Barrow-in-Furness is a town with economic and social problems, but with Art Gene it also has a forward-thinking, professional and original centre for contemporary art providing a commentary and engagement in its regeneration. ‘When We Were Here’ looks back at the work of six artists, all of whom have completed residencies there over the past year. The initial impression of the show is that of a reined-in cornucopia: there’s variety here, to be sure, but it’s a measured kind of variety.
In Milena Bonilla’s any place like this postcards show the scar tissue left when urban areas undergo neglect or change. It’s the in-between and boarded up that grabs her attention, though she moves onto the potential of the screened-off buildings cocooned and waiting for a bright new future.
The slightness of the cards is offset by John Dummett’s exuberant piece Thought For All. It’s a large assemblage of brightly coloured balloons, bunting and other party ephemera. There are words here too, worked into the decoration indicating a territorial claiming or reverie for territory lost. There’s an irony in the way he’s built a frame for the material and placed it on a set-up for musical chairs so that the seats are acting as a plinth, not as places to sit. It speaks volumes about colonisation of spaces people are led to believe would be theirs, but get taken from them to suit – well, to suit people in suits.
Mina Kantonen offers a metaphorical take on the re-ordering of urban space. Civic workers are arranged, within their workspaces, in order of height; chains of office and other clues (people in jeans, rather than suits), hint at the real power structures. It’s a subversive take on power and influence, though amusingly the three people in the Mayor’s office reflect exactly the real hierarchy. The detritus and ephemera of office life is included too and the more you look, the more you see. My favourite is the Quiz Book stashed under a desk, possibly for when the boss is away.
Reunions and blind dates can be tricky, and ‘When We Were Here’ is a mixture of both. Paul Moss has curated the work well and there is a dialogue, though stuttering at times, between some of the pieces. Like an ensemble movie, a lot of the work is done in the casting. The six artists were originally selected for the residencies partly for an interest in, or an engagement with, regeneration in some way and the work was left to look after itself. Because of this some pieces, while fine in their own right, seem a little out of context, but it shows an ongoing vibrancy and unpredictability at the heart of Art Gene’s programme.