Reflections on Not an Archive


30 March 2020

Emily Gray, New Contemporaries' and Nottingham Trent University's collaborative Phd candidate, reflects on her curated exhibition Not an Archive:


As if by magic

As New Contemporaries reached the zenith of its seventh decade, I have been undertaking a wide range of research activity around its history. After two years of digging, evaluating, and assessing, I wanted to ask new voices to come in and join me. Artists Kobby Adi (BNC 2018), Celia-Yunior and Suzanne van der Lingen were all up for the challenge and created three new works reflecting on my ongoing research. These were exhibited as Not an Archive at Primary in Nottingham during November 2019 – in what I feel was a fitting conclusion for celebrating New Contemporaries seventieth year.


Shallow Breathing

Artist duo Celia-Yunior have been working together for more than ten years. Originating from Havana, Cuba, they currently collaborate between Mexico City and Perth, Scotland. They have exhibited widely in Europe and the US but had yet to show work within the UK. As an inaugural presentation of their work, ‘Shallow Breathing: 1949 – 2019’ pieced together all the known selectors for New Contemporaries for the last seventy years. The resulting diagrammatic display induced a moiré effect that reflected the difficulty of taking in such a duration at one glance, as well as the overwhelming impact and anxiety of being presented with some of the most renowned names in the British art scene as you are trying to establish yourself within that arena.


What is lacking in every gaze/As if by magic

Reflecting on the literal impossibility of seventy years in one glance, and the difficulty in assimilating the past in the present, were six banners by Suzanne van der Lingen referencing writing on the archive by Carolyn Steedman. The scale of ‘What is lacking in every gaze’ juxtaposed against van der Lingen’s film work, which extrapolated from this point the fragmentation of both New Contemporaries historical documents and the trajectories of all the artists who have participated. Collaging together pages of historical documents with archive theory, these were overlaid with the analogy of Brownian motion: the seemingly erratic movement of particles in a fluid as a result of continuous bombardment from molecules of the surrounding medium.


Rumours of Riots

As your attention was caught by the silvery welding fabric lining demarcating Kobby Adi’s work, this Brownian motion came into being through his film ‘Rumours of Riots’. Joining the New Contemporaries as an alumnus in 2018, Adi took the opportunity to collaborate with fellow alum and 2018 selector Keith Piper. Working with Nina Porter to produce footage of Piper in his own archive, Adi reflects on both the experiences of Black British artists and the body of work produced by an artist through their career, as well as the myth and rumour of the archive through inserting his own work into Piper’s collection. Between the depiction of Piper’s archive and an illegally distributed poster by Emory Douglas showing H. Brown holding a match, the safety glass and welding fabric can be seen to equally protect the archive from the flame, as well as the flame from being ignited by the weight and rumour of the archive.

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Rumours of Riots

While these works do not in anyway constitute an archive, they draw this partial history together to help celebrate and commemorate a programme that has continued to support and promote artists within an ever more complex and crowded field. As a new approach to regaining and exploring this legacy, the artists have responded from their own emerging positions and practices. Rather than summation, the resulting exhibition offers a point of reflection on how New Contemporaries history and their resulting legacy ‘fits’ within our contemporary moment - and the significance of the role they have had to play in it.

Emily Gray