Stuart Whipps: contesting the archive

©Stuart Whipps 2011

Stuart Whipps is a Birmgingham based photographer. In 2011 he showcased his work at the Ikon Gallery in Brindley Place entitled: Why Contribute to the Spread of Ugliness. I went to see this exhibition at the end of 2011. I discovered this blog post which describes the exhibition better than I can recount:

The main room centres on 487 boxes of archived paperwork from the architectural practices of John Madin, currently stored in Birmingham Central Library. There are three slide projectors, each on a different wall, which are sequenced to guide you through three strands of subject matter: the archival boxes, their contents and the buildings to which they refer. The slides are incredibly sharp and the buildings featured really do stand out due to their cold, hard-edged appearance. A particularly nice shot shows the street sign ‘Paradise Circus’, accompanied by graffiti infested, lifeless, grey buildings.

The work eludes to the point that architects whom contributed to Birmingham’s Brutalist cityscape are outliving their buildings, designed to stand for many lifetimes. The Central Library of Birmingham, designed by Madin, held his archives of his works. Ironically, his archives are even living longer than the building which once stored them. The Central Library, with a new development scheme, has numbered days left standing as well. Whipps’ work comments on how the paper archives, which are arguably much more fragile, are outliving the architectural designs and dreams within them.

©Stuart Whipps 2011

With a number of distinguished Brutalist buildings being taken away from the public gaze, the archive becomes only more interesting, in my opinion. What lies in these archives will be the long lasting legacy of this architecture, although be it not made by bricks and mortar. I think that Whipps’ work further adds curiosity to the archive: without these buildings in existence why would we assume that there are archives, unless told. Whipps is showing us the legacy, but cunningly. The idea that archives are hidden repositories of information is being played with: the viewer sees projections of archive boxes full to the brim with papers; but Whipps is particular about which of the contents is shared. I believe that this is because Whipps is trying to encourage experiences with the archives, for individuals to use them. In an interview with This is Tomorrow Whipps’ says that “the message there is the best thing that could happen is that people go through these,” therefore to encourage activity with public archives. That said, having an exhibition in an Art Gallery which limits the amount of people Whipps can speak to with his work, I wonder whether this space was the right place for the message.

I have the catalogue for this exhibition and in it there is an accompanying essay by Catherine O’Flynn. She suggests that “archives are not accustomed to the public gaze, concealment is one of its defining features” this idea of hidden archives not only reinforces the purpose of Whipps’ work but also makes me reconsider what archives should be defined as now that they are having more of an open presence with the distribution on the web. Whipps really plays with the idea of concealment and digitisation: the exhibition was of digital projections of work, a far cry from the physicality of the archive; and of course the work also teases the viewer increasing a sense of ‘demand’ to see the contents of the archival boxes.

What I do criticise about this work is that the photographs are taken in a studio setting. The archive pieces have been detached from its archival home. Maybe this is because the archive has now moved to the Birmingham Library; or is it because Whipps wants the viewer to examine them: allowing the viewer to pay attention to the dilapidation so stress the need to keep better care of the archive.

Take-Away

Stuart Whipps has been a huge inspiration of mine with this piece of work: when I first saw it I didn’t recognise its value, but the more I have looked at his work in the catalogue and through my own research about the concealment and opening the archive, I really appreciate it all much more. The idea of concealment, but in a public eye is something that I want to explore with my own work, especially with the personal connection Jinx the archivist has with the George Rodger Archive, it would seem unfair to exploit the information from it to share so freely. This is why I want to think carefully about how my project will look in an exhibition space: even having it concealed so that a viewer has to explore to find the work.

Bibliography

Aggregate Records Blog. (2011) Stuart Whipps. Available online: http://aggregaterecords.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/stuart-whipps/. Last Accessed 15th March 2014

Fulcher, M. (2012) Obituary: John Madin (1924 – 2012). Available Online: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/obituary-john-madin-1924-2012/8624761.article. Last Accessed 15th March 2014

John Mardin Website. (2014) Available online: http://www.john-madin.info/. Last Accessed 15th March 2014

Tobin, H. (2012) Birmingham Central Library to make way for Paradise Circus development. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-20808701. Last Accessed 15th March 2014

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