16 Mar Colchester gallery to celebrate new works by Michael Landy CBE with exhibition
2021 is the 10th anniversary of Firstsite’s award-winning building – designed by Rafael Viñoly. To celebrate, the Colchester gallery is continuing its year of celebration projects and commissions – which kicked off with The Great Big Art Exhibition – with a major exhibition of brand-new works by Michael Landy CBE (b.1963).
Michael Landy grew up in Ilford during the 60’s and 70’s – at a time when the town transitioned from being in Essex to Greater London. For his first major public gallery exhibition in the UK for almost a decade – and on the 20th anniversary of one of his most famous works Break Down – Michael Landy is producing a body of new work that explores, celebrates and questions the recent history of his home county and its contemporary portrayal in popular culture.
Central to Landy’s Firstsite exhibition is how modern-day Essex was shaped by Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher lived in Colchester from 1947-49 working for BX Plastics in Manningtree and first joined the Conservative Party through the Colchester branch. The largely inaccurate Essex Man/Girl stereotype is perpetually reinforced by the media; most recently by the popular structured-reality TV show, The Only Way Is Essex, or TOWIE. The exhibition will unpack these origins and question the influence of the media in conjunction with political agendas, in forming regional and national identities and often harmful stereotypes that deviate from on-the-ground reality.
The starting point for Michael’s research and what became central to the exhibition was a Sunday Telegraph column published in 1990, which first coined the term ‘Essex Man’.
Although published anonymously, the article had been written by historian, author and political commentator Simon Heffer, who himself hails from Chelmsford. Under the headline Mrs Thatcher’s Bruiser it described a new social phenomenon, Tory voters who had grasped the opportunities that Thatcherism offered. Heffer’s piece was illustrated with an image of ‘Essex Man’, portrayed standing proudly, lager can in hand, beside a Ford Escort XR2, outside his recently purchased council house (bought under the Right to Buy scheme) complete with a Sky satellite dish and with the caption: “He expects to win, whether he is the best man or not”.
Landy’s own take on the ‘Essex Man’ a monolithic free-standing ‘sculptural drawing’ version of the original illustration will greet visitors in Firstsite’s Sculpture foyer establishing a sense of exaggerated two-dimensional posturing at the front of the gallery by way of an introduction to the exhibition.
A key section of Welcome to Essex is an archive entitled Essexism, created by Michael especially for the exhibition and which has at its heart newspaper articles from the last 30 years, which will occupy several of Firstsite’s gallery spaces. The archive highlights the stereotyping of the county’s population, into figures such as ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Essex Girls’ and comprises of clips from TV shows and films such as TOWIE, Birds of a Feather, Spitting Image and Harry Enfield’s famous Loadsamoney character, plus books, magazine articles, music and online news items. Landy will also be displaying illustrations of the history of Essex, such as the Plotlanders, who in the early 20th-century went from London’s East End to self-build small houses on unwanted farm land in places such as Dunton, near Basildon.
Connecting this history to experienced reality, Landy has been exploring Essex on foot, taking a series of walks around the county with notable cultural figures from Essex. Conversations undertaken and locations visited will be represented in the show in a new commission by Landy on Firstsite’s magnificent 140-metre curved internal wall.
Another inspiration for new work is the Dagenham Idol, a 4000-year old wooden statue of a naked human figure, discovered in Dagenham 1922. The work has been carbon dated to around 2250 BC, during the late Neolithic period or early Bronze Age, making it one of the oldest human representations found in Europe.
Explaining his very personal connection to the project, Michael Landy says: “I was brought up in Ilford – even though, confusingly, it stopped being part of the county of Essex in 1965 due to boundary changes. At the time I left school
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power and we witnessed a sea-change in Britain at that time, and even more so in Essex, where entrepreneurialism and free market economics were embraced with gusto.
Did they take inspiration from their forebears, the Plotlanders who came to Essex from the polluted East End between the wars, to create better lives for their families? The Plotlanders were the original DIY-ers: building homes from scratch, from whatever materials they found around them. In the 1980’s and 90’s people from Essex were painted by the national popular media as being materialistic and uncultured, which manifested in the creation of the dual cultural stereotypes of Essex Man and the Essex Girl. This is where my interest lies: in unearthing some old relics that we thought we had put to rest.”
Sally Shaw MBE says: “The Essex stereotype – real or fake – is a complex melting pot of influences from recent and ancient history. You could argue it’s a microcosm of British culture. The county has been the gateway into the UK and outwards to Europe for tens of thousands of years making it a vibrant and culturally rich area of the country where national politics are often writ large. Michael Landy has brought this complexity into focus with his typical wit and visual delicacy. Welcome to Essex is a timely and very beautiful exhibition providing much to consider – not only about Essex but about the ‘United Kingdom’ at large, at a time when yet again, culture will play a significant part in re-articulating our values as a community.”