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Happiness is a New Idea - Michele Allen

Michele Allen: Public & Private


Exhibition dates: 16 April - 11 May 2016


Michele Allen presents two exhibitions this spring: 'Public & Private' and 'For The Elevation of Man'. Both explore the unwritten histories of the North-East of England, and the processes by which we imagine the third person plural: how the collective category of 'we' is formed, or deformed.

Her first exhibition, 'Public and Private' explores the roles of education in our lives, and our society. This body of work has been created during a four-month residency at Durham Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site, and the home of Durham University's 'University College'.  The work responds to the Castle's history as a site of government, its current use as a home to students of University College, and its relationship to the wider region: Sunderland is a historical province of County Durham. University College is known as the 'founding' college of Durham University: in 1832 it marked the beginning of the first University in the North of England, half a millennium after Oxford and Cambridge were established. Allen's residency allowed her to research the history of the Castle as a site of political and military power and more recently a place of learning; the running of the University as an institution and a set of historic buildings; and the collections of books and artworks owned by both. 

Allen's work invites us to ask several questions. Who gains from the structures of education we have inherited? What exactly is it that they gain? Is knowledge a form of power or a form of personal empowerment? Or is it one of the few ways that we have to make our way into and through the wider worlds that lie beyond our own?

Her video work 'Aesop's Feast' juxtaposes footage of the Durham Miners' Gala in Durham city centre, attended annually by hundreds of thousands, with a soundtrack recorded in Durham Castle that features students' musical performances. 'Aesop's Feast' draws our attention to both what Allen calls "the role of education as a means of emancipation in the Trade Union Movement", and to the role that education has in stretching our capabilities as human beings, including that of our imaginative empathy with the wider world.

The exhibition also includes photographs from the Castle, and of its historic special collections. These include books and artefacts that have been preserved for decades or centuries. We also see the rites and rituals of those living or working in a venerable institution: a form of 'everyday life'.




Michele Allen: For The Elevation of Man

Exhibition dates: 14 May - 18 June 2016


Allen's second exhibition 'For The Elevation of Man', examines the competing ideas of what roles we might hope the State to perform, and what our civic responsibilities are to one another.  She asks what, if anything, binds us together: and if there is still, or should be such a thing as 'society'.

Allen's poetic, hypnotically detailed large-format photographs bear witness to a quiet revolution in how we are governed. She observes the bewildering panoply of places, spaces and artefacts accrued by the State over decades - and observes which of them are set to be reordered or redistributed. Allen's observations are poignant and plangent, rather than polemical: but her work is about what is at stake in modern politics. What, if anything, has a value that can be measured through things other than cost alone?

And what could or should be expected of those who govern us? Should the State be a paternalistic overseer, 'nudging' us into bettering ourselves? Can we believe 'less is more' in government as in art? And hope for what The Daily Telegraph first asked for back in 1956: "the smack of firm government"?

The exhibition's title is taken from the inscription on a Victorian drinking Fountain, donated by public subscription to celebrate a group of philanthropists who secured an area of parkland in Elswick for the public. The inscription on the fountain reads: "They saved this park for public use, for health, beauty and happiness, to elevate man and honour God." Such heroic, munificent ideals seemingly appear as ideological relics. The soaring optimism of such rhetoric almost draws to mind Soviet-era statues, now toppled, and displaced by the victory of consumers' power. In a world where individuals now pay more taxation than major corporations, are such 'gifts' as parks, swimming pools, libraries, and museums mere anachronisms?