08 Jun Michael Landy’s Welcome to Essex exhibition heads to Colchester
This summer Firstsite will host a major exhibition of brand new works by Michael Landy CBE RA (b.1963), that explore the urban myths, received wisdoms and blatant stereotypes about the county of his birth, Essex.
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* – Landy has produced a series of ambitious new commissions based on the history of Essex, and his fascination with the county’s contemporary portrayal in popular culture. Welcome to Essex links the past and present by underlining how modern-day Essex has been shaped by Thatcherism (Margaret Thatcher once resided in Colchester and first joined the Conservative Party there) and how the Essex stereotype is reinforced by the media and TV shows such as Birds of a Feather and The Only Way Is Essex, AKA TOWIE.
The starting point for Michael’s research and central to the exhibition as a whole is a Sunday Telegraph newspaper article published over 30 years ago. Titled ‘Mrs. Thatcher’s Bruiser’ the piece was written by Chelmsford born journalist and historian Simon Heffer and contained the phrase ‘Essex Man’, to describe a new type of voter: as Heffer put it a “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren” employee in the City, with roots in east London, and holding “breathtakingly rightwing” opinions. An accompanying illustration, drawn by Edward Collet, depicted Heffer’s ‘Essex Man’, in an ill-fitting suit, drinking a can of lager in front of his shiny new Ford XR3i and former council house (presumably bought under Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme), complete with satellite dish to pick up the nascent Sky TV package. The caption read: “He expects to win, whether he is the best man or not”.
A huge (over 8-metres high) sculpture, Essex Man (after Edward Collet) – based on the original illustration – will ‘greet’ visitors as they enter Firstsite’s foyer.
Also, as part of the project, Landy has compiled his own Essex archive. Entitled Essexism, material from the archive occupies several gallery spaces, highlighting the stereotyping of the county’s population into figures such as ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Essex Girls’, as well as received opinions expressed through media representation. Landy’s archive comprises a wide range of material including clips from a variety of TV shows, including Essex Wives, Abigail’s Party, Spitting Image, and Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ character, plus books, magazine articles, music and online news items.
To bring past and present together, Michael has recreated the Dagenham Idol; a wooden figure, 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. Landy has made an alternative, golden contemporary version of the figure- The Essex Idol. The figure will be installed below the gallery floor, for visitors to discover – effectively creating its own newspaper headline: “Golden Idol discovered under Golden Banana”; a reference to the local nickname given to Firstsite’s distinctive crescent-shaped building.
Landy will also make use of Firstsite’s shape, by transforming the gallery’s 140-metre curved wall with a huge artwork he will develop and create throughout the entire duration of the exhibition, depicting a series of walks he has taken across the county. Consisting of drawings, printed material and objects that show important historical landmarks, illustrates another side to Essex. The artist invited notable cultural and political figures from Essex to join him on his walks; including Southend-based artist and activist Elsa James, writer and broadcaster Gillian Darley, and Professor Pam Cox, Head of the Department of Sociology, University of Essex.
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. 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.”
Firstsite Director 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.”