Stuart Whipps’ new exhibition at Ikon, Birmingham is a medley of archival pieces, ancient photography techniques and new digital media and it’s fascinating too. It pushes all the right buttons for me – it’s intellectual, historical and strives to preserve images of the past while asking the audience what beauty is to them.
The first piece we come to is a two channel video installation titled England and the Octopus, Beauty and the Beast. Both films focus on different parts of Snowdonia; the first takes place on a constructed viewing platform for a waterfall, a ‘beauty spot’ by definition, whilst the second explores Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town deemed to have “insufficient natural beauty” to be included in Snowdonia – despite being right in the centre of it. The films question what is beautiful and why – are we predisposed to see something as beautiful because it’s labelled as such?
The second channel takes the audience through the hills and valleys surrounding Blaenau Ffestiniog and down into the slate mines which scar it, and is narrated by the soothing voice of a Welsh woman. The piece is saturated with historical references – the script she speaks is in fact a Welsh translation of a text written by Clough Williams-Ellis, the architect who chose to exclude the village from Snowdonia and which directs the working classes on the ‘right way’ to experience beauty.
The title of the show, Why contribute to the spread of ugliness?, is also that of Whipps’ second piece – three projectors display a combination of Whipps’ own photography and stills of 487 boxes of archived paperwork from the John Madin Design Group, which was given to the Birmingham Central Library and which the group itself designed. As the library is currently awaiting demolition, this archive is soon to be homeless so Whipps is working with others to organise and save these images which encapsulate 1970s Birmingham.
Without the work of Whipps, not only would Madin’s construction be lost, but his archives too: the exhibition reveals a compulsion to preserve places, images and items which other people have simply disregarded and disposed of.
Stuart Whipps is on NOW at Ikon until the 5th Feb 2011!