a couple of weeks ago i visitied birmingham for the first time, or at least the first time properly. my previous experiences of the city were a few changes in the depressing underground labyrinth of new street station, and an exciting if ultimately fruitless trip to villa park. here was a city that i actually knew very little about, despite it being one of the biggest in the country. so here was an opportunity over a few days to work out what birmingham actually is, what makes this supposed second city tick?
i’ll start with the good. in terms of place specific cultural experiences, the pen room is one of the finest museums i have been to in a while. whilst walking through the jewellery quarter (which is definitely still full of sparkling things) a tourist information sign for a pen museum was exactly the kind of thing that would turn my head. the pen room opens with a bold claim, that at the height of the city’s industrial output three quarters of everything written in the world used a pen from birmingham. big talk. whilst i have no means available to me to even begin to verify this, i can confirm that there are lots of different pens in this place. more pens that i have ever seen in my life. i had a go at making a steel pen nib. i wrote my name in braille. i looked at lots of pens. a hugely enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteer provided a bridging point and means of engaging with a pretty overwhelming collection, and thus showed the importance of places like this. if cities and communities are to retain a grip on their cultural and social past, then places like this need to be supported. if you are ever in birmingham i really do suggest heading to the pen room, and make sure to leave a donation to support their work.
from pens, to art. ikon gallery had always been one of those names that i knew, but couldn’t see a time that i would be able to visit. before considering the exhibitions within, the gallery building is marvelous. housed in a converted neo-gothic school, ikon makes great use of its space. in particular, the glass lift inside the building does a great job of presenting the interior of the space; it does that showing you the outside of a building but on the inside trick that i always gawp at (see also the great court at the british museum and john rylands library). the lift also has the added extra of housing one of martin creed’s sound installations, which was a welcome treat as just a week earlier i had failed to find his similar work at the festival hall. i digress.
the three display spaces in the gallery work really well, set across two and a bit floors. in terms of the work on display, timur noviko’s fabric works capture perestroika-era soviet life in a way that i’ve never thought about it before, and his seven pictures on rice paper, produced after the artist had gone blind, are simple, beautiful and inspiring. on the first floor a collection of john flaxman’s sketches are aesthetically interesting, but i’ll admit don’t do a huge amount for me. they are very well displayed though.
however, the space that interested me most in ikon is the ‘tower room.’ currently home to a video installation by/of the angolan artist nastio mosquito, this room seems to exist outside of the rest of the gallery spaces, in a nowhere ground between the first and second floors. from studying the building from the outside you can see where the tower fits in, yet it somehow felt like it was in a different place to me once inside. i’d be really interested to see other uses of this room, as whether it can live up to the title it has been given.
from ikon i drift towards the heart of civic birmingham. the town hall (where i would later see steve reich and the london sinfonietta perform within beautiful surroundings) proudly sits next to the council house and birmingham museum and art gallery. these are big buildings, built by industrialist proud of their city. i pick up shades of leeds here, overblown and unabashed grandstanding in civic terms. the victoria square into chamberlain square run of public space is really well done, and features everything you expect of a regenerated city centre – large scale buildings set around a modern sculpture and/or water feature, and the remains of sculptures which used to dominate the space but are now somewhat overlooked. not necessarily a criticism, certainly not when you consider the issues of public/private spaces in this city (more on that later).
the entrance to the museum and art gallery houses a memorial which i think capture the essence of the boom in museum culture and its civilising aims – by the gains of industry we promote art. you do the hard work, and here we will educate you. on walking up the stairs you are punched in the face by the grandure of the round room, a vast space crammed with paintings on pretty much every available point of the walls which reach upwards to the high domed ceiling. this is a fantastic entry point, and shows something of the respect with which the elders of birmingham past viewed their cultural duties.
with limited time in the gallery, i soaked up the wonderful collection of modern british art which included some brilliant examples of lanyon, heron, hepworth, moore and epstein. there is also a great display from new art west midlands, the highlights of which were grace a williams’ work on notions of photography and art, and lizzie prince’s drawings inspired by brutalist geometry.
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what of birmingham the city though? there are signs of interesting things happening culturally, though i would also note that in the little time i was there i didn’t feel like there was any kind of coherent arts scene, in a way that manchester, sheffield, leeds, nottingham and liverpool have. there are signs of interesting architectural conversations trying to happen around the city, especially with the new library building which i will definitely want to see once it is topped out. however, the overarching feeling i left the city with was one of unease at being constantly ‘managed’ through spaces. pretty much every journey on foot through the city is forced to wind through an enclosed private space, be it the icc’s deluge of conference rooms, the premiere retail experience of the mailbox, the confusion of corporate non-identity of the cube or paradise forum shopping centre. there is a cloying sense of paranoia that is enforced on you as a pedestrain, knowing that you are merely walking from the view of one cctv control room to another, becoming another footfall on a visitor counter whilst being subjected to piped sound and recycled air. birmingham is by no means alone in this approach of managing public/private space, just take a walk through liverpool one or wakefield’s trinity walk to get the same experience. as someone who loves exploring cities and discovering their identity through their streets, what i learnt about birmingham is that it is more interested in commerce than retaining a coherent city identity. which maybe is exactly what the identity of the city is; commerce, conferences and chain coffee.