Featured at the back of Nottingham Contemporary’s exhibition guide they write as their preface: “International art. For everyone. For free” It’s that statement that shone through during my recent visit to the venue; art for everyone. The early work of Piero Gilardi was an attempt to merge the art world with real life and it seems at the Contemporary this is their hope too.
The current show features the art works of internationally known artist Piero Gilardi and Nottingham based artist John Newling. For the most part of this review I intend to talk about Piero Gilardi, however I do want to commend the curatorial work involved in the collaboration of the two artists. Both artists work compliment one another in many respects both politically and visually. Whilst in the space I noted that both the gallery spaces of each artist remind me somewhat of a greenhouse; Gilardi’s the hyper real interpretation of the greenhouse.
Following the exhibition in chronological order, Gallery 1 housed Newling’s work, so upon entering Gallery 2 I had previously seen the latter. Walking into the space I was greeted with the vibrant colours and dream like setups of Gilardi’s early sculptures which he calls; Nature Carpets. The contrast of the subdued colours in the previous room only emphasized the hyper real exaggerations of nature which Gilardi depicts. Using his favoured material; polyurethane foam he creates small slices of nature. Raised slightly off the floor on a platform, roughly two square metres of nature have been sculpted using foam, carved into and painted to look like the winding stems of plants, as well as other platforms, one hosting pebbles and debris carved to look weathered. I want to say that you toy with the idea of the setups being real, but I didn’t. Their falsehood is obvious. One thing for sure though is that you want to touch them just to check.
Before going to the show I had built up hype about the prospect of the interactive elements involved within the exhibition. Working opposite the contemporary I had heard snippets of conversation about miracle plants and had seen tweets declaring “Piero Gilardi’s interactive exhibition was amazing. Go and play!” Needless to say I was excited. When it came to it though, interactivity was far from it. It came as a surprise to me to then read that when Gilardi first made the works in the sixties, “he encouraged people to use them; lie on them, picnic on them.” Indeed in the sixties, people lay on the Nature Carpets, crawled in through the various other setups. They also wore the nature costumes which at the Contemporary today are displayed formally on manikins. On reflection I noticed that the woman on the exhibition’s advertisement and guide is actually wearing one of the costumes, obviously a photograph from an earlier time. I felt nostalgic for that time gone by for these works. It seemed as though that was their time and now I was just looking at the preservation of the props.
The staging of the works are a far cry from that now. The etiquette of the gallery setting restricts the viewers touch. The works are said to be “too delicate to be generally engaged with.” Gilardi wanted to merge the art world with life, remove the gallery protocol and allow the viewer to play and interact with his work. The Contemporary, probably not having wanted to, has now taken that away. I ask the question; how much say has Gilardi had in the curation of his work? Because somehow I don’t think he would have liked his work shown in this way.
The contemporary art world struggles with this need for interaction. Ai Weiwei’s hand-painted replica sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern are a great example of the dismissal of interaction. Weather it be the confusion whether the viewer could take a sunflower seed or problems arising with dust, the exhibition was shut down. The art world cannot find a balance to allow the interaction. The balance to which Gilardi has given the Contemporary is a new piece made especially for this exhibition. This piece; Nature Puzzle 3 we are encouraged to play with. “Visitors are invited to touch, play and reconfigure this life sized jigsaw puzzle as they wish.” So here we are given permission to interact, the imaginary barrier has been brought down. I was, however, disheartened by this piece. Set aside from the other sculptures, it seemed like the children’s toy in the corner of the dentist waiting room. I found satisfaction in being able to finally to touch the object and find out the texture and quality of the other works but it all seemed to be just a distraction to keep you away from the preserved pieces.
As well as interaction, the contemporary art world also struggles with the growing changes in the uses of contemporary galleries, bringing me back to my point at the beginning; art for everyone. When in the exhibition I was joined by various others, including a group of school children. It was so intriguing to me to hear the attitudes of the pupils aged probably around 8 or 9, and also the wide curriculum being taught using the gallery visit. The gallery space is home to thousands of visitors of all age ranges and all different levels of understanding contemporary art. It is clear that the exhibition can cater for all. The Contemporary, like Gilardi, is trying to bring life and art together. Even if by doing so they use part of the exhibition to provide a play area for school trips- Nature Puzzle 3.