PRINT September 2009

International News

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 slums 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 I 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 Żmijewski, 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. The former is acknowledged as a national treasure—though opportunities are rare to see how Hockney’s early rebelliousness segued into the iconic works of the mid-1960s—and the latter has a solid art-world reputation but is not as well known in Britain as she should be. Yet above all, this seems a case study in satisfying a new institution’s various stakeholders and viewing publics. As Farquharson put it, referring to local and international audiences, “it has 
to be meaningful on both ends; it has, ideally, to succeed in the same way, so
 it’s not schizophrenic.” although not conceived as a two-part show, the pairing of these artists may also flip the switch on connections between Hockney’s turn to Californian surface-as-subject and the (surely equally Californian) anxiety and introspection in stark’s often text-oriented work. A film program drawing on ideas from both exhibitions will further expand the scope of the opening season, with works by Jennifer Bornstein, William E. Jones, and others.

Other aspects of the scheduling are more experimental. Four seventeenth-to nineteenth-century cabinets of curiosities have been bought from auction houses and the like for an exhibition “environment” conceived by artist Pablo Bronstein. In polemical opposition to the main space’s large white-cube galleries, these relics of what Farquharson called “the prehistory of the museum” will house displays of objects by or belonging to artists, as well as “curious material in general.” Bronstein and artist Matthew Brannon will curate the initial season, and one can imagine both eye-opening coups and awkward flops emerging from peculiar combinations of Wunderkammer and Duchampian boîte-en-valise.

In February 2010, Nottingham contemporary will host “Star City,” organized in collaboration with the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw (and opening there in December of this year), which examines visions of the future in the former Eastern bloc by artists such
as Paweł Althamer, Micol Assaël, and Deimantas Narkevičius; their work will be framed by that of the Central and Eastern European avant-gardes of the ’60s and ’70s. In the British context, such an exhibition seems particularly timely: It will inevitably bear upon the country’s search for a political vision not premised on the growth of the financial “industry.”

The role of culture now that laissez-faire capitalism is looking to join the other grand ideologies in the dustbin of history is yet to be seen. We need institutions such as this to provide “compensatory public space in a diminishing public sphere,” in Farquharson’s words. Yet if Nottingham Contemporary succeeds in becoming a place of pilgrimage for intellectual and artistic dialogue, it may already be a kind of memorial: funding for any comparable institution is a distant prospect, 
as Britain will be paying the price for its faith in finance for years to come.

Alexander Scrimgeour is an associate editor of Artforum.