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The Wow Factor: At The Re-Opened Site Gallery, Sheffield
Sam Gregory , November 18th, 2018 12:59

At Sheffield's newly re-opened Site Gallery, Sam Gregory situates the new space within a context of urban regeneration

Brown Street near Sheffield's railway station isn't, as previously thought, a public highway but is in fact now a 'Knowledge Gateway', accordingly to the newly-appeared signs. The blurb provided by the council ("an area with significant potential for growth") doesn't specify what it's a gateway into or out of, but I'd make an educated guess that it's intended as a portal into the long-established 'Cultural Industries Quarter' (CIQ). Like every British city playing the Regeneration Game, Sheffield now has about a dozen 'quarters'.

Since it was rechristened around twenty years ago, rising phoenix-like from the red-hot cultural crucible of New Labour, the CIQ hasn't amounted to very much beyond the excellent and independent Showroom cinema. Now, in the newly refurbished and expanded Site Gallery, it has its flagship store. The successor to the Untitled Gallery of the early eighties, the Site has trebled in size as part of a £1.7m project, with an expansive new exhibition space, performance rooms, artists’ studios and, of course, an achingly tasteful cafe and bookshop.

To the layperson, the mercurial flows of arts sector funding remain stubbornly opaque. Why are certain galleries (Site and S1 Artspace in Sheffield) showered with Arts Council largesse while others of apparently equal merit are left in obscurity, their cafes untroubled by the craft beer revolution? As in all other sectors, it must be the metrics: prove that your Polly Apfelbaum commission drove up house prices by at least 25% and the funds get released.

Site’s reopening show, Liquid Crystal Display, appears well-chosen in showcasing the new space. Anna Barham's Crystal Fabric Field forms the framework of the exhibition, literally – it's a sprawling structure of yellow painted steel, MDF and corrugated plastic that houses all the other works within it, a piece more akin to modular architecture than sculpture. As you might have guessed, all the pieces relate to crystals in some form or another and are a mix of recent work, a few new commissions and older work stretching back to 1978, all embedded within Barham's art membrane.

Waad AlBaward's The Hidden Life of Crystals zooms in on the technicolour gorges and canyons inside these naturally-formed objects, like a British pop artist's fever dream. Ralf Baecker's 2011 work Crystal Set interrogates the objects in a different way, through sound, with a crystal suspended inside a silicon carbide box being probed by iron needles that, through a process unexplained by the artist, convert its inner life into noise. The sonic result is a series of electronic tones that suddenly oscillate up and down or change tempo in an instant, as if suggesting that these peaceful objects sold to Wiccans in Glastonbury gem shops mask an inner chemical chaos. Occasionally the music-making crystal takes off in a sudden upward rush of energy, as if mimicking the jet engine power-up of a latter-era Boredoms record.

Given the relatively small space available, the architects of the Site's new wing DRDH have wisely opted to avoid the irregular, deconstructed shapes of new gallery buildings like Amanda Levete's V&A extension or Caruso St John's Nottingham Contemporary. Instead they fill every inch available with an old-fashioned big box, creating one generously sized new gallery space with high ceilings and a pair of floor-to-ceiling windows that link the space to the street life (and the roadworks) outside.

This less-is-more restraint is also carried over to the exterior, a sensible and attractive red brick wall with strong horizontal lines punctuated by the verticality of those elegant windows. It's as if DRDH have looked around them and decided not to compete on the ‘wow factor’. It's a wise choice: Brown Street is already an architectural scream.

The street’s short but spectacular run starts with the aforementioned Showroom, a decadent slice of art deco razzmatazz from 1936. Opposite this is the infamous National Centre for Popular Music, now Sheffield Hallam's student union, a turn-of-the-millennium PoMo joke whose punchline has long since worn thin. The four enormous kettle drums that comprise the structure might have seemed amusingly irreverent amid the wide-eyed poptimism of the late nineties, but now simply remind of an era when airlifting in a new cultural gewgaw was seen as the solution to any and all social problems. Still, it's more interesting to look at than yet another hulking mass of student-flats-come-prison-blocks.

Adjacent to the SU is – unbelievably – a Spearmint Rhino, done in a cheap-and-cheerful pseudo-modernist style with the obligatory curvy roof, as if trying to pretend that it's also a house of high culture. Next to the Showroom is the original Site Gallery, a handsome and functional red-brick building of 1916, followed by its extension. And next to this is another huge art gallery, Fielden Clegg Bradley's neo-brutalist Persistence Works from 2001, described by the Pevsner guide as "a welcome contrast to the Postmodern gimmickry so prevalent elsewhere in the city.”

Finally, saving the best till last, is the Rutland Arms – the world's best boozer – housed in a riotous building of 1936 that juxtaposes red-brown brick with elaborate yellow tiling on a tight corner site – the finest work of eccentric South Yorkshire pub architect WM Fenton. For better or for worse, Brown Street must represent the most eclectic mix of buildings in such a short stretch anywhere outside the M25.

Back at the Site Gallery, the new wing has been adorned with dazzling light-bulb lettering on the roof, as if the curators lost confidence in their understated extension at the last minute. Designed by Tim Etchells and reading 'EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT TODAY', it feels less like an installation and more like a kitschy advertisement for the gallery, lacking the delicious ambiguity and sensuality of Jenny Holzer's slogan work.

Etchells’ piece evidently did the job though as the building was rammed for the entire opening weekend, showing an appreciation for the Site Gallery's success from a large city that has a criminally small amount of gallery space. The performance room, previously the building's main space, hosted an eclectic series of different pieces on Friday night, ranging from an exploration of the electro-acoustic qualities of crystals to a wild demonstration of ballroom voguing (it's an unexpected joy to hear the words 'Pussy pop!' emanating over and over from an art gallery's PA).

The reopened Site Gallery offers a new flexibility both to physical installations and performance pieces, and with imaginative curation, the space will open up new opportunities for a city suddenly simmering with creative energy.

Liquid Crystal Display is at Site Gallery, Sheffield, until 27 January 2019