Gothic exhibition at the Library of Birmingham

_GBP3778Last week was the launch of Gothic, an exhibition of work by students at Birmingham City University. We’ve been working towards this for a while now and the exhibition, curated by Grace Williams, represents some of the fantastic work done by our students as well as offering a fascinating perspective on Gothic in the 21st century. Gothic is endlessly inspiring, it seems, and appears in our arts and culture in very different, unexpected ways, and this exhibition, which includes photography, painting and jewellery, reflects this and the ongoing relevance of Gothic as a cultural influence.

Last week saw the opening event of the exhibition, which was pleasingly well attended, and we ha_GBP3716d the opportunity to enjoy readings of creative writing by School of English students Charlotte Newman, Bex Price and Abigail Cooper. The exhibition itself provides some excellent examples of the way in which artists can reinterpret or be inspired by Gothic themes.

Exhibiting artists include:

Jivan Astfalck, Sally Bailey, Rachel Colley, Alessandro Columbano, Gregory Dunn, Jodie Drinkwater, Joanna Fursman, Anneka French, Bruno Grilo, Ole Hagen, Hannah Honeywill, Shelley Hughes, Sevven Kucuk, Jo Longhurst, Amy Lunn, Paul Newman, Wendi Ann Titmus, Cathy Wade, Grace A Williams and Rafal Zar.

Ther_GBP3700e isn’t space for me to comment on every work included, unfortunately, but it’s fair to say that the macabre and unsettling is a feature of most of the works included. There is jewellery which includes vintage stones, in a beautiful, unusual pendant by Jivan Astfalck, and Rachael Colley’s ‘Sovereign’, a ring set with sawdust and blood, a macabre echo of the hair mourning jewellery popular in the nineteenth century. More traditionally, Jodie Drinkwater’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is a pen and ink drawing of a monstrous figure of a man on the rooftops of a Victorian city, indicating the fear of the unknown which can penetrate the familiar.The beautiful often contains the terrible, as Sevven Kucuk’s ‘Still Life with ApplesGBA_3530 – but no Oranges’ indicates (the title referencing Cezanne); the image of the glowing fruit in an urn-like container recalls Renaissance memento mori, reminding us that decay is present in everything.

The historical echoes of Gothic in the nineteenth century are all around even in this new work. As Julian Wolfreys points out in Victorian Hauntings, the Victorian period is, culturally, what we picture when we think of Gothic:

‘…all that black, all that crepe, all that jet and swirling fog… These and other phenomena, such as the statuary found in cemeteries _GBP3699such as Highgate, are discernible as being fragments – manifestations of a haunting, and, equally, haunted, “Gothicized” sensibility.’

Grace Williams’ print ‘Escamotage’ references a nineteenth century ‘vanishing trick’ in which the female body appears to disappear from under a Persian rug, which both reveals and conceals the female form. Gothic, with its complex relationship to the position of women – historically both reinforcing the subjection of women and simultaneously offering them a freedom as ‘other’, as deviant from the norm – provides a context to the image which makes it all the more disturbing. Wendi Ann Titmus’s mixed media images ‘Intellectual Uncertainty’ similarly disconcert the viewer, blurring boundaries between innocence and the macabre, reality and fantasy, and even fear and humour._GBP3696

These and many other exhibits are worth taking time over, considering how they relate to Gothic and also how they reflect the uncertainties we feel about the past as well as the anxieties of the present. Do go along to the Library of Birmingham and have a look at the exhibition, which is on the 3rd floor and runs until May 2nd.

All images (c) Graeme Braidwood Photography.

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The Library of Birmingham

20130904-031355-PM.jpgAs I’m sure you will know, the new Library of Birmingham opened yesterday, amid much press fanfare and a lovely opening speech by Malala Yousafzai, the text of which you can read here. I am partial to a good library, so I went along to have a look, and I must admit I was impressed. I spent many hours in the old library, and the contrast is amazing: the light and open space of this library is remarkable, and I hope will prove inspiring to those who visit it. Spread across nine floors, the Library is reaching for the sky, both metaphorically and literally. The view from the terrace is wonderful, and the design on the outside casts beautiful shadows across the interior.

I didn’t have time to explore as much as I would have liked, but will return again and again, I think, and am looking forward to researching there. From the lending library, with comfortable chairs to encourage readers to relax and browse, to the desks and private study rooms dotted around the upper floors for those needing to work, it is a space which seems to encourage intellectual activity. Trave20130904-031301-PM.jpglling up through the building on a travelator, one is surrounded by enormous circles of books (based on the British Library’s space) and pieces of specially-commissioned art, and the effect is awe-inspiring. Yet, as my colleague said, it is both vast and intimate as a space, which seems appropriate for a library (I could draw parallels between the boundless limits and yet personal voice of books, and the space of the library, but perhaps this is taking it too far!)

The building is a great example of what a library might be: focused on books but also on learning and culture in a wider sense, perhaps aided by the building’s incorporation of the Rep Theatre. The children’s section includes ‘Middle Earth’, as well as a Chill-out Lounge and Beatbox, while upper floors include an art gallery and film-viewing booths, as well as a café and the Shakespeare Memorial Room, reconstructed to match the original room with elaborate ornamentation, and a fascinating range of Shakespearean collections. The Library is running a great range of events to make the most of their remarkable facilities.

Of course, the crucial question is what it will be like as a space in which to study, research and write. The reference collections there are good, and I often recommended students to visit the old library for this reason, and with the help of the floor plan and the online catalogue it shouldn’t be difficult to find things. The spaces for study include private rooms and public tables, as well as the balcony where one can read and relax, and I am looking forward to returning.

20130904-031400-PM.jpgBirmingham has for so long had a bad reputation, for a lack of culture (quite undeserved, with the Rep and other theatres, Symphony Hall and other concert venues, the Museum and Art Gallery, and of course several universities) but this Library should show how serious Birmingham is about learning and culture. It is a monument to the benefits of culture, just as the Victorian museums and other public buildings were – a statement of intent from the council and people of Birmingham that a high priority should be placed on the education, culture and pleasure of the inhabitants. It is also even more significant: Malala said in her speech that world peace can be developed through reading; books are a weapon in the war against terrorism. The more one reads, the more one understands, and Malala is right: through books lie the path to mutual, cross-cultural understanding.

News from Birmingham Rep Theatre

Launch_picture_for_1709This evening I went to hear about the plans for the new Library for Birmingham and the changes to the Rep theatre. Having spent the afternoon in the Humanities reference section at the library, which was stuffy, sunlight-free and full of people who see it as a place to have a natter and drink coffee, any changes to the library will be welcome (although the staff are unfailingly pleasant and helpful, and their reference collection is generally excellent).  I hadn’t, before this evening, heard much about the changes to the theatre, so was interested to hear that when the library is built next to the Rep (in the car park between the Rep and Baskerville House) they will be sharing some of the space, including a third theatre (which the Rep have been wanting for some time) and a proposed ice cream parlour!

It’s been designed by Dutch company Mecanoo, which has designed libraries and theatres before  (which is encouraging!) The details of the design are still being finalised, although the overall layout has been completed, and plans include going green – generating their own electricity and hot and cold water on site. In addition, the Rep plans a new look for the bar, a clean-up of the facade, and more ladies’ loos (hurrah).

Both the library and the theatre have “huge aspirations” but are limited by space and finances. The project has been valued at £193m, which is underwritten by the Council, so it will be interesting to see, given that the library is a Council concern and the Rep is not, if this causes any conflict once the new buildings are completed. Still, although these might be tight times financially, it is encouraging to see the Council putting a premium on arts and culture in the city. The new development can only be a good thing for Birmingham, I think.

The Rep will close in January 2011, and intends to put on productions in other spaces around the city. They clearly intend to think creatively about this, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with. The new Library for Birmingham and the new-look Rep will re-open in 2013.  There is more information, and pictures, at the Library of Birmingham website.