How would you respond creatively to the history of a building in which you work or study? To conclude the commemorations for Bluecoat's 300th anniversary, the Liverpool-based gallery are putting on an exhibition that displays archival material together with new commissions, historic and contemporary artworks in order to consider how the past impacts on the future. Titled In the Peaceful Dome, it takes the idea of a continually evolving building— from charity school in the early eighteenth century to the UK’s first arts centre in 1907 — to look afresh at some of the art the gallery has presented since then, reinvigorating it by juxtaposing it with contemporary pieces. Among the themes explored are the building, its architecture and the passing of time; global trade and the legacies of Empire; gender and military conflict; and the gallery as a site for critical engagement.
One of the highlights is Jacob Epstein's Genesis, a sculpture of a pregnant female nude that caused considerable controversy when it was first seen at the Bluecoat in May 1931. Loaned by the Whitworth, it's shown alongside documentary material relating to its showing there 86 years ago. Displayed in close proximity to Genesis, Jo Stockham’s work creates a dialogue with the sculpted figure, contrasting the creation of new life with violent death in military conflict. Empire Made (1989) takes the shape of an axe, with its head resembling Britain; Canon, model 3 (1989-2017) consists of a cannon wrapped in soft fabric, in what can be seen as a critique of the sanitisation of war in Remembrance Day parades and the recent commemorations of World War I.
Also showing are film works by Uriel Orlow and Grace Ndiritu that recall how Bluecoat's foundation as a charity school was funded from maritime trade that included Transatlantic slavery; William C. Penn's portraits of black men painted in Liverpool in the 1920s and 1930s; and contemporary artist Paul Clarkson's portrait of the first black Lord Mayor of London in 1913, the Pan-Africanist John Archer. All in all, it's a show designed to provoke thinking about exhibition-making and its relationship to time, place and history.
There seem to be interesting parallels here with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery's current exhibition The Past is Now. What do you think?