Birmingham is full of itself

The current exhibition at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, looks inwards and backwards at the city and the artists it has given or nurtured before sending out into the world. Birmingham Show, running from 31 January to 11 April, casts a broad net across the art work of the city’s children, making for a compelling but not necessarily cohesive whole.

Tom Gidley
Tom Gidley

Curated by Ruth Claxton and Gavin Wade, the exhibition aims to connect the spaces between artists who ‘have lived, worked or studied within the city’ by bringing what might at first feel a disparate body of works into the one space, but begins to manifest into a cohesive meta-narrative about Birmingham, albeit eventually.

It’s a nice wide stroke of artists, includings Sofia Hultén, Tom Gidley, Antonio Roberts, Su Richardson, to name but a few.

Antonio Roberts shows one of his Pure Data-based glitch works; flashing randomly generated, sharp angled colours on a monitor which sits curiously against much of the static work on show. Alongside some of the paintings, it’s a good example of why these mixed artist exhibitions are worth visiting: any conceptual idea behind the work is free to breath freely beyond the weight of the medium used. So what of that conceptual idea?

Three key questions underpin the exhibition making – ‘What is the art of Birmingham?’ ‘Is there an accent to Birmingham’s art making?’ and ‘How is Birmingham useful for the production of art?’ – Exhibition notes.

Sofia Hultén
Sofia Hultén

Or perhaps: what’s the point of Birmingham? It would be easy to use the exhibition as a tourist brochure to encourage new artists into the city.Look at these artists, aren’t they doing great stuff? You too could be as great as them. But, even though Birmingham has a vibrant, continually evolving art scene, sometimes work can only come from fighting against the place you’re in. The best pop music came from rallying against the suburbs, rather than celebrating them. Some of the work feels like a cosy homage to art, some of it disturbs and challenges us to ask what art is (don’t you hate when that happens?). There’s something here for all the family then.

Sofia Hultén, is a child of Birmingham in a very particular way that so many people are. She was born in Stockholm, but moved to the city as a child. That duality of awareness reflects in her works, particularly her sculptures where she often uses ready-mades: turning industrial detritus into, as is the case with her piece in this show, from weighty, ugly artefacts, into something that appears to float in the corner of the gallery. Heavy chains, bobbing amongst the gallery visitors.

If Birmingham has one thing working against it when it comes to creating art, it’s that Birmingham knows who it is. There’s no challenge against the kind of existential despair you might find in the art coming out of (to name just one near neighbour), Coventry. At least not in any of the work on show in Birmingham Show. But then again, I think that may not be the point of it. Maybe you have to be from Birmingham to question the exhibition. For the rest of us, it’s a chance to enjoy a broad stroke of art works in a single location: challenging, responding to questioning, refusing to be bothered by what outsiders think. Hey, maybe that’s the voice of Birmingham?

Birmingham Show
31 January – 11 April 2015
Eastside Projects
86 Heath Mill Lane
Birmingham B9 4AR
+44 (0)121 771 1778

Chalk and blood – Oppenheimer at the RSC

If you sat down with a large enough piece of paper, some pencils and available time, you could probably map out all the interactions that led you to that very moment you decided to map out those interactions. Everything begins small and leads to something greater. You could trace the moment you decided to leave the house at such and such a time and which train you went for, which job you applied for, which path you chose just like every other day, except you walked quicker that one day and then, by the thing we’ve all agreed to call chance, you found that one person that changed your life. Or that group of people who would influence your thinking and change the whole world. Change it forever.

Oppenheimer - at RSC's Swan Theatre from 15th January - 7th March
Oppenheimer – at RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March

Writer Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer, (currently at the RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March) looks at the consequences of our macro interactions and plots them against the sub-atomic interactions being explored in physics at the beginning (and eventual end) of the Second World War. The play, delves into the psyche of those leading the research towards creation of the first atomic bomb and the people around them.

Oppenheimer doesn’t just chart dates, times and known facts. It wants you to ask yourself, who you would become, given enough pressure and circumstances. If you knew you could stop the death of millions of people on ‘your side’ through the death of some hundreds of thousands on ‘the other side’ would you do it? It’s a bit like the ‘would you kill Hitler’ questions or countless others that form the basis of simple philosophical questions. When it falls to you to make the decision, which way do you fall? And how free of bias and imperfection can you hope to be?

Directed by Angus Jackson, Oppenheimer is as much an opening up of (much previously unravelled) recent history, as it is an exploration of what kind of person does it fall to, to make such a decision to create a weapon. John Heffernan as J. Robert Oppenheimer gives us the full impact of what that decision might do to a man. By the end of the play we feel his suffering and are only returned to our own humanity when the stage dips to darkness.

Oppenheimer - RSC's Swan Theatre from 15th January - 7th March
Oppenheimer – RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March

The supporting cast of characters is like a who’s who of early Twentieth Century physics, including Richard Feyman, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller and even a snapshot appearance from Einstein himself. Such was the gathering of smartest people down in Los Alamos on the Manhattan project.

In Oppenheimer the man, we also see the changing nature of science in the modern world. As one character has it, all the chalk has been washed away with blood. It’s why, during the play, the floors are marked with calculations, atomic interactions drawn out and enhanced by digital projections. A blackboard constantly set out and written or projected on to. The stage is awash with chalk by the end of the play. It’s all over the cast’s costumes. It’s everywhere. And metaphorically, it’s then washed away. Scientists began to realise that their small band of brothers, tucked away in little understood corners of research, would make a difference to the whole world.

Who would you need to be, to decide to build a weapon that could kill so many people? Can only the perfect make those sorts of decisions? It’s a challenge for anyone to tackle this well worn path, but the creative team give it their best shot. In parts I was reminded of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, (back at the National from 24 June 2014 – 23 May 2015,) with the projected overlays of stage design and that feeling, when you leave the theatre, of having become broader in knowledge and assured that anything, could happen to any of us. In the case of Oppenheimer, though, we’d just need to be a genius. And a human being.