Magazine article Art Monthly

Camulodunum

Magazine article Art Monthly

Camulodunum

Article excerpt

Firstsite Colchester 25 September to 27 January

Duckling-into-swan analogies don't do justice to Firstsite's remarkable and almost ridiculously emphatic transformation. At its former location in Colchester's genteel, modestly proportioned Minories, the institution evidenced some curatorial ambition but felt like a slightly staid and constricted operation; now, thanks to Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly's gold-skinned, curve-heavy spaceship of a building, it appears almost incongruously grand, a shiny hypertrophic statement that clearly reflects the inflated stakes for regenerative regional institutions in the wake of Wakefield's Hepworth, Margate's Turner Contemporary and Nottingham Contemporary. Like them, this place has to tether itself to the locality as well as drawing attention from outside. In this case, that has been accomplished not by referencing an indigenous artist (like Hepworth) or industry (like the lace traceries embossed onto Nottingham Contemporary's own gold facade), but by valorising the very earth beneath the visitor's feet. Condensed review: in doing so via this opening show, Firstsite has managed to ground itself with the least grating artifice and the most unobtrusive grace of all the non-London venues that have opened in recent years. (The architecture itself is another matter, but we'll get to that.) 'Camulodunum' is the Roman name for Colchester, which, established in the 1st century AD, was Britain's first Roman city, and Vinoly has built upon a site where once stood a clutch of Roman townhouses. In the gallery itself, a section of glass floor reveals a rectangle of ancient mosaic. The 19-artist exhibition, meanwhile, pins itself thematically to the concept of excavation and the problems and pleasures of museology, and consistently reformulates a conceptual pendulum swing between past and present.

After a slightly bumpy start with Danh Vo's We the People, 2011 - extracts from the Vietnamese artist's ongoing scale model of the Statue of Liberty, in the form of crates, moulds and copper fragments of giant hands--the show finds its localist/internationalist pitch confidently with Aleksandra Mir's quietly consuming HELLO Colchester, 2011. Rifling through image archives from the 16th century onwards, Mir created a daisy-chain line of portraits focusing on significant Colchester citizens or local events: a photographed painting of Anthony van Dyck and Endymion Porter abuts a pairing of Porter and Sir Ralph Hopton, which gives way to one of Hopton and Sir Basil Grenville etc. This structure encloses lacerating, achronological affect, as when a paraplegic, wheelchair-bound young soldier greeting Elizabeth II is next seen as a child on Santa's knee, or an old man suddenly reappears, young again, in black and white. Hugging the bending, angled wall that runs the length of Firstsite, it is a bitter sweet shout-out to the town, a chronology of changing image technologies and a model of casual interconnectedness--eventually tying Elizabeth I to the pop group Blur--all at once.

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From there the curators, headed by Michelle Cotton, seem securely in control. The show skirts bathos by hitching together a Warhol painting of Campbell's oyster soup with a display of ephemera relating to Colchester's apparently fabled oysters. It works because it winks. Rewinding to days of empire, Bill Woodrow's Car Door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet, 1982, is pressed into service to make the recent past reanimate distant history: here, strips of metal cut from the aforementioned bits of vehicle--reminding one of Essex's history in motor manufacturing--unfurl and join together to make a steel approximation of a centurion's brushy helmet. …

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