Published Date: 09 April 2010′
A change of art’ by Rod McPhee
Arts Editor Rod McPhee took a look at how Leeds’s increasing number of empty shops are being filled with eye catching exhibitions.
As curator and project manager, Yvonne Carmichael has spent the last six months organising what must be Leeds’s most unconventional and sporadic forays into the world of arts.
Since December anyone using the city centre will most likely have, at some point, come across one of a string of exhibitions popping up everywhere in the increasing number of vacated stores.Yvonne is co-ordinater of Art in Unusual Spaces, which has not only provided extremely rare space in which to display works but also offered the public a more accessible means of experiencing them.
“The trouble with somewhere like a gallery is that it can be quite an intimidating set up,” she said. “You have lots of stairs and doors and a big entrance and it takes quite a bit to get a lot of people on the outside to come inside. “Whereas with a shop you can just wander in, almost without meaning to – there’s no barrier between the street and the exhibition space and that makes a massive difference to people who might normally feel like a gallery isn’t ‘somewhere for them’.
“As a result we’ve been getting a lot of positive reaction, if not to the art itself then just to the idea. Of course, there’s always going to some people who don’t like it – some seem determined not to like anything.
“But others like the notion that we’re filling an empty shop, in fact some seem pleased to see anything other than a shop in the city centre and what we’ve been trying to do is really scatter the exhibitions in the heart of Leeds so people almost develop a different way of navigating their way around.”
The first two waves of exhibitions – each made up of five or six different displays in various locations – consistently pulled in curious shoppers, office workers and students, not to mention budding artists keen to get in on the act.
And it has all come at the comparatively modest price of £13,000 – a bill met by funding from Leeds City Council, central Government and a contribution from the Arts Council.
This latest round of displays has just started and one of the most interesting, Mama’s Garden, has just been unveiled in The Light shopping centre on The Headrow. It is the perfect example of how the scheme juxtaposes pedestrian locations with leftfield creations.
The venue in this case is the old Eden Park store, a retailer better known for its rather straight, rugby-boy, collegiate clothing. In contrast the new tenant is Mongolian artist Tsendpurev Tsegmid who has used the space to create a horticulturally-inspired shrine to her much-loved mother. Where racks of sweaters and polo T-shirts once stood, Leeds Metropolitan University student Cindy (to use her abbreviated name) has put in place a garden made up of photographs, poems, images and letters which remind her of the parent she has reluctantly left behind on the other side of the world.
“I know it seems a little bit strange doing something so personal but in Mongolia this sort of thing is perfectly normal,” she said. “Back home we really revere our parents and grandparents and writing songs and poems praising them is something we do all the time.
“But now I’ve been in Britain I realise this is quite unusual over here – it’s odd to us that you would show almost more emotion after someone has died than before. So it must seem even stranger to many people to be doing something like this in a shopping centre of all places.
“But that’s one of the things I liked most about being in The Light because I wanted somewhere where my work could get as many members of the public coming in as possible.”
Cindy hand-picked her spot after seeing the Eden Park store was empty. She felt fate was some kind of link between the idea of a park turning into her garden.
And she loved the idea that the busy spot – nestled between shops, restaurants, a hotel and an adjacent multiplex cinema – would not only maximise the number of visitors but broaden the type of visitors.
Cindy said: “A lot of people who might go to what you’d call a conventional gallery might be ‘arty’ types who would go somewhere like that all the time and think nothing of it.
“But the whole point of art should be to reach out to as many people as possible, to what you might call ‘ordinary members of the public’, those who might not normally get the chance to experience any kind of art, or might not consider it anyway.
“I know the recession is a bad thing for most people but, in this respect , at least it’s been a positive thing for people like me – just three years ago I would never have stood a chance of having such a high profile exhibition space.”
And there’s more to come. Next weekend Leeds-based artist Amelia Crouch stages her homage to Leeds’s agricultural and industrial past and has secured no less than the Corn Exchange as her display space.
She will take over the whole of the first floor using a series of giant quotations to explore the ebb and flow of economic and socio-political trends over the last two centuries.
Amelia said: “There will be about 46 A0 sized posters on the door of every unit on the balcony level, some will be big enough to be seen from the ground floor but when you move to just a few feet away there’s more wording which can only be seen close up.
“One of the things I frequently reference are the Corn Laws, the ending of which basically heralded the free trade which we’ve come to see as being normal today, the start of the development of modern marketing and financial facilities.
“And it’s very apt that we explore the notions of the economy, how it’s cyclical and changing, especially at a time like this and in a building like the corn exchange which was born out of that era and has, in itself, experienced different periods of contraction and development.
“I felt really privileged when Yvonne asked me to use the space inside the Corn Exchange, it is a fantastic, unusual venue in which to be given free reign like this.”
Taking place over the same weekend is Floppelgangers, which makes use of the staggering space that is the old TK Maxx store tucked away at the back of the Leeds Shopping Plaza.
Land Securities, who own the shopping centre, have already been particular generous in their participation in the project. Last month they handed over another one of their units in the plaza to art students from Leeds University.
Their latest act of co-operation sees them hand over a floor area covering 22,000 sq feet. It’s a single-level expanse devoid of internal walls or features and a superb blank canvas for this showcase of international contemporary art.
A joint venture with the European Exchange Academy, this will see the whole area taken over by a string of avant garde creations ranging from physical performances to video installations.
And just a week after Floppelganger ends the old TK Maxx will take on another role, albeit a brief one, as it plays host to Cinema Povera, a series of workshops which allows attendees to plunder old film reels and recreate their own maverick movies.
If it all sounds a little too off the wall, then fear not. It’s only the places which are unusual, not all of the art. And as the organisers plan for future ‘waves’ of exhibitions around Leeds, they are keen to attract as many different visitors as possible, not to mention artists.
Yvonne said: “We want to make it clear that we are open to anybody, we will consider any kind of project or work. Although we’ve tried to keep everything quite contemporary and presented some challenging and unusual works, we’ve also tried to show some pieces which are more immediate and accessible too.
“So I can’t stress enough how open we are to an array of different ideas and we’re keen for artists and budding artists to get in touch.”