Nottingham Contemporary is an international art centre. Opened in 2009, it holds a strong local purpose. This is my review.
I’ve been in and around Nottingham for about 17 years. My sister moved in 1995 to attend Nottingham Trent University and I’d visited plenty of times. I lived in Luton at the time so it was the only city I’d regularly visited that wasn’t Bradford – my old hometown – or London. It was my choice of destination for university in 2008. Alas, that didn’t end so well and I left but I returned in 2014 and I’ve been here ever since. My voyage to Nottingham Contemporary was only the second Nottingham landmark I’d visited in my life. I was eager to go.
The building is nestled within the city’s Lace Market, a protected heritage area, formerly the epicentre of the world’s lace industry during the British Empire. The modern cladding is significant in design contrasted with the surrounding architecture but in celebration of the area’s history, the building has been embossed with a lace design. At night, it shines like a beacon; a brutalist monolith bursting with cultural light.
You’re graced with the gift shop upon entering (more on that later) but for my visit yesterday, there were two exhibitions. The first, FOXP2, was from French artist Marguerite Humeau. Having graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2011 and shows at the Palais de Tokyo, MoMA and the V&A, this was quite an acquisition. FOXP2 was inspired by conversations with zoologists and other biological experts and comprises of two installations. Grunts and primitive murmurs fill the dark corridor leading to Gallery 1. They form the components of a sound installation; “a ‘choir’ of 108 billion voices, re-enacting the moment when the gene – FOXP2 – mutated, allowing our ancestors to develop language”. The longer you stay, the more elaborate and developed the noises become.
Then from the darkness you become enveloped in a pinkish hue of light. The second installation is what Humeau describes as a “biological showroom” of elephants. A series of elephant sculptures tell differing takes of life and bio-engineering. I strongly recommended using the guide to gain a better understanding of both installations. Poignant and brooding, FOXP2 leads to questions of existentialism, not only for the planet but for ourselves as human beings.
Gallery 2 features the second exhibition by Nigerian artist, Otobong Nkanga. The gallery also holds two separate installations as part of the exhibit. Taste of a Stone is a microcosm of boulders, pebbles and flora, intended to be used by local artists and visitors to share their experiences. The interactivity of the exhibition diverges from the modern interpretation of the word, retreating to the basic natural world as opposed to the technological. The second room contains The Encounter That Took a Part of Me, an examination of the Earth around us through its environment and the fruits of its labour. The wall is emblazoned with a mural, starting with a steel framework, gradually decaying with rust before meeting depictions of neural passages and finally cracks in the earth and accompanying bronze canvas. There are also sculptural displays showing the varying examples of environmental change – rust, condensation.
And then there was the gift shop. Usually a superficial part of a museum with its overpriced knick-knacks but this was different. Much different. The selection of books was diverse, from art and architecture to philosophy, music and a wide range of children’s books. There are also postcards and other stationery on offer at affordable prices. I picked up a double pizza cutter in the shape of a 1950s race car (there’s method behind this apparent madness but if you want to know more, ask me on Twitter) and a book of essays on the work of Michael Jackson. The exhibitions had enriched my cultural mind but the gift shop served as a fin parfaite to the experience.
When I was about 13, after much nagging, I finally got the chance to visit Legoland in Windsor. I had wanted to go for ages and the visit came as a surprise. We reached the gates and the anticipation was palpable. But I never crossed the threshold. Why? Too expensive. I’m much wiser now when it comes financial reasoning so I completely understand but of course this upset me no end and I sulked for the remainder of the trip. My mother grew impatient with my attitude. Eventually, she snapped and uttered the now-immortal sentence:
“Do you know how privileged you are?”
The short answer to that was “no” but I now understand what she meant. I hadn’t appreciated all the holidays abroad and museum visits in my childhood. Some of my school friends had never been on a plane. Nottingham Contemporary encapsulates the wonder of cultural exploration and growth I took for granted in my younger years. I took my 10 month-old son who seemed less enthused by the exhibitions but he has to start somewhere and he seemed to enjoy the lights at least. I won’t be turning my back on this place.
Recommended reading, links and footnotes
The Encounter That Took a Part of Me, co-curated by Nottingham Contemporary and Kunsthal Aarhus