The Stuff of Life: The Life of Stuff

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Interior of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, UK.

I am in my home town of Norwich, UK. One of the jewels of this fine city is The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. It’s a very cool place. It was built in 1978 to make accessible the stunning and eclectic collection of paintings, ceramics, sculptures and African masks belonging to Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. The Centre’s current exhibition “Planet for Our Future: The Stuff of Life / The Life of Stuff” is a must-see. This is master-class creativity in photography, video and installation. It succeeds in its objective of urging the visitor “to consider the global challenges of pollution, environmental destruction, and climate change.”

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El Anatsui “Freedom” Reclaimed bottle tops and copper wire (2021)

My co-visitor is Roger Bunting (who knows about art.) “I don’t think it’ll be easy on the eye” he says. He’s right, as usual. I am nevertheless unprepared for images and concepts powerful enough to whip my trotting eco-awareness into a galloping eco-concern. Deep in the exhibition space, I am stopped in my tracks by El Anatsui’s “Freedom.” Thousands of bottle tops scavenged from European waste exported to Nigeria are flattened and stitched together with copper wire.

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The “who,” “what,” “where” “when” and “how” of this beautiful stuff are clear. The “why” is made evident by the position of “Freedom” in the exhibition: in the section entitled “The Politics of Reclamation.”

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Maarten Vanden Eynde “Check Mate” Board and nurdles (2020 ongoing)

Maarten Vanden Eynde’s “Check Mate” is inspired by the story of the crafty king who commands his daughter’s suitor to put a grain of rice on the first square of a chess board. On the next day the king demands two grains on the second square. On the third day, four grains on the third square and so on. Each day, the number of grains on each successive square doubles. Of course, by day sixty four, the load of rice on the last square would represent all the rice grown in the world for several years. Here, Vanden Eynde replaces the grains of rice with “nurdles.” I learn a nurdle is a plastic pellet retrieved from a beach. (There really is a single nurdle on the first square!) 

Did you notice the 2020 “Ongoing“? The nurdles are crowd sourced from beaches all over the world. Anyone can hand in their nurdles at the exhibition. When enough are collected, the next square will be piled high with the requisite number. This is a fabulously elegant statement about the widespread production and use of plastics and their increasingly evident environmental consequences.

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Elias Sime “Tightrope: Secured” Reclaimed electrical wires (2021)

Roger drifts off to find more stuff. Elias Sime’s “Tightrope: Secured” catches his discerning eye. “Oi!” he calls to me. “Take a look at this!” The room’s vigilant attendant makes a kind of cautionary throat-clearing noise.

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Each panel of “Tightrope: Secured” is made from the compression of thousands of braided wires ripped from redundant computers that are exported to Ethiopia from all over the world. The effect reminds me of a microscopic image of the intersection of white and grey brain matter. How appropriate for such an exhibition in 2023 – the year in which we all wake up to the fact that artificial intelligence is and will forever be a part of our lives!

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Romuald Hazoumè “Mariama” (2019), “Avatar” (2022) and Deco (2022) Found objects

Roger and I share a fascination for African masks. We’ve never found a totally adequate explanation of their meaning, especially those with the hooty-astonished round mouths. Inevitably, what Romuald Hazoumè from Benin has created from found objects catches our attention. In the context of this exhibition, the meaning of these “masks” is clear: plastic waste collides with the deepest aspects of African culture. But we are both laughing. Is this because the same building houses an exquisite and priceless collection of the real McCoy? Or is it because – as intended by the curators of this exhibition – us (white-rich-european-and-now-embarrassed) visitors are finally forced to ask ourselves if we really know what happens to stuff we chuck out?

Emrys Parry at Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich

Norwich. My home town. There are places here that carry enduring attraction. The castle. The cathedral. Elm Hill. Mandell’s Gallery. They’re all a long way from the spiritual home of Emrys Parry in Northern Wales.

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Emrys Parry “Man with dog” Mixed media 20cm x 12cm.

The first of Parry’s images that draws me in is deceptively simple. A man – a little worried and looking directly at the viewer – holds a dog in both arms. The lines are economically and elegantly painted on and cut out from a page of a Norwich telephone directory. The numbers make a digital column that runs down through both man and dog giving the impression that they are so close that their DNA is shared. I find this small picture at once touching, intriguing and satisfying.

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Emrys Parry “Land of my fathers” Mixed media 25cm x 25cm.

Another telephone-directory-man sings looking heavenward. The background is a stylised landscape comprising trees, a winding road and three mountains.

I learn that Parry left Wales in 1959 at the age of 17 to study Art and Design in Leicester. In 1963, he began a Norfolk-based teaching career at the Great Yarmouth School of Art and Design. However, he admits he has never severed the umbilical cord of his Welsh upbringing and the land of his fathers: the three-peaked Llyn Peninsula.

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Emrys Parry “Black bird with script” Oil on canvas 50cm x 50cm.

Parry’s recent work relies less on observation and more on memory, myth and story-telling; it reflects a longing for his roots and a concern for the survival of Welsh culture. The Welsh language names eight three-hour intervals of a day. These eight words are found in many of his pictures. I wonder if the swooping black crow of time is, little-by-little, stealing away these words forever.

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Emrys Parry “Frightened horse” Oil on Canvas 40cm x 40cm.

I am enjoying Parry’s beautiful stuff enormously. Here, his wonderful nearly-abstract-frightened-horse-nod-to-cubism is within neighing distance of the three Llyn Peninsula peaks.

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Emrys Parry “Twelve heads” Mixed media on canvas 100cm x 100cm.

The work that I really fall for has pride of place in Mandell’s. Twelve telephone-directory faces are painted in Parry’s signature dashed-cartoon style. Each man stares through me with intensity. Each seems like a good bloke. Is this a Welsh all- male choir? Welsh apostles? Twelve solid Welsh working men? A Welsh rugby team (minus the back row)? Whatever their purpose, these men are clearly united.

The ever-welcoming director of Mandell’s, Rachel Allen, deserves praise for this stylish exhibition. Each work has been beautifully framed and presented including a display of Parry’s exquisite sketchbooks and diaries.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to meet Emrys Parry himself. The most telling part of his bio reads “I am interested in the imprint of man on his environment and how past thoughts and actions of individuals are recorded and transmitted by the objects they leave behind. I believe that things created with love have a memory and warmth which is accessible to those who seek it for all time.” Evidently, he also is a good bloke. But I know that anyway; he taught my brother, Garth, how to draw!

Damien Hirst’s take on Human Anatomy

I stroll through the Norwich University of the Arts. A massive skinned, dissected figure outside the St George’s building stops me in my tracks. Bells from my anatomist past are jangling. Is this now the Norwich School of Medicine?

Damien Hirst’s take on Human Anatomy

Damien Hirst “Hymn” Bronze, 2000

I ask at the reception desk what this is about. “Oh!” the nice lady replies with just a hint of condescension, “That’s Damien Hirst!” Ah!…. Silly me! I should have known. I learn that, unsurprisingly, the 7 metre high Hymn (play-on-words “Him”) caused controversy when first displayed. Is it “art”? (Pushing the boundaries etc. Same old!) Furthermore, it was claimed to be a direct copy of a 25cm educational toy; this resulted in a quiet financial settlement. Nevertheless, Hirst came out of it well by selling the sculpture to Charles Saatchi for £1 million.

Armed with this information I go back out onto the street and regard Hymn anew. With this sculpture, Hirst has within a few minutes taken me from curious to a bit embarrassed and then to intrigued. On knowing the provenance of Hymn, I then find myself admiring both the work and the concept. I ask myself if progressing through these mental steps is precisely what Hirst intended the viewer’s experience to involve. Whatever, he plays on our squeamish fascination for things scientific, forensic, visceral and medical and does so on a monumental and intimidating scale. This confrontation makes unavoidable the realisation that “Those are my insides!”

My last thought is: yes, Damien Hirst does it again whatever “it” may be. But then I’m sure that he couldn’t possibly give a damn what I think.