Despite Ambitious Program, Art Sheffield 2016 Is Hampered by Indifference

Has the city given up on the festival?

Pat Hearn and Shelley Lake Seizure, (1980). Stills from VHS, Photo: courtesy of The Kitchen Gallery.
Pat Hearn and Shelley Lake Seizure, (1980). Stills from VHS,
Photo: courtesy of The Kitchen Gallery.
Installation View of Richard Sides at 121 Eyre Street. <br>Photo: Jules Lister; Courtesy Art Sheffield.

Installation View of Richard Sides at 121 Eyre Street.
Photo: Jules Lister; Courtesy Art Sheffield.

As a themed group show dispersed around a metropolis, Art Sheffield 2016 is an exhibition not only of contemporary art, but also, alas, of a range of issues that can bedevil such enterprises.

An art-fest of manageable proportions, it extends to eleven solos, one duo, and a video show initially spread between 13 sites. On Thursday lunchtime there was also a program of sound works at storied local gig venue The Leadmill. The balance of artists is well enough judged, with a sprinkling of more familiar names—Charles Atlas, Steven Claydon, Paul Sietsema—livening up a list of the less known and recently reappraised.

Some of the festival venues are spectacular, notably the Brutalist Moore Street Electricity Substation, and 19th century Portland Works (home, here, to Florian Hecker’s sound work Hinge). Others—such as the warehousing behind a one-time-funeral parlour at 121 Eyre Street—are distinctly abject. A mere three days into the festival, quite an alarming number were simply shut. This, with apologies, is thus only a partial review of Art Sheffield (an Art Sheff review, if you will).

Installation view of Mark Fell at The Link Pub. Photo: Jules Lister; Courtesy Art Sheffield.

Installation view of Mark Fell at The Link Pub.
Photo: Jules Lister; Courtesy Art Sheffield.

Claydon’s Infra-idol Assembly is, by some distance, the standout work of the festival. Robustly installed beneath the roof of Moore Street Substation, it occupies a dimly lit concrete space that could comfortably accommodate a football pitch. The resting ambience alone provokes horripilation, but Claydon rises to the location. Infra-idol Assembly’s video element is a projection of a nano stick figure animation made at IBM, showing a humanoid form picked out in individual atoms. Its sound is a suspended sheet of Sheffield steel wired up as a plate reverb unit through which a sequence of atom sound samples and computer poetry are mixed and amplified.

The arrangement of the two elements feels both devotional and disquieting; both the space and the work within it occupy a loomy and threatening scale. The steel plate is a nod back to the old world of industry; the animated atom figure a totem of things to come.

Steven Claydon, IBM from the development of A Boy and his Atom.

Steven Claydon, IBM from the development of A Boy and his Atom.

Claydon’s work is one of only a few that chime on a meaningful level with Art Sheffield’s titular theme, which draws inspiration from quarks (the elementary particles not the cheese): a hefty and rather obscure subject with which to saddle a festival that only has the scope to commissioning three new works. Given the festival’s dedication to moving image and sound (which is perhaps theme enough) to make its fundamental proposition the stuff of physical matter seems particularly rum.

000998146horizontalpanningemptyfashi_prores/böhmondialoguech5 is the unpronounceable title of a work by Anna Barham, who makes discomforting incursions into our understanding of the integrity of “stuff.” Barham inserted a passage of text by quantum physicist David Böhm into the coding of a jpeg image. The corrupted image quivers, jumps, and reverberates nervously and emits sounds that Barham amplifies to resemble a heavy club bassline—signalling disruption of a different kind.   

Still from Duvet Brothers, Virgin,1985 Photo: Courtesy the artists and LUX

Still from Duvet Brothers, Virgin,1985
Photo: Courtesy the artists and LUX

Continuing the club theme is a diverting compilation of “Scratch” video works. Anarchic experimental re-edits of footage often recorded from the TV onto VHS, Scratch video was associated with club culture of the mid 1980s. These mashups of pulp TV and news footage with music of the era remain a heady combination, and one aesthetically evocative of an era of informal DIY creativity.

A few doors down, Paul Sietsema’s Abstract Composition (2014) examines the nature of objects with descriptive phrases drawn from eBay punched onto a rotating sheet of CGI “cardboard.” This digital animation is projected as 35mm film on a cumbersome device that makes the physical properties of the projection mechanism as prominent within the space as the film.

Richard Sides, installation view of <i>The Mechanical Garden and Other Long Encores (with Ben Burgis, Stuart Middleton &amp; Naomi Pearce), </i>2014. <br /> Photo: Michael Heilgemeir / The Woodmill.</i>

Richard Sides, installation view of The Mechanical Garden and Other Long Encores (with Ben Burgis, Stuart Middleton & Naomi Pearce), 2014.
Photo: Michael Heilgemeir / The Woodmill.

Richard Sides’s Infinite War sidesteps both the theme and the media restrictions of the festival and has a great deal of fun in doing so. There is film here, but it’s perhaps the least compelling element in a creepy installation that includes lowering doorways, semi-covered corpses and a number of suspicious looking packages.

Charles Atlas’s 2011 Painting By Numbers is a three-screen animated “dance” choreographed from apparent strings of code to create an immersive vision of a world built of numbers. Shown alongside earlier experiments made with Merce Cunningham, Painting was alas locked in an unattended room. Access was granted alongside a maintenance team apparently measuring the space for carpet. Left unattended, one channel of Painting By Numbers was limping along sadly out of sync.

Pat Hearn and Shelley Lake <i>Seizure,</i> (1980). Stills from VHS, <br>Photo: courtesy of The Kitchen Gallery.

Pat Hearn and Shelley Lake Seizure, (1980). Stills from VHS,
Photo: courtesy of The Kitchen Gallery.

This was the first of a total five sites out of 13 that were closed and unattended. In some, kindly souls from neighboring enterprises opened doors and switched on lights. In one case, having accessed a space via a back-route, I ended up following the instructions left out for the absent invigilator and turning a piece on myself.

This drop-out rate suggests a number of possible causes, one being an underlying belief that no one is likely to turn up to see the work, and that it doesn’t much matter either way if they do. The other is a lack of “community” sensibility in those working with the festival, and the suggestion that they don’t feel invested or engaged with it on a meaningful level.

While much has been made of curator Martin Clark’s local connection (he studied Fine Art in the city and curated at S1 Artspace), it is hard not to feel that somewhere along the line there has been a disconnect, between the intentions of the festival, its execution, and day to day running. A shame in a city that has in recent history—as a number of the festival’s cooperatively run venues can testify—distinguished itself in the harnessing of community power.

Art Sheffield, Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange and Charm” is on view from April 16 – May 8


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