Magazine article The Spectator

Unfit for Purpose

Magazine article The Spectator

Unfit for Purpose

Article excerpt

Camulodunum

Firstsite, High Street, Colchester, until 22 January 2012

Tricia Gillman: Stepping Stones

APT Gallery, 6 Creekside, SE8, until 9 October

In recent months, two new museums have opened to much acclaim: The Hepworth in Wakefield and Turner Contemporary in Margate. Now Colchester is receiving the dubious benison of a new building. What is this assertive new generation of museums in England supposed to be about? Leisure, business or art? There's precious little of the last in the much delayed Firstsite gallery in Colchester, a long pavilion by Rafael Vinoly Architects clad in gold-coloured metal which looks wonderfully out of place in the Roman city of Camulodunum (the name also chosen for its inaugural exhibition). Don't get me wrong: I live in East Anglia and would welcome a great new museum in Colchester, as a centre for excellence and a potentially worldwide audience. Sadly, I find it difficult to imagine Firstsite attracting such interest.

The first exhibition is so thin as to be almost invisible. Revealingly, there's not a single painting in this installation, and only one or two exhibits worth prolonged attention. The pile of junk in the foyer is called 'We the People', and is actually an installation by Danh Vo (born 1975, Vietnam) of fragments from his copy of the Statue of Liberty plus tools and moulds. Somewhat classier is the Berryfield mosaic, Firstsite's only permanent work of art. Of Roman origin, it has been relocated under the floor beneath glass panels over which visitors can vertiginously walk. Nearby there's a rather small dedicated gallery for changing displays of the University of Essex's renowned collection of Latin American prints.

Spread out across the rest of the building, the exhibits are a mixture of the expected (Warhol and Ai Weiwei), the slight (an almost invisible Turner drawing of Colchester, and a cabinet of bits and bobs that inspired Henry Moore) and the downright dreadful (a twee relief by Karin Ruggaber and some kitschy resin pieces by Michaela Eichwald). Thankfully, there are a couple of things which redeem the show slightly: Bill Woodrow's 'Car Door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet' (1982) is reliably witty, and Robert Smithson's 'Chalk-Mirror Displacement' (1969), though remade for a gallery environment, has an authentic magic. In a separate room, the so-called Foundation for Sports & Arts Gallery, a couple of Henry Moore 'Helmet Heads' deserve attention with a Barbara Hepworth white marble 'Pierced Form' (1963-4). But Firstsite's initial display is very disappointing.

More care seems to have been lavished on the dramatic new auditorium than on the galleries. The building itself is quite spacious, but long and drawn-out, like a series of corridors, interspersed with smallish gallery spaces. There are lots of glass walls (no good for hanging paintings), which encourage visitors to look out, rather than focusing their attention within the building. And there's a long sloping wall, of limited exhibition use, currently stuck with photocopied images. There are plenty of indeterminate areas where crowds can linger, culminating in a nice restaurant (with balcony) at the far end of the building. At once it becomes clear that the design and layout favour functions and corporate entertaining rather than exhibitions. Is this the new Town Hall masquerading as an art gallery? A palace of business given a veneer of art to make it more palatable and to add a cool edge to its receptions?

It certainly seems so.

More than likely it will end up like mima, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, opened in 2007 in a swanky new glass and steel building, tricked out in Turkish limestone and Italian slate, but which no one visits. …

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