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Thinking outside The Box (Crafts Magazine)

All copy as provided to the publication.
Photo credits: The Box

Making It | The Box, Plymouth

From 29 September 2020 | Reviewed by Katie Treggiden

I went to school just up the road from what is now the Box. On a bad day, I would sneak out at lunch time and climb the stairs to what was then the City Museum and Art Gallery, slip between its imposing doors and sit in a hushed gallery in front of one particular painting: a rendition in oil of a stormy sea, hanging in a gilded frame. It provided a sort of balm.

Stepping through the sliding glass doors of the Box more than 20 years later could not feel more different, and not just because the redeveloped building is now home to 2 million objects, from archival records, film and photography to furniture, texts and paintings from multiple collections and institutions, as well as the artworks and natural history I grew up with. Surrounded by the echoes of noisy children, 13 monumental ship figureheads depicting men and women from cultures all over the world hang defiantly in the atrium, speaking of Plymouth’s maritime history and global connections. ‘King Billy’ – a 13ft tall, two-tonne figure of William IV carved in 1833 – stands proudly above the welcome desk, his toe poking through a specially created hole in the glass balustrade. Each one of these figureheads has been painstakingly restored, returning them to their 18th- and 19th-century glory. With as much as 90% of some pieces suffering from wood rot, it’s no wonder the project won a Museums + Heritage Award, celebrating both the traditional craft skills and the cutting-edge technologies, such as sonic tomography, used in their repair.

But the figureheads speak about more than simply craft or even traditional views of their histories. ‘They start conversations about Britain’s colonial history, about how gender and race are represented, and about all the histories that are becoming part of contemporary discourse,’ says curator Terah Walkup. ‘They are a magnificent way to cue people up for what their experience here is going to be like.’

In another bold statement of what’s to come, Eva Grubinger’s Fender is a ‘ready-made’ sculpture that forms part of a multi-site exhibition entitled Making It. Craft historians often cite the appearance of ready-mades in the art world (specifically Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ – a mass produced urinal signed by the artist) as the moment that art and craft parted ways. But here, the giant fender in black vulcanised rubber – once used to prevent ships in the dockyard from bumping up against one another – celebrates Plymouth’s history as a city of seafaring makers. By taking it out of context and dropping it onto a polished concrete floor – where children hurtling past cause it to gently rock back and forth revealing its surprising light weight – the Austrian artist is opening Plymothians’ eyes to something they see every day. ‘Ships navigate the world’s seas and their first contact with Plymouth is one of protection,’ says Walkup. ‘Objects made for use can also connect with contemporary dialogues about politics, people, our relationships with each other and the world around us.’

Much of Making It is off-site. Antony Gormley’s 22-block cast iron figure, Look II, overlooks the point on West Hoe Pier where Sir Francis Chichester landed in 1967 as the first and fastest person to sail single-handed around the world by the clipper route. Leonor Antunes’ fused glass window is permanently installed over the road at St Luke’s – a deconsecrated church and former library and bookbindery (Crafts, September/October 2020). Ship of Fools, Nigerian-American contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley’s film portraying of a group of young Black men at sea, struggling to reach the land, asks questions about what it means – and what it takes – to ‘make it’ throughout centuries of systemic racism. This installation is at the Levinsky Gallery within the University of Plymouth and the split location approach seems a shame, because it makes it difficult to take the exhibition in as a whole, but it does enable the artworks to connect with people who might not otherwise venture into an art gallery.

Back inside the Box, Brazilian artist Alexandre da Cunha’s Figurehead II is another ready-made sculpture. A stack of four sewer pipes in prefabricated concrete, standing almost 20ft tall, references the much-maligned post-war architecture of the city, while drawing attention to the building itself. The diameter of the structure fits perfectly within a decorative circle in the original floor tiling and the holes punched into its sides offer new vistas of the Edwardian interior. ‘I like seeing people do what I call the “museum dance,” as they bend backwards to look up into this space,’ says Walkup – children climbing in and out of the sculpture’s openings as she speaks.

The Box has taken Plymouth’s City Museum and Art Gallery, Central Library and St Luke’s Church and turned them inside out. What was once the trade entrance on a back alley is now a glorious glass-fronted atrium, opening onto a pedestrianised street. Chronological placement of traditional artworks has been replaced with bold curatorial decisions, such as arranging a series of landscapes of Plymouth geographically, putting Beryl Cook right alongside the Old Masters. The single narrative of old has been replaced by a cacophony of voices, each vying for its rightful place in history. And the stories being told put Plymouth proudly at their heart – taking credit for the good and responsibility for the bad – but never understating the role that this maritime city has played in global history. I am keenly aware of the privilege that enabled me to walk up those austere stairs, slip in through those imposing doors and find solace in a hushed gallery at just 17 years old. I hope a broader segment of society will come into this noisy space, filled with its diversity of stories about craft and making in Plymouth, and find more than just solace. In the same way that Eva Grubinger’s Fender encourages visitors to see something utterly familiar and really look at it for the first time, I hope the Box encourages people to reassess Plymouth’s history, its place in the world, and all those who made it happen.

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