First Site Gallery, Colchester

A small group of my friends formed a group around 2 or so years ago, and called it “Culture Club”. With the sole aim, of discovering a diverse range cultural experiences in and around London.  We all have a differing range of interests, so the premise is to expand our own individual arts education and immerse ourselves in things that we wouldn’t normally feel confident enough to go and visit. We also have one rule in the comfort of our group of inquisitive individuals, you must like either coffee, cake or wine or in fact all 3.  

We don’t often leave Central London due to an assortment of commitments, but when one of our number mentions that Anthony Gormley’s “Terracota” warriors are on display at the Firstsite Gallery in Colchester, we thought we’d go visit.  None of us were familiar with the artistic space and expectations weren’t high. I’d never been to Colchester before and we’d assumed that we’d be in and out of the gallery in half an hour..

Oh how very wrong we were.  The First Site building, was designed by the architectural practice of Rafael Vinoly and is incredibly deceptive.  The outside is a towering angular glass box and upon entry it’s light and airy, it’s akin to walking into Dr Who’s police box, small on the outside but full of illusory intriguing cultural spaces.  It transpires, that the building is an absolute pandoras box, containing a multitude of mini exhibitions and not just the star attraction, Antony Gormley.

We commence our visit with, Sagacity by Aidan Moesby a changing Periodic Table of Emotions that records the feelings of visitors to the Gallery through the sentiment analysis of Twitter feed.  It’s thought provoking as to the wide ranging mental health of some of the visitors whose feelings range from “demoralised, paralysed, humiliated” to “masterful, fearless and intrepid”.

We move on to Mark Titchner , who is an artist who focuses on the exploration of words and language.  “Everything that I am Not” is a digitally printed banner where “IT” represents the artists’ work with marginalised members of society and their dehumanising experience of the word. On the reverse the word is “US” which represents the artist informs us a more inclusive societal vision for the future.

Stretched around the 140 metre long elegantly curving wall of the gallery is “Not Yet at Ease”  by the Raqs Media Collective is a giant blue and white. The work explores the history of psychological disorders, resulting from conflict and the stigmas attached to them during the First World War.  The word “nerves” has been specifically removed from the mural, as the collective of artists examine a range of phrases and expressions that contain the word i.e. “live on one’s”

The mural, is one of a range of installations created by the Collective to tell the story of the condition known at the time as ‘shell shock’ and considers how attitudes have changed towards those who carry the psychological burdens of war. We’re all struck by just how many phrases commonly used in the English language, contain the word nerve(s).

Kevin Howbrook: Colour Coded presents us with a set of large digital prints that demonstrate what the King James Bible and each of the 9 scripts from the Star Wars story would look like if each of the words is represented by an individual colour. The prints are enormous and make the viewer think about how you visualise words in a completely different way.

Unboxing by Alex Frost, presents a video and a series of resin encased sculptures of convenience food.  The sculptures make us question the healthiness of the chosen foods that look distinctly unappealing and unappetising.  The video shows the unboxing of a range of convenience foods and drinks submerged into a tank of water.  Whilst watching the video our emotions range from fascinated, amused, bored to quite frankly disgusted when the constituent parts of an egg mayo sandwich variously float and sink in a quite frankly nauseous manner.

And so to the main event and the reason for our visit. Field for the British Isles (1993) by Anthony Gormley is a work of incredible enormity. 40,000 terracotta clay figures, that range in height from 8–26 centimetres, are arranged together in a relatively small space within the gallery. The accompanying label draws our attention to the fact that Gormley’s 40,000 terracotta figures represent the 40,000 children and young people living in Colchester and that “Field……..” represents their future generations.  They go on to explain that “on the eve of Brexit and amidst the climate crisis we feel we have a greater responsibility than even to this field of gazes”.  A noble statement and one that helps to reinforce the viewers acknowledgement of the insignificance of the individual, but the strength of the crowd through the medium of these tiny terracotta characters. 25 tonnes of clay was used to make the figures that’s a colossal amount that we struggle to comprehend.

Energised by the mouthless figures we drop into Afro Futures_UK: Unravelling New Futures on the way out. It’s an exhibition of digital and multimedia art that explores how the intersection of the black experience, technology and historical narratives can inspire new ways of thinking critically about the future.

And breathe!! The range and variety of creativity on display at Firstsite is fantastic and makes it a space that requires no demands repeated visits at regular intervals. The team at the gallery do everything they can to ensure that your visit is a memorable one. They’re keen to hear your opinion on the art and the space and eager to impart their knowledge about the building, it’s design and it’s role at the heart of the community. By all accounts, the gallery run exercise classes now that’s something the Tate Modern would never be brave enough to do.

I can’t praise this gallery enough it was a wonderful way to spend nearly 2 hours on a Thursday afternoon and we all very much look forward to returning in the not to distant future to be surprised, challenged and provoked by a wide range of unique pieces of art. Oh and one final thing, it was all FREE.

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