A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere: Martine Syms work acquired by Leeds Art Gallery

Martine Syms, still from A Pilot for A Show About Nowhere, 2015

A joint initiative by the Contemporary Art Society and philanthropist Valeria Napoleone (VNXXCAS) has been established to purchase and donate a significant work by a living female artist to a UK museum each year. The scheme aims to achieve a greater representation of women in museums across the country, while encouraging debate on the current gender imbalance in UK collections.

Leeds Art Gallery is the first recipient of the initiative, acquiring the moving image work A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere (2015) by Los Angeles based artist Martine Syms. Montaging found imagery from films, television and the internet alongside her own filmed footage, Syms’ work probes the linguistic and visual representations of gender and African Americans in the mass media. A Pilot will form a centrepiece of a major collection redisplay at Leeds Art Gallery when it re-opens on 13 October 2017 following a period of redevelopment. Prior to the film going to Leeds, the work will have its UK debut at Camden Arts Centre.

Before the showcase at Camden Arts Centre, we spoke with Sarah Brown, Principal Keeper at Leeds Art Gallery about the initiative, the Leeds collection, and what this new acquisition will bring to the museum.

Firstly, why did you decide to apply for the VNXXCAS opportunity?

Sarah Brown: The opportunity to apply for VNXXCAS provided a unique chance to acquire a new work for the Leeds Art Gallery collection. Over the past 130 years, Leeds has built a strong collection bringing together painting, sculpture, works on paper and moving image works. The opportunity to work with the Contemporary Art Society and the collector Valeria Napoleone has enabled Leeds to acquire a piece by a female artist we otherwise would not be in a position to do so.

Leeds Art Gallery has always acquired work by artists of their time and it is incredibly important that we continue to do so. Through the Contemporary Art Society we have continued to acquire contemporary work and this enables us to engage audiences with new experiences. We work incredibly hard to engage a broad range of audiences with our collection, often taking work from our collection to schools and community groups as well as a changing programme of displays at the Gallery. For example the recent acquisition of Rebekkah (2013) by Simon Fujiwara, a film inspired by a 16-year-old girl from Hackney involved in the 2011 London Riots, has provided an exciting way to think through complex issues with young women in school groups as well as adult groups considered ‘vulnerable’ which we wish to continue in new ways.

Simon Fujiwara, Rebekkah, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Leeds Art Gallery photo © Jerry Hardman-Jones

What will Martine Syms’ work A Pilot for a Show about Nowhere (2015) bring to the Leeds collection?

SB: Martine Syms’ A Pilot for a Show about Nowhere (2015) will join an extraordinary collection of over 8000 works. There are approximately 1500 paintings, 800 sculptures and 6000 works on paper. In the first instance, Martine Syms is one of the most exciting artists emerging at this moment and her work combines found footage with a sophisticated take on 21st century social media communication. She has a very distinctive voice, full of humour and energy. She is an artist who will appeal to a broad audience but particularly a younger audience who I know are especially excited about seeing her work in Leeds.

Martine Syms, still from Notes on Gesture, 2016

Although the dominant medium in the Leeds collection is painting, you’ve recently begun to acquire more moving image works.

SB: Yes, while a significant proportion of work in the Leeds collection is painting we have been actively acquiring moving image works over the last 20 years. We have work by Mark Wallinger, Rosalind Nashashibi, Georgina Starr and Tacita Dean among others, reflecting the significant ways that artists have been working with a range of moving image, sound and installation. The city of Leeds has an incredibly special connection to moving image, it is the location of the first film which was shot by Louis Le Prince in 1888.

VNXXCAS was set up to support the acquisition of significant works by female artists for museums of the UK. There are a number of works by significant female artists in the Leeds collection including Lubaina Himid, Susan Hiller and Barbara Hepworth. Can you talk us through some of the key works?

SB: In the 1990s, Leeds Art Gallery reassessed their collection policy, in particular looking at the collection’s acquisition of female artists’ work in the 19th century in light of contemporary debates in feminism. We have staged significant group shows such as Images of Women (1989) that focused on artists such as Jo Spence, Mary Kelly and Mona Hatoum. Female artists have an important presence in the collection, for example a special project and acquisition by Georgina Starr in 2004, and Women are from Venus an exhibit within the Gallery’s last major re-display in 2007 which explored and debated visual art with a focus on gender. In the collection we also have a range of work from the British constructivists Mary Martin, Marlow Moss and Gillian Wise, as well as paintings by Winifred Nicholson, Bridget Riley, Gillian Ayres and Fiona Rae.

Marlow Moss, Spatial Construction in Steel, 1956–58. Image courtesy Leeds Art Gallery photo © Jerry Hardman-Jones
Installation view of Fiona Rae: Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery 2012. Image courtesy Leeds Art Gallery photo © Jerry Hardman-Jones

What can we expect from the new collection redisplay at Leeds when it reopens in October?

SB: The opportunity to completely re-think the Leeds Art Gallery collection displays from our earliest work to the most recent acquisition has been really exciting. With over 8000 works it is quite a challenge and we are really keen that our re-opening displays reflect the incredible breadth of the collection.

Leeds is a remarkably diverse international city and is bidding to be European Capital of Culture in 2023 which will be reflected in our opening displays. In the course of re-glazing the original Victorian roof we will reveal the central court; a barrel vaulted ceiling dating from 1888 that allows light to flood into the first floor galleries.

The works from the collection will be displayed alongside recent acquisitions bringing together painting, sculpture, works on paper, moving image and installation throughout the galleries.

Central Gallery Roof Discovery, Leeds Art Gallery, 2016. Image: DLA Design

Martine Syms’ A Pilot for a Show about Nowhere is on view at Camden Arts Centre from 20 April — 14 May 2017. Read more about the project on our website.