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REVIEW: The Town is The Gallery at Convenience Pop Up

Convenience Gallery have been a force for change, not just in Birkenhead, but across the region. Last month, they launched The Town is The Gallery, a programme of art designed to provide space for artists, opportunities for communities, and reactivate some of Birkenhead’s own human histories.

The exhibition that launched the programme saw the former M&S in Pyramid Shopping Centre transformed into a gallery packed with engaging, exciting, and entertaining work from artists at every possible career stage.

The Town is the Gallery follows a similar theme to their previous Birkenhead Working Class History programme. Not as abruptly, but with a drive towards engaging everybody in the town in some way or another, and offering art to residents who, in their words comprise “a hugely talented population who express a limited access to jobs, careers, and participation with the arts.”

That sense of place is important here, because it sets boundaries for how their work ends up, but allows people to engage in a way to build opportunities for everyone.

Their pop up at the old M&S is a testament to that, with work that is massively accessible and, not to over simplify it, but, fun.

Nobody walking into that shop will feel confronted by art, or like they’re having art done to them. The whole space gives you just that, space. Space to roam, space to play, space to discover.

From the outset, Sorrell Kerrison’s ‘Chwarae Teg / Fair Play’ presents a real question about how we live our lives, through guided play. That play comes out in her processes, and in how the end results are shared. They’re not 100% finished, because they shouldn’t be.

They’re presented for us as an incentive that we can play with materials, be makers, and do stuff for the good of it. And in doing that, we’re not doing art for art’s sake. We’re doing art because it changes us.

The simple provocation written by the beanbag in the centre of the installation, “Sit Here,” forces you to take the weight off and take a breath. Then taking up your field of vision is a full-length mirror; “Look here.”

Simple instructions, but with context. Stop, think, wait, do. Her question to us, and I guess herself while creating this, was “When do we stop playing for the sake of enjoyment and always search for productivity?”

I didn’t read that as an instruction to play for play’s sake, but as a wish that productivity might actually come out of play, not work.

Ellisa Sallis and Ella Matthews, together making up ELLSQUARED, have built an experience too. It’s not art as you’d expect, and it’s definitely not art as you’d expect in a pop up in the old M&S, but it centralises the whole show.

Their installation, ‘On The Waltzers’ is a set of fairground games (which have firmly reaffirmed my lack of hand-eye coordination), inviting visitors to spend their time in the gallery in a state of true play.

While the premise is simple, it’s also an exciting contradiction to the shop on the other side of the gallery. There is work available to take home with you, but not through usual transactions. You buy their work (handcrafted felt buttons, key rings, miniature rug-tufted artworks) by winning it.

I’ve seen art done for the sake of sale before, but not like this. It confirms everything The Town is The Gallery can be and will keep aiming for over the next few months. It’s about making the gallery part of the town, not just something that’s in it. So you’re not just in the gallery, you’re part of it.

Which flows nicely into their new community tea towel… everyone visiting can add their self-portrait to the wall, which will be made into a tea towel, like the ones you got from school. And it all just builds, and builds, slightly manically, into evidence for making the people of the town part of the development of the gallery.

But, if you just wanted to see art in a space, maybe buy a bit, maybe not. That’s there too, making sure local artists are explicitly able to support their practice through sales.

There are months of programming yet to come in this M&S space, as well as venues dotted around Birkenhead, but the current exhibition runs until April 20th, and if you miss it, you’ve missed out.

At the start of this article, I said that the programme didn’t just impact Birkenhead, it offered change for the region. I meant that. This might not be spreading out to Liverpool, St Helens or Halton, but it’s a new way of working with public spaces that should encourage more work that is made for and with the communities around it.

The Town is the Gallery launch exhibition is open at Convenience Grange Precinct Pop Up until 20th April. 39 Borough Pavement, CH41 2YE, Free Entry
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith