Opening at the Herbert Art Gallery this evening, Wonder features new commissions and existing work by artists based predominantly in the West Midlands. The exhibition is rooted in a sense of play and interactivity by way of site-specific painting, animation, light installation and collections-inspired augmented reality works. We speak to invited curator Dr Rachel Marsden about the development of the exhibition.
Can you tell me more about the premise of Wonder?
I was bought in to curate the exhibition in January this year. The exhibition was originally developed from the idea of fairy tales and the fact that the Herbert usually has a family-friendly summer exhibition targeted at early years. This was the first consideration as part of the project’s development.
One of the reasons I wanted to speak to you about Wonder is the regional interest in the artists that have been selected. Could you tell me more about these selections?
Julia Snowdin had already been commissioned to make an installation called Light Pavilion which is a sensory light canopy largely for early years. Thinking about those who might have additional sensory needs and disabilities was a part of the show. The gallery had also had conversations with Ben Javens who is a local illustrator and a lot of his work looks at the idea of storytelling and folktales. Because both Julia and Ben are local, regional artists, for me that became another trigger to frame the exhibition in a way that honoured and supported emerging regional artists. Serendipitously, as it worked out, when I was thinking about the theme in a multi-age range context, translating to adults too, the artists I started to think about were already networked to each other without me realising. Antonio Roberts, who I’ve worked with previously, had worked with Edie Jo Murray who is very much an emerging digital practitioner. She’d been working with an organisation called Ludic Rooms in Coventry, who are also supporting the professional development of Julia.
We wanted a balance of analogue and digital – a sense of the physical/material in some works versus the digital/alternative realities in others. I bought in Lucy McLaughlan who creates large-scale public murals. These are quite abstract but always informed by the site and space she’s in. She’s taking imprints of Coventry for this project and both her and Ben knew each other too. The networked relationships have made this quite holistic in a sense – it feels a supportive environment. And also having the budget through which to support their practice appropriately is really key.
There are also more female than male artists represented here. This is important to me. Going beyond gender equity links to the recent Freelands Foundation report looking at that balance. It’s important to have that, and the breadth of the artists, at the back of your mind. Edie sees herself as neurodiverse and she is really happy to speak about her experiences through her practice with audiences. Another important point to highlight is the individuality of each artist but also that collective voice of what they can share together through the network which is the West Midlands itself.
Are all the works new commissions?
The only artist who is not local is Davy & Kristin McGuire – Studio McGuire – who were originally included in Hull as part of City of Culture 2017. We wanted to bring them in as a link to Coventry’s City of Culture in 2021. They are pre-existing works which speak more to the adult audience in their diorama work using projection and shadow play. The rest of the works are actually all new commissions and it’s been brilliant to have the opportunity to do that and also to trust them with the ideas and themes we’ve provided to act as a starting point for new works.
I’m also interested to see where this process takes them beyond this exhibition, as part of a longer journey within their practice. For instance, for Edie, this opportunity has allowed her to collaborate with Secret Knock Zine – a free low-fi print zine specific to arts and culture across Coventry distributed across venues. Through this experience, she has also been taken on by Instagram beta testing, creating new face filters for trial. She’s created one for the exhibition which uses butterflies from the natural sciences collection. That future focus is important. Additionally, there are brilliant technicians at the gallery that have been able to honour the ambition of what the artists want to do, especially with Ben’s large installation.
Will there be a programme of events that will draw out some the concerns of the exhibition?
One of the key aspects has been the collaboration with Secret Knock Zine. For the third issue, they have been working with Edie quite closely, are showcasing all the artists’ works, I’ve written a text and they are also working with us for the launch party, running zine making workshops, thinking about how we share this content digitally, making limited edition prints – all activating the work in a different way. There’s a huge early years programme throughout the summer, a curator’s talk in July and we have Ludic Rooms coming to do a project called Wonder and Web which is looking at how we physically network space and how that happens online. Julia is doing a number of events because she really wants feedback on audience interaction with her Light Pavilion, to see how all age ranges respond. For her, this has been a pivotal opportunity to create something so large for public play/use.
What do you think you have learned from the experience of working on this project?
It’s been a fun opportunity to get involved in the West Midlands again and to see what everybody’s been doing and to be able to give that support to create new work. But also it highlights some of the socio-cultural priorities of the artists right now – what they’re interested in and what matters to them.
I was saying to somebody yesterday, it’s been 10 years since I curated my first proper exhibition. So to think about the artists’ priorities and the organisational priorities in that period – how the voice of the digital is so normal now – is considered in every part of the show, from the interpretation and marketing to the artists’ works themselves. It’s a language that you need to know and that we will need to know more and more. The show will be live streamed at the opening and half way through, there are a lot of pre-recorded interviews and further online content, social media of course and then there are Edie’s augmented reality works that explore the gallery’s collection. There are many layers of digital content that just didn’t exist 10 years ago. That’s been a real point of clarity for me – to see that shift.
Wonder is open to the public until 15 September 2019. A programme of events accompanies the exhibition.