As the earth continues on its inexorable journey around the sun and, by turning another corner, so initiates the Spring equinox to come bounding into view, once more I start to feel the wanderlustical forces of nature rippling their way through the tropospherical ether and a seasonal siren call urging me to escape the confines of the capital and go off in search of novel new insights located somewhere over the horizon, beyond the suburban sprawl and out among the bosky backwaters of our nation’s healthy hinterland. And so it is that following on from recent excursions to investigate the artistic entertainments available among the ancient attractions of the twin varsity cities of Oxford and Cambridge, I decide to bisect their longtitudinal coordinates to call in on a town with a somewhat less prestigious pedigree and one perhaps unsurprisingly unable to match the same rarified reputation for wisdom and learning. Indeed, today’s destination is only now just celebrating the anniversary of its demi-centennial birth and so, rather than being constructed from the carved stones, fashioned brickwork and chiseled ornamentations of medieval design, I am about to visit a constellation of concrete and glass – modernish but not really Modernist, brutalish but not really Brutalist and exceptional only in its utter lack of architectural exceptionality.
Why then, one might very reasonably ask, have I chosen to pay a visit to that most seemingly sterile of newish new towns and that most inorganically inelegant outposts of pre-planned, artificially arranged mass habitation which is known to its natives as MK and to the rest of us by its full poetico-econometrical chimeric rubric: Milton Keynes? Well, when I last visited the place on my first and only previous journey (an occasion catalogued in a very early blog entitled Midsummer Boulevard and dated October 2015), I discovered that the official municipal art gallery had closed but two weeks earlier, prior to the imminent commencement of a programme of extensive extension and renovation work. And so, since that work has now been completed, I felt compelled to honour a pledge made at the time to return to assess how well the work had succeeded and whether the new building was being put to sufficiently good useage. So here I am.
But first, before actually commenting on the merits and demerits of the newly revivified statuts of the self-designated MK Gallery, it really is worth commenting on the walk that the visitor is required to undertake to get to that cultural hot spot after having arrived at the terminal point of the mainline train station. Since, for me at least, the route rather neatly summarises the pros and cons inherent in the design and construction of a deliberately contrived new town development, as opposed to a similarly sized urban conglomeration that has arisen by the haphazard circumstances of a more naturally organic evolutionary mechanism. So, there is a tremendously appealing logic that dictates one simple wide boulevard exits the station and proceeds in an unwavering line first through a corridor of carparks, hotels and office buildings and then into the enclosed arena of a massive shopping mall before reaching the cultural quarter (or maybe that should be cultural eighth) with its restaurants, theatre and art gallery. I’m not sure anyone could get lost making this very straightforward, straight line journey but then there is absolutely no reason nor temptation to consider deviating from it either. There are no curious corners to investigate, no side streets to wander aimlessly around, no individually unique buildings or structures to explore, and no shops to peruse that aren’t members of the familiar chains and franchises that, coated in their indentikit plasticated facades, are seen to inhabit every other high street in every other town in the country. In short, there’s absolutely nothing for the casual meanderer to casually meander around and everything is boringly straightforward and unsurprising to the point of utter soullessness. And yet, I do wonder whether my smug metropolitan sneer is fully justified for, as far as I can tell, albeit after my very brief and very constrained visit (there are obviously other outer residential areas that I got nowhere close to seeing) there appears to be no litter, yobbery, graffiti, vandalism or other public expressions of a population’s potential metaphysical discontent. And while, frankly, I doubt there is any thriving underground of Bohemian artistic activity going on or any hidden pockets of subversive anarchistic creativity, all the people I meet seem to be happy enough and quite content to be living in what seem to me to be their sadly unsatisfying surroundings.
As already indicated, Milton Keynes is not exactly celebrated on the international circuit for the radical innovation or flashy fashionability of its local architectural stylings and so I suppose there would have been little local support for the construction of one of those starchitectural stunners of the type that made Bilbao famous. And maybe the locals were right for while the actual new gallery is a model of understated, unornamented simplicity, and merges seamlessly within the fabric of its bland surroundings, it is at least functionally pragmatic, offering a suitably small-sized retail area, a pleasant enough café and five sensibly large display areas. In fact, 6a, the architectural design company who sorted the place out are the same team that made a similarly successful job when recently converting a redundant fire station into an additional display space annexe to accommodate the expansion plans of the South London Gallery.
So far, so good. But then, of course, comes the problem of how to fill all those new spaces, especially when there are the inevitable funding constraints. When the original, much smaller Gallery, first opened its doors, the inaugural display was of a large suite of works by Gilbert and George. Interestingly, the event was marked by the intervention of some of the outraged local citizenry who summoned the constabulary in an attempt to have the exhibition terminated, presumably in order to protect the sensibilities of the populace from the vulgar profanities, loose moral attitudes and generally disturbing influences of the deliberately disgusting duo. Perhaps as a consequence, the current opening exhibition is a notably less controversial affair, being a thematic group show with works from around 80 artists old and new, plus additional items of ephemera, documentation and assorted bits and bobs borrowed from the storage vaults of various museums and galleries from around the country. The title, Lie of the Land, is the sort of slightly too clever piece of Post-Modernistic punning that doubtless had the curatorial team patting themselves on the back and grinning from ear to ear but is, in fact, such a wooly conceit that all it really does is give free rein to include – and then mix up – just about any painting, sculpture or piece of museum paraphernalia that comes to hand.
And if there actually is some overriding new conceptual conceit being constructed and offered up to the audience here, regarding the changing relationship between the populace and their geographic surrounds – either specific to Milton Keynes or more generally to the greenfield and brownfield spaces that surround us all – I think I missed it. Maybe it is clearly elucidated in the accompanying catalogue but I didn’t find it among the labels or cursory texts of the explicatory wall panels and as for the general arrangement of the objets (d’arts and otherwise), well, this seemed to me to be overwhelmingly eclectically random. Which does, of course, now appear to be the most favoured default style of much contemporary Post-Modern display – happily inclusive and anti-hierarchical for some while dismally unstructured and anti-didactic for others.
Suffice to say that among the pieces selected for attention are (and, in keeping with the spirit of the show, I list these in no particular order): a Canaletto featuring Vauxhall Gardens; Yinka Shonibare’s textile assemblage entitled The Crowning; a Bridget Riley abstract; a small selection of Ruskin’s rock collection; a pretty Tissot painting of a picnic party sited in St John’s Wood; an old lawnmower; a small Henry Moore maquette; Richard Hamilton’s plastic moulded relief of the Guggenheim Museum in New York; Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening boots and a kitchen sink.
Ok, for some unaccountable reason maybe the last piece of porcelain wasn’t actually included in the show but there were certainly sufficient alternate amounts of distracting clamour and clutter to gain the attention of all the other discerning visitors for, again, it seemed to be only me who was not gazing intently at each work, reading the label and moving on sequentially to examine the next item. I found it all too much of a muddle to be able to concentrate on any one thing properly and so, battered into submission by the overwhelming surrounding visual noise and incongruous groupings, I gave up and exited the Gallery decidedly disappointed. But, as I say, just about everyone else seemed captivated and enthralled, so maybe my delicately refined sensibilities – honed as they have been by years of careful inspection of a multitude of artworks and the considered analysis of innumerable numbers of exhibitions – are unshared by many of the local residents. And I suppose it really might just be possible that, since the natives seem to have grown happily accustomed to living amongst the specific mundanities of their local environment, perhaps it should be no great surprise to find that they’re unnaturally intrigued and excited by any presentation that offers some visual variation to that dispiritingly dull diet.
As per my previous sojurn in the area, instead of returning straight away to the station, I continue on out into the nearby Campbell Park where, sadly, I discover that most of the works on the sculpture trail that I visited some years ago have now been removed – although the best work, Liliane Lijn‘s Light Pyramid, remains (see below). Anyway, the fresh air and verdant greenery are all still here and provide a refreshing contrast to everything else that has been assembled to establish this particularly peculiar corner of the country.