THE UNDERCROFT – ART, SPACE AND POWER

by Laura Potts

Artistic culture and practice has changed drastically over the past few centuries. From Renaissance painting and its high-minded focus on aesthetic and documentary purpose, to the eruption of absurdist Dada work in 1915, to the stark political statements of much modern art. The aesthetics of art and its chosen themes are not the only thing that has changed though; the spaces where we encounter art have also transformed.

The first alternative use of spaces was seen in the 1960s and ‘70s as a revolt against the prevalence of the ‘white cube’ exhibition space. The white cube gallery setting can be daunting, and does not offer connectivity between the viewer and the artwork. The often conceptual work of modern artists investigating alternative spaces allowed for the exploration of space itself and how it can interact with art to enhance or inhibit it. This was vital to properly convey the weighty concepts and ideas of those works; if they were to be exhibited in a prestigious white gallery space, their message would be rendered redundant. A work discussing the capitalist grasp of modern art dealership displayed in a setting traditionally associated with the wealth of the art world is little more than a sad irony. The white cube gallery is becoming outdated as art investigates aspects of modern life outside of aesthetics, exploring the overlapping social, political and artistic fields to act toward change.

The use of alternative spaces and exhibition styles gives more people access to art

In street art came another wave of creativity that not only made art more publicly focused but fundamentally rethought the concept of gallery-worthy artwork. Although often seen as a modern phenomenon, graffiti and street art can be traced back to prehistoric stone paintings and cave carvings, visual methods of documenting a way of existence. Modern day street art serves a similar purpose, visually and publicly documenting the lives of individuals and historical happenings. This, more public art, is a signifier of expression and is often closely intertwined with the popular culture of the time.

The use of alternative spaces and exhibition styles gives more people access to art and its themes or messages. Although technology can often hinder the arts through excessive reproduction and the desensitisation of the viewer, the trend to accessibility has hyperextended in the internet age, with the availability of artwork and art criticism online broadening audiences further than ever. Technological progress has woven into the notion of alternative spaces, with virtual spaces providing an alternative to physical ones, and a subsequent emergence of alternative platforms within the virtual world.

One local example of an alternative gallery setting is Norwich’s Undercroft. This relatively new space (opened 2013) is located underneath the war memorial at the top of the distinctive city market in an underground space once used as a store for market traders. Many people don’t even realise it is there.

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The entrance to The Art of Revolution at the Undercroft. Credit: Laura Potts

The Undercroft is currently hosting ‘The Art of Revolution’, the third independent exhibition organized and curated by Russian artist Gennadiy Ivanov. From the outstanding paintings to the colouration of the space, the exhibition is visually striking and politically loaded. The entrance was draped with red material, supporting a fluorescent sign of the word ‘Revolution’. The contrasts between this kind of modern decor and the age of the underground space remarks on the ongoing nature of the issues presented therein, even though the exhibition primarily explores historical events. The almost chaotic organisation of the space gave the exhibition a Dada feel, offering overwhelming masses of information regarding the subject matter of the work and also the historical context that they were produced in or in response to. ‘The Art of Revolution’ aims to feed into public opinion and educate for political change, and its use of space aligns powerfully with this aim.

These sorts of exhibitions often use alternative spaces to spread their message more effectively, and to a wider audience. The use of more varied spaces allows art to spread publicly and raise awareness of many major issues. Locating art in new and different places shifts the balance of power away from the hierarchy of art dealership and back to us, the artists, art lovers, and ordinary citizens.

The following artists participated in ‘The Art of Revolution’: Alexandra Blythe, Andrew Jay, Andy Hornett, Deanna Tyson, Gennadiy Ivanov, Frances Martin, Helen Wells, John Sparks, Julia Cameron, Linda Johnson, Martin Swan, Monika Wesselmann, Natasha Day, Peter Offord, Richard Cleland, Rob Bellman, Robert Nairn, Simon Marshall, Sophia Shuvalova, Tanya Goddard, Viv Castleton, Sue Law, Glenn Goring. 

Featured image adapted from Pixabay


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