road and buffed it up with the aid of a vintage steamroller.

It says something for the enhanced status of Ikon since it moved to its superb new home in Brindleyplace that it has been able to secure a new director of such international experience to replace Elizabeth Macgregor, who was headhunted to take over the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

It is also ironic that she is being replaced by someone who spent his formative years in that city. Watkins' family emigrated to Australia in 1969 and he graduated in Philosophy and History of Art from the University of Sydney, later teaching and taking a masters' degree there.

"I was 13 when my family migrated to Australia - I actually had my birthday on the plane," he said. …