EXHIBITIONS Considering the art of construction
Caruso St John's new Walsall Art Gallery, an eroded tower clad in pale terracotta tiles, is now a substantial presence on the town's skyline. Construction will be completed this coming spring, with the opening scheduled for autumn 1999. While the project has progressed, a number of artists have been documenting it, interpreting it, or contributing to the long-term look of the building and its site. This exhibition, in the gallery's current cramped quarters, displays some of their work.
The show is largely based on the assumption that construction sites are in themselves visually rewarding - which, of course, is frequently the case. As Robert Smithson remarked, they are often more interesting than the end product; in this instance, however, a tour of the incomplete building only increases one's high expectations of the finished work.
Gary Kirkham has been photographing the construction process from the beginning. A chronological series of his images - a straightforward record of what amounts to major urban change - is hung up the stairs on the way to the exhibition. Inside the gallery he has more scope for subjectivity, with three large back-lit colour photographs: spare near-abstractions that isolate rectangles of concrete wall and their superimposed geometry of pipes and scaffolding. Inscribed on the smooth streaked concrete are chalk messages, calculations and diagrams, and the pressure of this white writing varies - here decisive, fainter there. As a consequence the surface is almost akin to a Cy Twombly painting.
Helene Binet provided the impressive photographs for Peter Zumthor Works (aj 3.9.98) and earlier produced a beautiful small book on Libeskind's Jewish Museum, Berlin. Her prints of the Walsall Art Gallery, in her preferred black-and-white, have a lustre and tonal subtlety that captures the fall of light in the concrete shell. A sky-reflecting pool appears amid the foundations; a gaping oblong, awaiting glazing, frames one of the views that will punctuate visitors' routes around the building.
Other participants in 'site' include Alex Hartley, who attempts to turn his construction shots into an autonomous art work by incorporating them in a much enlarged, wall-size slide wallet - the Claes Oldenburg treatment. If this is witty it is only a one-liner. More engaging is Sean Dower's peep-show: a rudimentary model of the gallery in which blank walls on all four sides and several levels are studded with stereoscopic viewers giving multiple 3D views of construction scenes within. This model is an invitation to discovery (as the gallery itself, offering calculated glimpses of its interior from the surrounding streets, clearly also hopes to be).
The people who have been building the gallery aren't forgotten; Ming de Nasty has been photographing all of them and three portraits are hung here - 'computer-manipulated' but not at the expense of the workers' humanity. Nor is the larger site forgotten. The project includes the creation of a new square on which the artist Richard Wentworth is collaborating with Kinnear Landscape Architects (aj 4.6.98). Wentworth's photographs of road surfaces and markings, underscored by a series of clipped questions - 'Can warnings be decorative? Can decoration be a warning? Is decoration measurement?' - prod us to rethink the everyday.
site certainly whets the appetite, and suggests a parallel. Zumthor's recent Kunsthaus has brought Bregenz international attention (and had many people reaching for an atlas); for Walsall, Caruso St John's new art gallery looks set to do the same.
There are tours of the new gallery while construction continues, particularly during Architecture Week, 12-19 November. Details Claire McDade, tel: 01922 653116