BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 03 MAR 00
Featured in
Issue 51

To Be Continued

BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 03 MAR 00

The New Art Gallery, Walsall, is the largest new art gallery to open outside London, hoovering up £21 million of regional aid and lottery cash over the past ten years. Wisely, it opted for an awareness-raising public art programme around the city to announce its arrival - wise because with its Cathedral-like architecture and institution-on-a-hill ambitions the everyday punter could well have been advised to give it a Millennium Dome-style body swerve. It wasn't the only pre-millennial, art-for-regeneration fest around in the West Midlands in 1999 - Bournville ran a parallel exhibition entitled 'In the Midst of Things', but their interventions seemed more targeted to the pith-helmeted art tourist hell-bent on doing anthropological research on something post-industrial and heartlandish. Walsall's 'To Be Continued' was about small, engaged projects, and depended upon co-operation from small businesses - inflection points in the town's life.

Walsall is the home of a pub snack, the 'pork scratching' - a by-product of the leather and tallow industry - which still has a devoted following. Anthony Key collected together a number of regional scratching variations in a hinged wooden case to recapture the sweaty charm of pork exfoliation through the ages, and put it where the art museum used to be - above the town library.

A number of the commissions were dependant on the idea of chance discovery: Jim Lambie's radio programme of psychedelia that you might happen to tune into, or Gary Kirkham's beer mats, which you might find your pint staining. Other artists caught onto the fact that Walsall residents do a lot of walking and pram-pushing. Henrik Plenge Jakobsen painted a fleshy pink mural of the word 'angst' on the side of the town's Age Concern building, in an off-beat site across the street from the town's marriage counselling office. On lamp-posts around the town were Nicky Hirst's paragraphs from Meera Syal's novel about a 60s girlhood, Anita and Me (1996), printed fairly small and at adult reading height. Fiona Banner placed a neon sign with a sentence from one of Epstein's love letters to Walsall art collector Kathleen Garman high over the main street. Jeremy Deller and Ming De Nasty designed shopping bags, some of which celebrated Braque's Bird in Flight (c.1953), which is part of the gallery's permanent collection, while others celebrated local boy Ozzy Osbourne.

Interestingly, Walsall already has a long-established art event, and it's a very big, very deep deal. The Walsall illuminations run for about three weeks every Autumn, and are a kind of geological accretion of cartoonish light works brought out of a blimp hanger somewhere and installed in the gardens at night. This year, alongside Bagpuss and Postman Pat were the Rugrats and some kind of purple brontosaurus-type character called Barney. The vast crowd at the illuminations moved at a slow pace, densely packed between the exhibits, bifurcating around displays of cage dancing by 15 year old girls evidently nervous to the point of queasiness. After an hour of elbow to elbow processing around the tungsten bulb forest, you reached the weirdly-lit Arboretum Lake. This is probably what madness feels like: scrotum-tightening, jittery and almost making sense. No one at this point would have been surprised to find Mr Kurtz and a clearing full of cult devotees. The participation of 'To Be Continued' was a video work by Muf, Associate (1999), which was projected in the park. It recorded startling cross-generational conversations between Walsall kids and nursing home residents on the subject of love: 'How will you know if it's love at first sight? What will it take?'

In a town so committed to the droll stroll, the only false note in 'To Be Continued' was Alan Kane's Walking Tour of Walsall (1999), a thinly veiled Situationist tract telling people how to get out and drift in Walsall, as if, maybe, they had been marooned on a penal asteroid somewhere and didn't know about it.

It's too easy to construct an opposition of unreachable gallery art versus visible and accessible street art, but visible doesn't necessarily mean accessible and bigger doesn't mean accessible either. Hopefully, 'To Be Continued' might get people to the gallery, and there's a great view of the industrial devastation of the town when they get there. At a time when art institutions have to shout to get their audiences, and when you are still less likely to be spoken to than rhetorically bludgeoned by time-serving Blairites and metropolitan fops, 'To Be Continued' was a sparky, transformative project that cut in and out of everyday life.