JHG: Sampling the sampler

In case you didn’t know, Southampton’s new, very long-awaited John Hansard Gallery opened for a week-long Sampler exhibition during the latter half of February, and I was lucky enough to work as an Invigilator for much of it. The photos below give a flavour of the exhibits themselves, but here I want to look at what the Sampler was for.

Firstly, it’s a contemporary art gallery in the middle of the city – so, a wider range of potential visitors than the previous on-campus location, many of whom might not be gallery-goers (yet). For this reason, much of the week focused on public participation and asking people what they want the Gallery to do, what would draw them in, or keep them away. In the foyer, Stair/Slide/Space ran Conversation Station, a selection of components (boards, sheets, ropes etc) that visitors could use to create a space for discussion. Or a den, nest, cave, whatever. It also included a space where questions could be asked, a wish-list drawn up, and points made. On the same floor, Rhona Byrne‘s Huddlehood brought people together in multi-occupant hats and hoodie-cloaks. Not only did this create much merriment, but highlighted an important point; artworks are generally ‘do not touch’ objects. This was a ‘please do touch’ installation designed to be interactive, but is still an artwork than needs to be treated with care. Overshoes and a ‘no shoes’ rule kept the carpet fairly clean, but a few of the Huddlewear items did get damaged, and the ‘yellow room’ did turn into an unofficial creche at times – pretty much impossible to invigilate if parents don’t want to rein in over-excited youngsters. So, how to balance protecting-the-art with encouraging-everyone-and-being-interactive? Not easy, and quite a steep learning curve as a novice Invigilator, but useful to know. The new JHG remains a work-in-progress and these are the aspects that will be thought about before it fully opens in May.

Other exhibits were more hands-off such as Sam Laughlin‘s photographs of the gallery’s construction process (with some wonderfully creative curation, putting the images where they were taken before the walls were plastered and carpets laid), and David Batchelor‘s old-school graph-paper sketches for the city’s P-A-R-A-D-E banners, There was sit-and-absorb video/film art by Hetain Patel (Don’t Look at the Finger was mesmerising) and Rob Crosse, plus Hetain’s wonderfully looming/squatting Fiesta Transformer where the rule was ‘don’t touch, well maybe just a bit for selfies, but don’t climb on it or cut yourself, it’s sharp and more fragile than it looks’.

There were events too – not just the launch-with-wine-and-fireworks (not combined), but also Entropics which saw the place packed out with a waiting list for experimental poetry (yup, really, it made my heart glow), Elaine Mitchener‘s Sweet Tooth (in the new Nuffield next door), and drop-in activities with the Department for Doing Nothing (DfDN). Little paper boats with gnomic messages mysteriously appeared in the clean, white space. Cue more heartglow. We also got to try out the building and find those new-building ‘snags’ (plumbing, lifts, admin systems), and build a team who could work together awesomely. The Guardian‘s Oliver Wainwright threw in a rather snitty article right in the middle of things; the previous delays, and private-sector management/budget problems are well known, and he forgot to mention any of the events, art, celebration – so what was the point of writing it other than to say it wasn’t London-New York metrocool enough for him? It was annoying for about an hour (90 minutes tops), then Southampton collectively shrugged and ignored his Islington-chic bubbleview. A lot of people visited and loved it. Some visited and were bemused-but-interested (art, innit). There were great chats with visitors, many of whom were new to contemporary art. A few who didn’t visit went on social media to say it was elitist without being able to say why – it’s free, at least partly interactive, and as noted above, we seek suggestions and people’s views on what JHG should be. So, expensive and delayed? Yes. A big whitebox gallery? Yes. Intimidating? Possibly, but elitist? No.

And that’s my take on it – a wonderful week being part of the start of something glorious. How will it evolve? What will the community aspect look like? That’s not completely decided, but to find out, check for events over the next couple of months, and come along when it re-opens for good on May 12th with an exhibition of paintings by Gerhard Richter. Which ones? You’ll have to see for yourself…

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