Everything Must Go – Birmingham Wholesale Markets

Directors: Friction Arts

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Friction Arts, melding fusion and immersive conceptual installations weaves a non-linear narrative of a day in the life of the once myriad market trades-people. For three consecutive days (three years in the realisation), the abandoned Wholesale Markets become their nucleus. This unique setting allows for micro and macro events focusing on the triangular concrete ‘island’ that is the physical and narrative foci where the three main-halls/transepts conjoin. Integral to the original construction, the massive columns are capped by a prefabricated concrete ‘disc’ presciently teasing in its suggestion of the circular hull of the USS Enterprise. The building is cavernous enough to stash a zeppelin or two with space to spare – a never-mind-the-bollocks Brummy utilitarian cathedral solution to a hectic commercial necessity. It could also lend itself to a post-modernist setting of Gormenghast with ridiculous ease. Anonymous, near automaton workers and traders busy about with pallet-trucks and hand fruit-barrows, the latter energised anachronisms – timeless epitomes of efficiency.

PA speakers relay ‘found’ sounds and vigorous human activities concealed behind the traders’ signage ‘Mush Salads & Exotics’ contrive delectable ambiguous invitations. These are ghosts still in the machine. Deep behind The ‘GP Salad’ stall is a disembodied multi-surface liquid light and ambient electronica immersion. Delightful in itself but best not trouble too long on its Market-themed contextualisation. Or just maybe, some of the traders discovered a particular batch of mushrooms one day.

Under G. Haines & Son there is a virtual cafe, workers have a craic whilst suspended multi-image projection screens loop diverse activities of which the fishmonger trimming with scissors is a mesmerising study in dexterity and efficiency. Isolated deep beyond one hall there is a wooden crate-stacked barrow, a solitary lamp just manages to illuminate a foreshortened cluster of chalk-written names of past and recently departed traders.

Attention focuses back to the trig-concrete island as an eclectic ensemble of ‘staff’ continually assembles and dissembles a stack of wooden pallets and nondescript ephemera set against one of the pillars. This is where the more adventurous explore their conceptual abstractionist comfort zone – others, meanwhile reflect that that caravan holiday in 70s Rhyl wasn’t that so bad after all. That its repetition symbolises the tedium of physical work and signals a salutary reminder that the noble ethic of the working man/woman is a privileged romanticism might be one interpretation. At certain intervals they embrace the transept pillars in a totemic ritual of caress. The activity culminates with a walking circular motif where the participants slice and dice both white and red cabbages (the mindless drudgery turning the human into a manipulative vegetable?). The residue forms a red circle within a white one that suggestively echoes the concrete disc above them. A radical gesture of closure ensues as they cling-film wrap the performance area using the supporting pillars as pliant fulcrums. The exploration of the visitors’ inner-space as equally valid perhaps. Though, vegetables and fruit aside – this also once being a meat and fish market, it has to be recognised that countless thousands of animals were harmed in its making.

Segueing to a lonesome folk-song traders’ refrain a poet, cling-film/winding-sheet wrapped to a hand-cart recites the ancestry of the Birmingham nomenclature. Some might be recalling the numerous versions etched on the escalator glass panels of the now demolished bunker-Brutalist Library. An echo shrouded, cloth-capped tap-dancer trickles and trips lightly across the vast empty floor space. He beckons towards a golden sprayed, wood-scrap tunnel entrance that leads towards a bin-liner wrapped sepulchral labyrinth. Vulva, womb and birth canal as the old markets, exorcised of faculty, surrender to the reincarnated new Witton complex? Possibly. But still the ghosts remain. The phantom phalanx of 900 years of trading on the site of The Moat House, the ancient seat of the Lords of Birmingham. Everything must go, everything must change – for everything to stay the same. Confusion combined with masterpiece – this is an immense, intense daring celebration of space-piracy – Friction Arts are the ultimate zone-clones.

Runs Until 3 June 2018  | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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