The questioning of the importance, veracity or significance of historical documents over time is central to Stuart Whipps' work. Taking an historic position or artefact as his starting point, he uses photography and video alongside remade or visually reconfigured materials to question the role of archives in creating supposedly authoritative bodies of knowledge, thereby constructing a shared understanding of cultural values and contexts.
Why Contribute to the Spread of Ugliness?
Stuart’s starting point for the main body of this exhibition at Ikon in late 2011 was the 487 uncatalogued boxes of archived paperwork from the architectural practices of the John Madin Design Group then stored in Birmingham Central Library. He delved into these archives, producing a multi-screen slide projection that combined three strands of subject matter: the archival boxes, their contents (printed materials relating to Madin’s projects and the construction industry between the 1950s and 1970s) and the buildings to which they refer.
John Madin, active in Birmingham for over 30 years, designed many buildings that defined Birmingham as a modernist city. In 1964, he made a tour of North American libraries whilst preparing his designs for the new Birmingham Central Library. Stuart retraced his steps, visiting The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, New Haven and The Detroit Public Library. New photographs of these buildings, their interiors and collections, form a visual reconnection with the past. Stuart also focused on archival material relating to Madin’s work on the library, the former Birmingham Post and Mail print works and the Queen’s Square shopping centre in West Bromwich, amongst others. The degree of attention he gave to photographing and presenting the material was contrastingly juxtaposed with the way they have been left forgotten and uncatalogued, thereby giving it heightened value.
Birth Springs, Death Falls
Stuart’s first solo show in London was at Flat Time House in early 2013. It followed a period of residency at the gallery, during which time he researched the archive material from the artist John Latham's work with the Scottish Office Development Agency during a placement in 1975 and 1976. Although the archive was Stuart's starting point, the course of his investigation disrupted any sense of archival categorisation or chronological order by collapsing historical events and the material evidence for these into a single body of work. While his residency involved a visit to the shale heaps of West Lothian that were Latham's object of study during his time in Scotland, Stuart also mapped the connections between Latham and other historical protagonists including James "Paraffin" Young, who was the first to refine mineral oil on a commercial scale. This process left behind the shale heaps of West Lothian and financed David Livingstone's "explorations" of Zambia - Latham's birthplace.
Stuart’s exhibition Birth Springs, Death Falls showed representations of the Victoria Falls in Zambia alongside images of the man-made shale heaps in West Lothian and a scale replica of the waterfall built by "Paraffin" Young in Scotland. Through the media of landscape photography, installation and text, he traced the links between the various geological and historical characters, thereby aligning multiple histories and geological phenomena with the contemporary moment.
Click here for details about Stuart's involvement in the Reference Works exhibition at the Library of Birmingham in 2013.
For information about his other projects, please click here.