We speak with Melanie Pocock, the newly appointed curator at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery, to find out more about her background, research interests and plans for the future.
What attracted you to your role at Ikon?
Ikon provides the kind of environment that artists and curators crave: a beautiful, signature architecture, where it’s possible to take risks and create vision. I was also attracted to Ikon’s size. It’s large enough to create ambitious exhibitions, yet small enough to feel their effects on artists and audiences.
I knew Ikon from my time working at Modern Art Oxford during my MA in Curating Contemporary Art. When Ikon advertised the role, the gallery was presenting The Aerodrome, an exhibition dedicated to the memory of Michael Stanley, who was curator of Ikon from 2002 to 2004 and Director of Modern Art Oxford when I was there. While not a deciding factor in my application, the exhibition did feel like a calling card! Michael’s desire to work side-by-side with artists greatly influenced me and is an approach which Ikon’s programme directly reflects.
The role came at a time when I was looking for a new challenge in an institution closer to home (I’m originally from London). I felt that the internationalism of Ikon’s programme, fostered over many years by current Director Jonathan Watkins, would enable me to contribute my on-the-ground experience in Asia.
What are you most looking forward to about working at the gallery?
In addition to Ikon’s scale and focus, I’d say the opportunity to work with a highly skilled, multi-disciplinary team. In the three months I’ve been here, I’ve been amazed by the expertise and achievements of Ikon’s staff, from the Facilities team’s development of the ‘Ikon lights’ (the gallery’s bespoke lighting system) to the Learning team’s incredible work on artist residencies and offsite programmes.
Since last week, and because of the confinement measures owing to Covid-19, myself and the Ikon team have all been working from home. It’s a big change, but one which I’m embracing—in the interim, at least! We’re already starting to use digital platforms and communication tools more effectively. The Facilities team has been incredible, helping us to get set up for remote working in an incredibly short amount of time.
What do you hope to achieve in the role?
Bringing artists to Ikon whose work has not yet achieved adequate recognition from the global art ‘system’, or which remains less visible due to issues of language or access, is a priority. I’m interested in consolidating strands of Ikon’s current programme—the role and meaning of painting today, as evidenced in John Walker’s recent exhibition, as well as contemporary artists’ relationship to Indigenous practices. Creating exhibitions and projects which embed artists’ ideas within the socio-cultural and material fabric of Birmingham is also something that I’d like to work towards.
What has excited you so far about Birmingham and/or the West Midlands region?
The history of art schools in the region—the Birmingham and Wolverhampton schools of art, established in 1843 and 1853 respectively, for example—is one that I find fascinating, especially having come from the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Singapore, which is affiliated with an art school (Lasalle College of the Arts). The aim of art schools in the West Midlands to foster artistic approaches to craft and design is vividly reflected in the region’s art history. It’s also a strong current in the work of younger artists, who are reviving this history through their employment of craft techniques like glassblowing and welding.
Can you tell us something about your upcoming projects at the gallery? What can audiences look forward to?
Yes—I certainly can! One project is a group exhibition, which will survey Ikon’s programme in the 1990s. Focusing on Elizabeth Ann Macgregor’s tenure as Director, it will include photography, painting, installation and video by over 40 artists whose work was presented at the gallery during this time. Apart from major works by renowned artists—Mark Wallinger, Adrian Piper and Yinka Shonibare, to name a few—the exhibition will reflect many of the decade’s critical debates on race and class politics. I’m also working on an exhibition by Krištof Kintera, a Czech artist who is known for his macabre sculptures and installations critiquing hypercapitalist systems and societies. It will be his first major solo exhibition in the UK and will occupy both floors of Ikon’s galleries.