Love is a Rebellious Bird: Exhibition Review

‘Love is a Rebellious Bird’ at The Fire Within

Written by Stefanie Trow

Images provided by Livia Lazar

Having spent the last year on maternity leave, with only a handful of exhibitions seen by my bleary tired eyes, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to visit “Love is a Rebellious Bird” – and I definitely didn’t need a caffeine fix this morning, the exhibition captivated and mesmerised me from the moment I set foot in the gallery. This bold and brave child of fabulous duo curators AL and AL takes centre stage in Wigan’s new creative space “The Fire Within” in the most unexpected of places; the top floor of The Galleries shopping centre.  

Photo by Livia Lazar

“Love is a Rebellious Bird” is a group show over four rooms; Birth, Rebel, Love and Rebirth. It weaves together artist work from all over the region to celebrate the opening of the new public space. Before you even look at the art, I was impressed with the rooms, the space and the lighting which create the perfect environment. You could be mistaken and think you’ve walked into an installation in the TATE, that is the level of professionalism you are dealing with. I was blown away! 

The exhibition takes you on an emotional journey – at times positive and affirming, others times questioning and worrying. It feels very current and on point, with several works dealing with climate change. Greta Thurnberg’s famous speech is projected and booming throughout the Birth room (Greta by Al and AL 2019) and Liz Chapman’s intricate bird nests made from plastic (Weavings of the Black-headed Gull / Weavings of the Blackbird 2019) provide a clear and loud message: humans are creating and at the same time humans are destroying. Very powerful and not at all what I expected to find leaving me somewhat astounded! 

Delving into The Birth room, painted sea blue, creating looming swimming imagery, I’m faced with Ghislaine Howard’s intimate paintings of child birth (based on her four-month residency at St Marys Maternity Unit). From the operating theatre, to giving birth, to a mother dressing their new born child, these pieces tenderly depict the early stages of life, showing the fragility of it all with beautiful gestural marks from Howard. They are jaw dropping.  

Photo by Livia Lazar

As the exhibition continues, I start to notice a reoccurring shape – a circle – through the branding of the exhibition right through to the shape of the artist canvases and projections, reinforcing the feeling that this exhibition is about our planet, a collective us, starting at Wigan but then looking outwards to the bigger picture and our world. It also echoes the idea of a cyclical journey: a beginning (birth), an end (death) then repeat (re-birth). In “Greta”, it is crystal clear what the end is, with her powerful message superimposed with beautiful wild swimming sea creatures, intimating exactly who will face the brunt of our actions! 

The sea of blue spills into the room ‘Rebel’. I’m drawn into a ring of plinths resembling that of the Stone Henge and bearing on top beautiful delicate stuffed birds in perspex boxes (I’m reliably informed they had been resurrected from Wigan Museum Stores) given a new life here but yet contained. In the centre stands another plinth with a sand timer, and I am captivated watching each grain drop. As I stood taking it all in I feel a sense of urgency, still with Greta’s speech whirling in my mind as I look at these contained birds. I’m told later by AL and AL that the sand timer is turned every morning when the gallery opens, and ends exactly when the gallery closes – genius! It’s these little touches throughout the exhibition that make it magical and fascinating.

Photo by Livia Lazar

Behind me, the paintings of Jane Fairhurst are bold and exquisite, depicting a bird freefalling through nature (Freefall series 2005 – 2019). They line the wall, taking your eye right up to AL and AL’s projected film “Perpetual Motion in the land of milk and honey”, an intense dreamscape that barely resembles a reality we know. It is absolutely captivating but at the same time makes me feel uneasy and puzzled, like I want an answer but it’s never coming.  

Photo by Livia Lazar

“Rebel Rebel!” A punk mannequin dressed by designer Callum Clint stands bold wearing non-binary clothes, seemingly admiring protest paintings by Howard from her 365 series (painting made from media imagery each day since 2006). They are in complete contrast to her earlier birth paintings or the tender painting of her daughter ‘Cordelia’ brushing her teeth (Rebirth room) and exemplify the extremes in human behaviour. I find it fascinating how a change in subject matter changes Howards mark making process to such effect.  

Walking into the ‘Love’ room, there is a different tone being set now. The whole room is black with the mere suggestion of love emanating from the pink neon downlights, leading us to the back of the room, where a lioness (another rescue from Wigan’s Life Museum) can just be glimpsed through cage like screens, positioned brilliantly in front of projected Louise Fazackerley and AL and AL installation (The Lolitas 2019). Both Howard’s and Louise Fazackerley’s  work couldn’t be more different but yet there is a subtle synergy, capturing both mothers’ perspectives of dealing with their children growing up; Fazackerley giving advice to her future daughter in the age of #METOO and Howard capturing her daughter’s changing body. 

Photo by Livia Lazar

The journey of ‘the little rebellious bird’ we have followed through the exhibition now comes to an end, after fleeting from one artist and media to another, before finally landing with hope in the ‘Re-birth’ room. Finally, I think she might be captured, held in a little Perspex box (Broken Souls, Lee Robert McStein 2019). This piece could be accidentally overlooked, until you realise how precious the tiny little 3D printed ‘Ba’ bird is, created from Mrs Goodisons Egyptology Collection at the Atkinson. It is said in Egyptian time “the weighing of the heart against the feather of truth determined if you would survive death and gain access to the gift of immortality”, according to the exhibition program.  

This is my final encounter of Howard’s paintings, appearing ghostly, following a dancer of sorts, dressed in white. In actual fact it is Howard’s Mother who suffered from Parkinson disease (My Mother Walking 2008). A large haunting painting of a death bed looms (The Corridor 1993) juxtapose against her new work depicting the birth of her new grandchild. It’s not only the full circle of life that is captured but I also feel I have seen a full lifetime of work from Howard, a rare and unique encounter.

Photo by Livia Lazar

Like any journey, I’m exhausted! It’s been a sensory feast of all genres, perspectives and ideas. This space is definitely one to watch. I haven’t even touched on the permanent collection in the Icon Room, which uncovers the most unlikely treasures of Wigan, from possessions to people; Egyptian masks, coal on the floor (yes I said coal on the floor) to a rare collection of paintings by painter Theodore Major. It unearths what might have been forgotten in Wigan, their proud history and heritage, underpinning the “Love is a Rebellious Bird” show.

There might be a room dedicated to “Rebel” in “Love is a Rebellious Bird” but it definitely doesn’t stop there. The rebellious streak is woven throughout the exhibition and space. It’s refreshing, outward thinking, breathing new life and ideas into older and newer works, forgotten artifacts and the space itself. It’s ambitious and thought provoking. At one point the hairs on my hand stood up, not many exhibitions have done that to me. I’m excited to see what curators AL and AL bring to the table in 2020. The Fire Within has been ignited in Wigan, may it burn brightly on. 

Photo by Livia Lazar

Love is a Rebellious Bird‘ is on at The Fire Within, from 2nd November – first week in March.

Our guest blogger is Stefanie Trow. Stef is a contemporary artist based in Manchester who is currently on maternity leave. Stef has exhibited with Albemarle in London & Comme Ca Art in Manchester. Find out more on her Instagram @stef_trow_art and her website.

Read Stef’s previous articles Chinternet Ugly and Thread Bearing Witness.

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