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Review: Leo Fitzmaurice & Kate Bigley at Convenience Pop-Up

Convenience’s latest exhibition at the former M&S in Birkenhead’s Pyramid shopping centre is a blunt reminder of what retail isn’t any more. Kate Bigley and Leo Fitzmaurice take over vast sections of the old department store’s ground floor, with solo installations on a grand scale.

I’m not going to wax on about how M&S is an institution. It’s not. It’s the name of a massive corporation that has done well at presenting itself as an essential part of Britain. However, its undeniable that trapsing round M&S after parents and grandparents is a memory etched in many of us.

M&S tights, bras, belts and undies were and are, somehow, staples of our wardrobes. The ritual of shopping for them was and is still a small but notable part of British life.
So in an era where high street M&S units are downsizing, closing, or moving to more affordable spots, and leaving gaping holes in shopping centres, it’s kind of weird that the pop up exhibitions and meanwhile galleries that occupy them don’t reference the gap they leave.

Leo Fitzmaurice’s work, FIT IT, is site specific. Though it isn’t directly referential of the site’s former inhabitant, it uses the functionality and repetition of how chain retail is built.

Kate Bigley’s installation, In a Past Line, is more on the nose, with a draped installation of polythene, featuring ghostly reminders of the shoppers who previously occupied the space.
Weaving through a hanging history of Birkenhead’s shoppers is a powerful thing. And Kate Bigley’s focus on the people, not the products, is a delicate way of forcing you to contemplate how these spaces, regardless of size, scale, or corporate structure, are significant to the people who use them.

I read an opinion piece recently (can’t remember where) about how M&S shouldn’t be called an institution any more, and that it never really was. It makes sense, but it missed something important; an institution doesn’t have to be a tangible thing. It can be that something universally shared.

As boring as it might seem, shopping at M&S is the institution, not the building. The ghosts in Convenience’s Pop Up are a gorgeous reminder of that, and one that should trigger most people into contemplating what’s really lost when our high streets change.

FIT IT, taking over the rest of the gallery, is a more general response to retail. It’s a celebration of logic that, by creating a “paired down alphabet” within the structure of the display panels, helps to make part of Kate Bigley’s point; the shop itself is just a collection of things.

Those things are planned hundreds of miles away with the incentive of creating copy-paste department stores. The words that adorn these standardised walls are designed to evoke their original function – building a space to buy stuff.

The Town is The Gallery, the programme that encompasses these shows, and several others around Birkenhead, is part of a wider push to build an art scene in Birkenhead that is both nationally significant, and locally essential. Leo Fitzmaurice and Kate Bigley ask both.

Leo Fitzmaurice: FIT IT and Kate Bigley: In a Past Line are open at Convenience Pop-Up until 8th June
Find out more about The Town is the Gallery at www.conveniencegallery.org
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

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