Getting on with it

What do you want to be when you grow up? “Victoria Wood”, I said proudly.
 
I’d had my answer ready for some time. Admittedly there were one or two flaws in my plan. I’d have to adopt a 1990’s basin hair-cut for a start, and then there were the overcoats. But I wasn’t fazed; I’d been hobbling around the house with a hunched back offering macaroons to various members of my family for months…
 
I think the reason I’ve always loved Victoria Wood is that she's a beautiful, uneasy mix of social stereotypes; giving first class performances of desperate characters in situations so dull they become absurd. She plays on the spirit of a cultural clique, delivering humorous exaggerations of the flat, unimpressed, bolchy behaviour found in northern wit. And northern wit goes a long way to making northern attitude; epitomized in the infamous phrase “just get on with it” (whatever “it” might be).
 

 
In the case of this article, “it” is the knuckle-down opportunism lurking in the shady undercurrents of Sheffield’s artistic community. You see, the rivers of the north are no longer poisonous waterholes where smoke infested proletariats congregate to lick their boots clean. These days, the north is home to a number of growing artistic outlets that successfully made it through the industrial revolution with a strictly “can do” attitude, and have been “getting on with it” for years.
 
So it seemed a little lazy for recent press-frenzied journalists to start talking about Sheffield as the new 'it' town across various media channels (if you missed this blitz, I’m referring to an article in the Guardian, and a mention on Radio 4’s PM, amongst other things). Don’t get me wrong, national coverage is welcome, it’s just that we’ve been nose-to-the-grindstone ever since the last recession, and attributing our thriving art scene to the withdrawal of building developers and a surge in cheap studio space is a bit like saying the cultural awareness of over-eating in Britain is down to the marketing campaigns of I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter. We know they play their part, but what you’re seeing now is the outcome of a lot of work on the part of some very dedicated, inspirational people, over a number of years.
 

 
So, this is my attempt to pay homage to a growing institution which I feel has been at the heart of shaping Sheffield’s contemporary cultural economy for years: S1 Artspace.
 

Installation view, S1 Members Show 2011. Courtesy of S1 Artspace
 
If you haven’t yet visited S1, then get up now and go. Seriously, stop reading this, get on that bus/bike/pony and drive/ride/trot your way over to 120 Trafalgar Street, Sheffield, S1. Don’t be intimidated by the large brick and glass exterior; there’s no iron gate to get through, no dark alley way down which to walk. S1 is a welcoming space, lovingly nourished by the artists who set up home there since their relocation from a noisy industrial site in Trafalgar Court (home to Corporation Nighclub) in 2010. Even the floor, reclaimed from a local school, was laid and polished by the hard working hands of its members. In fact much of the refurbishment of S1’s new space is down to the persistent fund-raising of its studio members and Director Louise Hutchinson.
 
The legacy of S1 stretches back 15 years. As an artist led organisation with a strong desire to see contemporary art in the city, the space hosts shows by a mix of established and emerging artists, and operates a democratic studio policy by which all members are elected through group agreement.
 
The gallery, which is large, bright and airy, is centrally located and surrounded by studios, all of which are visible from the floor. There’s a reception area with friendly wooden tables, a library of magazines and literature, and a welcome desk. S1 also rents out commercial studios to well established organisations such as The Designers Republic, and emerging practitioners Hantu Collective. In a room just off the reception/gallery a group of Sheffield Hallam PHD students come together to make and create. This additional studio space was specifically provided for the PHD students, who split their time between the University and the Artspace, and contribute to the feel of live productivity.
 

 Hantu Collective

                                                                      The Designers Republic                                                                                                                                              
 

 
One thing that particularly draws me to S1 as a gallery space is the way it bridges two concerns; the exposure of brand new emerging artists and internationally acclaimed ones. I suspect this has something to do with its willingness to mix professionalism with praxis. It’s not often a contemporary art space reveals the infrastructure of its design (a complex of studios spaces, workshops, facilities and resources) alongside its exhibition venue, and programs a range of events from studio member’s shows to critically acclaimed solo exhibits by international artists.
 
But this is exactly what S1 does, lending a new topic of conversation to the art world; one in which we find ourselves privileged enough to see the work of the artist come before the prestige of the gallery. Because while S1’s agenda is strong, it’s also responsive, and it knows the value of the committed artist (to whom it owes its existence).
 
In terms of showing work, the gallery strives to develop at an impressive rate. Previous curators including Michelle Cotton have gone on to work in larger institutions like Firstsite Colchester, having been given the space and time to develop their curatorial practice at S1, and Louise Hutchinson, current Artistic Director of the space, is busy planning the gallery’s highest profile exhibition (in the new space) to date.
 

 

Installation view: Celluloid. Films Withoug Camera, Kunsthalle Schirn, Frankfurt, 2010
Image courtesy of Jennifer West & Vilma Gold Gallery, London
 
 
Due to open on 4th February, L.A. based Artist Jennifer West will be showing new and recent work at S1 in her solo show, ‘Aloe Vera and Butter’. Across the gallery, six HD film works will be projected, giving insight into the materialistic and mythical films of West’s experimental oeuvre. With the projectors sitting on the floor, voyeuristic shadows will find themselves an integral part of the viewing process, reminding us that to witness West’s films is to take part in an ever evolving narrative. Describing her work as “D.I.Y…home-grown….West Coast, rock n’ roll, film-nerdy, synesthetic and rebellious”, the artist sets up a conflict between the excessive nature of her process (attacking the celluloid with materials referenced within its content – such as mascara, hair dye, pepper spray and tar) and the reductive quality of the abstract, dreamy, sensory image.
 
Based on absurd myths of the everyday, found footage and the raw abandon of freedom-loving idealism, West’s films cast a nostalgic glance back at the communal happenings of 60’s performance art, and reference a large history of experimental film, such as Carolee Schneemann’s 1985 film ‘Fuses’. But her physical assaults on the film (which often encourage other people to get involved and thrash their banging heads against the tape) force us to reconsider the act of documenting an event as an intrusive cut into the history of now.
 

 
Skate the Sky Film (35mm film print of clouds in the sky covered with ink, Ho-Ho’s, and Melon juice – filmstrips taped to Tate Turbine Hall ramp and skateboarded over using ollie, kick flip, pop shove-it, acid drop, melon grab, crooked grind, bunny hop, tic tacs, sex change, disco flip – skateboarding performed live for Long Weekend by Thomas Lock, Louis Henderson, Charlotte Brennan, Dion Penman, Sam Griffin, Jak Tonge, Evin Goode and Quantin Paris, clouds shot by Peter West).
2009, 35mm Film Print, 4 minutes, 54 seconds
Image courtesy of Jennifer West & Vilma Gold Gallery, London
 
 
There’s something almost painterly in the quality of West’s films; they produce a digital residue which sticks to the lens of your eye like a chemical burn. With titles like “Heavy Metal Sharks Calming Jaws Reversal Film” the images take on an abstract quality, hinting at moments in which something might be glimpsed, or felt, before sinking back into a flickering lightshow of chroma.
 

So, no excuses this February. The doom and gloom of January is over, and Sheffield is the place to be. We’re a hardy bunch of witty, northern go-getters and we’ve got things to be getting on with. One of which is popping down to S1 and sloshing around in a sandpit of art, made by an American who likes to pickle her films in Whiskey and mud.
 
Words by E. H. Cocker




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