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Gilardi and Newling open the year at Nottingham Contemporary

Octopus by Piero Gilardi

Octopus by Piero GilardiNottingham Contemporary is a fantastic institution, especially only having recently celebrated its third birthday, I was very excited for their first exhibition for 2013, which opened Friday 25th January. For this season, Nottingham Contemporary brought together two phenomenal artists, John Newling, who is from Nottingham and Italian Piero Gilardi, who resides in Turin. I’ll admit that I have never heard of Gilardi or Newling (shame on me), never the less I was excited to see what work they were bringing to Nottingham Contemporary. Before attending the opening exhibition of Piero Gilardi and John Newling, I was intrigued to see why Nottingham Contemporary has used these artists to exhibit. Gilardi is a pioneer in Arte Povera, a movement in Italy in 1960 which questioned the values of established institutions of government, industry and culture. Newling, from Birmingham, has been influenced by the movement of attack on the established order. His work has developed from Arte Povera, which influenced his Conceptual Art and Land Art. Despite Arte Povera being a fascinating movement, I had to ask myself a question. Does Arte Povera have any relevance today? Only exploring the exhibition will tell.

On the opening night, I was greeted with a complimentary cocktail courtesy of Absolut Unique. Refreshed and ready, I worked my way around the exhibition backwards due to how busy the night was. I started off viewing Gilardi’s Collaborative Effects, Part 2. This part of the exhibition focuses on Gilardi leaving the art world, due to him believing that the radical artists that belonged to the Arte Povera movement were not committed to the revolutionary practice. Gilardi became a creative facilitator for several revolutionary products. The theme in this part of the exhibition focused heavily on Gilardi’s early work, dating from 1963 – 1985. It captures the anguish and tough environment to live in during the period as well as the struggles of protesting.  I particularly enjoyed the foam sculpture piece Octopus (2012), used as a prop from the past year or two for political actions that Gilardi was part of. Of course, there were sculptures of the usual suspects in the political world; Angela Merkel, Mario Monti and Barack Obama. However I was surprised to not find any amusing, caricaturesque foam sculptures of any UK politician, not a Cameron or Brown insight! Perhaps Gillardi didn’t want to give them the time.

A slight critism in this part of the exhibition was the interactive installation Albatross (2011). The installation invites the viewer to sit in a wheelchair and grab hold of a handle bar above them and ‘control’ the camera on top which is of a bird’s eye view of the tsunami which hit Fukushima, Japan in 2011. Gilardi aimed for a virtual flyover the disaster. However, when I sat in the wheelchair and attempted the bird’s eye view, nothing happened for me apart from the image was now projected wonky, on the floor, showing an image of a roof. Maybe I was just too short for the installation. Yet I don’t think Gilardi thought the installation through enough as I didn’t understand the message that he was trying to convey, despite being vertically challenged. This installation didn’t fit into the exhibition at all, it seemed unrelated; a piece about a natural disaster placed among political protests. I was not alone in this confusion of sitting in the wheelchair. Other visitors were baffled by this installation; at least I wasn’t the only one feeling foolish while trying to manoeuvre a camera, in a seagull, trying to figure out what on earth was being conveyed.

one of Gilardi's scultptures of vegetables - cornThe second part of Gilardi’s exhibition in Gallery 2, I began to see the link between his and Newman’s work. This section of the exhibition focuses on Gilardi’s sculptures, clothes and interactive objects which explore the elements of nature. This connects Gilardi’s work with Newman’s, as, Newman’s work is influenced by the natural world. This theme explored in the final part of Gilardi’s section of the exhibition explores the environment and how nature’s qualities are appealing to the human body which close the divide between art and spectator, body and mind. The atheistic foam sculptures of crops, watermelons and interactive flowerbed jigsaw puzzles are bursting with colour.

WeightThis leads onto Newman’s Ecologies of Values, which is dominated by nature and the relationship between the social and economic systems in society. This exhibition is Newling’s first major survey exhibition presenting work from 1970s to the present day.  The first section of the exhibition for Newling starts in Gallery 3, where he plays with the ideas of money and religion.  For this section, Newling uses copper and two pence coins as a recurring motif. I found Newling’s use of copper very compelling especially for his Weight (1998). Weight comments on the absurdities of the relationship that we have with the economy.  I have a huge fascination with this piece as it consists of 10 large glass bowls, which contain dirt and debris from 50,000 two pence coins. Newling weighed the coins before taking the debris off as the banks make an adjustment for the layers of dirt when the coins are handled. Newling calculated that the dirt only had the value of seven pence. Is dirt really that valued? It amused me that Newling has noted this abstruse notion that the banks take, calculating that the dirt only had the value of seven pence.  In theory, dirt is valued. How bizarre!John Newling's calculation

The final section of Newling’s exhibition features new artworks which continues the economy theme as well as linking it with the natural world, entitled The Garden of the Bank. Newling blends together sculptural artworks using natural materials such as leaves and soil, taking a horticultural process. Installed in the exhibition is an extraordinary piece, Walking Stick cabbages. Over the duration that the exhibition will be at Nottingham Contemporary, the cabbages will change  over time, as they grow, dry and harden. My favourite piece of Newling’s exhibition is What We Do To Make Ourselves Feel Better. It contains a newspaper containing 500 replies to the question posed by Newling ‘What do you do to make yourself feel better?’  500 copies were made of the newspaper were distributed, then transformed into a soil. Newling states that ‘The soil, both metaphorically and literally, will be capable of sustaining plant growth and is a way of transforming the materiality of the newspapers with their contents of ‘What people do to help them feel better’ into a material of growth. ‘ This lead me to think, a lot of the things that I do to make myself feel better involves material possessions. I feel that Newling is trying to communicate that as a capitalist society, we are very dependent with our economic system.

After exploring the exhibition, I could see the influence of Arte Povera within Newling’s later work as well as how Gilardi established himself as an artist through the movement Does Arte Povera still have any relevance today? Yes it does, as artists like Newling and Gilardi are questioning culture’s relationships to the natural world and economic systems.  Gilardi and Newling have, in my opinion been able to communicate our relationship with commercialism successfully in creative ways that stop you in your tracks and make you think. However, I haven’t spoken about all of work by Gilardi and Newling that are at Nottingham Contemporary, we would be here all day. I highly recommend taking a visit to Nottingham Contemporary as it is fascinating to view the journey through the artist’s timeline so close to home, how art has played a major role in presenting the change in society.

Piero Gilardi Collaborative Effects and John Newling’s Ecologies of Value is exhibited in Nottingham Contemporary until 7th April 2013 and has free entry.