As I sat in traffic one morning on the way to work I was struck by a stark black and white image of a woman looking troubled, mournful and deep in thought. The image was part of an advert on the back of a double-decker bus for Varna Road, an exhibition of photographs by Janet Mendelsohn at the Ikon gallery in Birmingham.
Ikon recently celebrated its fiftieth year, and as myself and my partner-in-crime had yet to visit it this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So, last Sunday, we took ourselves along on a cold and blustery morning; by the time we had left we were wowed, moved and warmed by the work of the three artists we had seen.
Varna Road Janet Mendelsohn
Although we have lived in Birmingham for well over a year now, this was the first time I had heard of Varna Road. It seems that it has a certain notoriety among Birmingham residents, as well as those further afield, for its association with vice – especially in the 1960s. It was at this time that Janet Mendelsohn, a Boston native and Harvard graduate, came to Birmingham as a postgraduate at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). She used photography as a tool for cultural and social analysis, and Varna Road became her subject – not least through the figure of Kathleen, who turned out to be the woman from the advert on the back of the bus.
You can read much more about Varna Road (and the wider area of Balsall Heath) and get more insight into Mendelsohn’s approach and time at the CCCS here and here. However, I don’t think you need to know the background in order to appreciate her photographs and what she was able to convey through them (I hadn’t read up on Varna Road before going to the exhibition). Just the few photographs I’ve included here reveal such a depth and variety of cultural and social realities for Varna Road in the 1960s. Prostitution, vice, urban decay and the arrival of migrants from the Caribbean are all captured in Mendelsohn’s photos. But so are happiness, friendship, hope and fun. I really recommend anyone to go and see the powerful Varna Road exhibition before it closes. (For a different take on Varna Road, Balsall Heath and street photography, check out Birmingham photography blogger Helen Ogbourn’s account of the recent Birmingham instameet inspired by the Varna Road collection.)
The Colony De Linh Qê
Another powerful exhibition, but in different ways and for different reasons, comes from Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê, whose video installation The Colony explores themes of colonial conflict, greed and human suffering. On walking into the exhibition space you are presented with the first of three cinematic screens showing different aspects of the seemingly barren islands (which are located off the coast of Peru). However, the amazing footage filmed by drones and from boats circling the island slowly reveals somewhere colonised by vast numbers of birds, whose guano is in fact a highly effective fertiliser. Later, we see abandoned huts and storage buildings, evidence of a once thriving (and highly contested) guano industry. It’s clear that there’s more going on here than at first meets the eye.
Gradually, and across each of the screens, the sound and visuals combine to provide an immensely powerful account of the interaction between the human and natural world, and the use of drones (which at times become the subject themselves) takes The Colony into dystopic and post-human realms. There’s a geopolitical message here too, with questions about resources and who has the rights to them.
The exterior shots of landscapes teeming with birds are staggering; the interior shots of disused bunkhouses are melancholic and ethereal; however, for me the most captivating sequences followed teams of men harvesting the guano-rich soil. Slowly the camera pans round and zooms out to reveal that their backbreaking work is actually building something of quite breathtaking proportions. You’ll have to go and see the exhibition to see for yourself just what it is! For me Dinh Q Lê has produced something that feels like Baraka soundtracked by Tim Hecker. Check out the trailer below, and if you like what you see then don’t miss The Colony.
108 Leyton Ave Kelly Mark
The last exhibit we saw was another video installation, this time from Canadian artist Kelly Mark. We walked in part way through (always an issue with video installations!) so we were presented by the slightly surreal image of two identical women sitting facing each other at a table. As they smoke, play solitaire and drink bourbon, they take it in turns to present one another with connected (sometimes contradictory) aphorisms, statements and slogans.
These everything/nothing back-and-forth statements continue throughout the piece, and by turns their statements were silly and funny, ironic and ridiculous, cutting and fatalistic. At times it feels like you’re sitting in on an argument (indeed, on second viewing the piece seems to begin in the aftermath of an argument), at others you feel privy to the knowing banter of two friends. Rather than being isolated couplets, each statement actually follows on from the last to create an entirely connected but constantly evolving tangential dialogue.
The two women are both actually Kelly Mark, and the binary narrative is borne from her time living alone on the outskirts of Toronto, and the split-screen presentation conveys the isolation of having no one to talk to but yourself. The Kelly on the left hand side soon appears as the one constantly trying to find an opening, a point of agreement. The right-hand Kelly seems like a smart-ass, know-it-all – the kind of person who has an answer for, well, everything:
Although at the time I found the piece more entertaining than anything, reflecting on its delivery and construction I was struck by the impact that our internal narratives have on everything we do, how we see the world and how we make sense of people, events and things in our day-to-day lives. The whole piece has been uploaded by Kelly to her Vimeo channel, so take a look for yourself
All in all it was an amazing trip to the Ikon gallery in Birmingham. Both myself and my other half are really looking forward to returning soon.
All exhibits close on the 3rd April