A strange form hovers above a plinth. Suspended between the natural and the manufactured, like a suspiciously geometric meteor, unaided by wires, it wobbles in the air as I get up close. Hidden magnets power this unearthly levitation, one of several enigmatic works by Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen in Our Silver City 2094 at Nottingham Contemporary. We could all do with a suspension of disbelief and a bit of magic, and that is what this complex hybrid of an exhibition offers: a possible way out of our terminal ecological, political and spiritual crisis. A different world to the one we have.
On the way, though, things are going to get tough. Seventy-three years into the future, Our Silver City foresees this city in the English midlands as a site of dereliction and rebirth: the River Trent in flood, fires raging in Sherwood Forest, and civilisation and the ecology, what’s left of them, much changed. Little wonder that an ancient stone tablet bearing a hidden curse hangs on a wall. Many of the artworks and objects here look like remnants of unknowable past civilisations. Film footage of men in white lighting fires in a field. Simple drawings burnt into wood, made using sunlight and a magnifying glass by Roger Ackling. And a delightful, funny film by Asad Raza, in which Raza, abetted by an infant, does a home-cooking demonstration in his kitchen, in which he instructs us in how to make soil, that most foundational and complex substance without which the planet dies. We slew into space exploration and to a painting by On Karawa that bears nothing but a date. NOV8,1989, it reads, in white on a dark grey background. Commemorating nothing more than a day in the artist’s life, who knows what might turn up if we dig into it. Choose any date. There’s always something under the surface.
Our Silver City is a place to get lost, deceived, entertained, baffled, astonished and bewildered. The whole thing is a fiction, a conceit; or rather, several fictions and many conceits. Nottingham Contemporary has also changed, according to this story, its galleries transformed into different time zones. Time of Change, Time to Understand, Time for Inner Knowledge. The last section of the show, Time to Transmit Wisdom, left me unchanged and none the wiser, but this is nevertheless a captivating, and at times deliciously confusing exhibition. Accompanied by a dystopian novella by Liz Jensen charting the coming disaster from the perspective of the future, Our Silver City is a kind of portmanteau, as so many exhibitions with grand themes and overarching schemes become; but it is none the worse for that.
Beginning with maps of Nottingham from 1800 and 1904, and more recent charts produced by the local council, including subsidence and flooding reports, and a 1980s plan for the Broadmarsh shopping centre – currently being demolished to make way for a redevelopment of the site by Thomas Heatherwick – we slide from theme to theme, from artworks to objects, artists, film and video. There are radio broadcasts from the gallery roof, a 1980s US TV chat-show interview with Jorge Luis Borges (except it isn’t Borges, and I’ve been unable to ascertain if this is a reconstruction of a real interview or a spoof), and another film that documents the shooting of an advert for total sunblock makeup, in an abandoned quarry outside Madrid. “Saving Earth is now officially sexy!” says the advert’s star, brightly, again and again.
These last two works are by Grace Ndiritu, who has also designed and curated the third gallery in Silver City. I spend a long time going back and forth, in what turns out to be a labyrinthine and frequently surprising agglomeration of themes, approaches, gambits and ruptures. The future and the past collide, turn in on themselves, and lead us down forking paths.
I come to blisters of spreading colour – like beautiful petri-dish growths – by Céline Condorelli, and, much later, I am abstracted by a beautiful, endless meandering line in red by Anni Albers, and by a towering, imperturbable creature made from artificial hair, lurking in a corner of some kind of ceremonial space designed by Ndiritu.
Ndiritu and Condorelli provide the show’s best two galleries. Each have created exhibitions in their own right and both have created mise en scènes that are part environments, part exercises in exhibition design and part artworks in themselves, however many things by other artists and makers, however many curious objects and loans from museums they subsume. There’s an overriding and infectious air of collaboration. Huge colour prints of bristling, curdling organic forms line the walls of Condorelli’s installation, and drape over a succession of freestanding barriers to form a table on which numerous objects are displayed: real fossils and post-industrial nuggets of epoxy, a head of the Egyptian god Horus and a lonely goldfish frozen in a hunk of resin, and a concrete block bearing an aerial, by German artist Isa Gensken. Sounds waft through the space, and a film plays on a monitor, its found footage showing us a future that never happened. When it ends, a gorgeous curtain slides across the room, and Ben Rivers’ 2016 film Urth starts running on the other side. Shot in an Arizona Bio-Sphere, it purports to show the last scientist on Earth turning off the AI that runs the dome, so that nature can do its own, unpredictable thing in the artificial rain forest.
Ndiritu takes a different but related tack. She’s made a sort of meeting place, with bean bags on the floor, an overarching wooden roof, and structures supporting images and objects which range from prints and drawings by Albers to costume designs, memorabilia and ephemera of the slightly ridiculous utopian aspirations of the inter-war Kibbo Kift movement (there’s a probable link between the Kibbo Kift’s origins in the scouting movement and theosophy, and Albers’ origins in the Bauhaus, but that’s all for another day). There are weavings and embroidered banners, tapestries and all manner of peculiar sculptures and pots. An owl with a furry tail, loving cups and bear jugs, the odd crystal perched here and there. Daft things then, and wonderful things. I stayed for ages.
The last space is a single, sprawling work by Femke Herregraven that uses a system of ancient-looking symbols to denote the phases of the moon, sky and land, meteorological anomalies, the behaviours of birds and bees and cattle. This language of signs and potents is written on the walls and across the floors. Speakers set on driftwood broadcast old countryside predictions about the weather recorded by local children. The gallery was busy, and I couldn’t decipher the words. What this work asks is that we attend to the things nature tells us. All I know is that when it is going to rain, my knee hurts.
For all its eschatological intimations (one sort of end or another is always close), Our Silver City feels full of hope, vitality, energy and creative spark, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, however real the approaching calamity.