Sunday, May 09, 2004

Andrew's Day Off
Yesterday a couple of friends and I took a few hours out of our academic schedules to indulge a shared interest in modern art and architecture. First stop was Modern Art Oxford, the former Museum of Modern Art (apparently 'museum' gives off all the wrong signals). The gallery is one of my favourite exhibition spaces in England. It's small enough not to be intimidating and it consistently manages to get the most interesting, and controversial, of Britain's current crop of artists. Amongst recent exhibitions have numbered Tracey Emin, the Chapman Brothers and South Africa's own David Goldblatt.

We were there yesterday to see a new sculptural installation by Turner Prize nominee, Mike Nelson. The piece consisted of a series of small interconnecting rooms, at once claustrophobic and very disturbing. My friend commented that it was like being in a David Lynch film, perhaps Isabella Rossellini's apartment in Blue Velvet. I was reminded of the unsettling feeling when reading a Borges short story, vertigo as the real and fictional worlds blur around you. This was my first experience of this sort of 'interactive' installation art and I was surprised by just how strong an impression it made on me. Nelson apparently specialises in finding the unusual or uncomfortable in the normally mundane. Previous works have been set in aircraft cabins and army tents, with his current moving between a theatre lobby, an artist's work room and a mine shaft in a desert. On the strength of yesterday's viewing he is somebody to be watched.

After seeing Nelson we climbed into the car for the 45 min drive up the M40 to Birmingham. Although it's officially Britain's second largest city, Birmingham sticks in mind because I've never met anybody who's been to it. Or come from it. Nor have any of my friends. This in itself was probably a good enough reason for the visit but in fact we were drawn there to see something quite specific, namely the new Selfridges store and the Bullring shopping centre of which it forms the most visually arresting part. Actually, 'visually arresting' is something of an understatement. The structure is one of the most unusual and memorable I've seen. Not so much building as a vast billowing cloud whose gentle curves and surface studded with aluminium plates make it seem almost organic. There are no windows set into the exterior and only a few entrances cut into the sides but the effect is not to withhold or barricade so much as to suggest that this is a natural part of the landscape. Something exuded or extruded. The interior is no less interesting than the exterior and appeared to derive from some uber chic fusion of 70s retro and 90s minimalism. The act of shopping seemed to have been elevated to a form of high art. Or religion. As if to confirm this last thought, the only other building of note in an otherwise uninteresting immediate environment was a gothic church.