Elin Karlsson visits the On Tap exhibition at the Brewery Tap Gallery in Folkestone to review the first group show by Making Art Work to be held outside its base in Maidstone, Kent. All photos by Fleur Alston.
Making Art Work was started as an initiative for artists in Kent in 2011. The group provides a valuable platform for artists to meet and exchange skills through participatory events. Working under the banner “artist cooperative” the group hosts exhibitions, talks and feedback circles catering for the diverse interest of the participating members who work across ceramics, film making, painting, printmaking sculpture and photography.
On Tap is their first adventure exhibiting as a group outside Maidstone, using the University of the Creative Art’s exhibition space at the Brewery Tap in Folkestone – an old pub converted to a modern gallery space. 20 artists are exhibiting and the exhibition takes a democratic approach to curation that these kinds of organisations usually follow. Each exhibiting member is showing work in dialogue with the gallery’s past as a pub.
The exception of this approach is Camilla Swire who is showing two installation pieces. The first is installed in the toilet and I presume that there was little contestation over this space. Nonetheless Golden Piss Pot is a very ambitious piece, responding to the site in a humorous and inventive way. Swire has installed new plumbing which allows the exhibition visitor to flush the toilet with ale. Thoughts might initially go to Duchamp’s fountain, but the similarities ends with the white porcelain. Golden Piss Pot is about the moment of surprise as ale, not water, is flushed down the toilet as the chain is pulled. This act becomes significant and the installation certainly produces the smell that I imagine would have been present before the pub business went down the drain.
An overwhelming amount of work in the exhibition resonates around the theme of closing pubs. Paula Trower, Jenny Fairweather, Steve McGinn, Sue Batt, Angela Carol Stocker and Catherine Sibley all reflect over the situation of closing pubs. As does Chris F Clark’s Haven/Heaven One, Haven/Heaven Two, Haven/Heaven Three. Her collages evoke memories of yesterday’s ‘old school drinking dens’ which has given way to ‘the stench of haute cuisine and organic tartar sauce’.
Fleur Alston is exhibiting a photographs of a pub table as it might look after a drinking session. This mundane scene initially seems insignificant. But Alston’s photograph captures an essence of British culture and the scene is a relevant residue of what we consider to be British social life. The pub table with its reference to still life begins to function as a metaphor for a disappearing pub culture.
In Galbraith & Woodberry’s sound installation The Bitter Truth recent pub closures is debated from a political perspective. Jargon that you can imagine hearing around the bar in your local on a Thursday night is looped and I imagine that the recordings were made in pub around the corner from the exhibition. The prospect of bringing ‘the locals’ back into The Brewery Tap is quite exciting. But unfortunately the statements fail to deliver a sense of genuine public opinion; they are missing the conversational element.
The disappearance of the British pub dominates this exhibition. But the potency of the subject might be better communicated with fewer and more considered and well researched works. Yet as I walk around the exhibition I appreciate that the closure of the pub has provided an opportunity for these artists to exhibit. A venue such as The Brewery Tap allows us to experience art and participate in exchange, debate and interaction not dissimilar to the social context of the pub.
Pub games and interactivity is evoked in Siobhan Timoney’s work Snug, which invites the gallery visitors to sing songs and tell stories by suspending laminated sheets with lyrics from the ceiling. Ruth Payne’s work Aunt Sally suggests that the visitors wear a constraining knitted garment, supposedly to be knocked down like in the traditions pub game ‘Aunt Sally’. These works revolve around a significant aspect of the pub and its function to engage conversations, play and exchange. The works illustrate rather than reflect on the practise of pub games. The undertone of Angela Wooi performance piece is morbid, sarcastic and rather appealing. The gin and biscuit dispensing machine adds an interactive element to the show but it could really do with some more space in the exhibition as well as Wooi’s presence.
Veronica Tonge’s work The Pub Witness is a memorial to the death of 160 people who died when a pub in Folkestone was bombed during the First World War. The work illustrates a moment when enjoyment turned to tragedy. Next to it Elizabeth Burman Smith exhibits a collection of items that has ‘influenced an aesthetic thread’ of her printmaking practise. Memory Box IX is a delicate cabinet of curiosities that takes us back to Smith’s childhood accompanying her parents in the pub. The items include bits of rolled up wallpaper, pins, old photographs and labels displayed in a wooden box. The box has been opened up and placed on a plinth. It is as though Smith keeps her most precious items inside of this box. Despite being a collection of seemingly worthless items, the approach to carefully show the items in a closable box make them seem priceless and important, connecting the memory and object to social history and creativity.
Pub naming conventions are up for inspection in Claire Manning’s work To fold no.02 (The Queen’s Head). The work The Drunken Duck reflects on the same theme and the artist statement for this work tells the story of how a pub in Barns Gate got its name. The work illustrates the story of a pub landlady who knitted jackets for her drunk, featherless ducks. Pub names reflect aspects of British life and both of these works refer back to the tradition of using and image as well as a written sign in the pub sign for punters unable to read.
Both Camila Swire and Julia Groves use the hop plant in their work. These works reflect Kentish hop farming culture. Swire has in her work planted two East Kent Golding hop plants inside the gallery, letting them climb up towards the ceiling. Like her other work, Golden Piss Pot, Noble East Kent Golding takes a playful approach to installation. The work highlights the hop plans elegant, delicate and mesmerising shape. Placing it inside of the gallery space Swire allows us to contemplate the shape and beauty of the plant. Groves’s work is equally delicate. She has placed individual dried hop petals onto a square plane of glass, framed this piece has a sculptural and three-dimensional presence, resembling a collection of butterflies or a botanical archive. Both these works are simple in their execution, but it is the simplicity that becomes the strength of the work. It is appealing to imagine these works fill the whole space as an investigation of Kentish Hop farming culture.
While the show is contained under banner of ‘the pub’ this is problematic in places. While the exhibition captures the essence of the British pub, for some participating artists the idea of site responsive seems to have taken the artists outside of their practise and revealed limitations. The limited space in the gallery mean that there are far too many works in the space and that few of the works are able to be seen properly. Nonetheless, both The Brewery Tap and Making Art Work provide vital opportunities for emerging artists to make investigative work, displayed to a wide, provincial audience.
This review was first publish on www.a-n.co.uk at On Tap Review.