A billboard project will see the work of world-renowned painters displayed all over Birmingham during April. Jon Perks discovers the inspiration behind 48Sheet.
Art on a large scale is nothing new – just think Monet’s huge canvases of water lilies, Cezanne’s bathers or Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon.
There’s also bonkers Bulgarian artist Christo, who made his name wrapping famous landmarks such as Berlin’s Reichstag and the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris.
While using billboards as public art has been done before by the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, a new project hitting the streets of Birmingham next month takes the humble advertising space to a new level.
This is big art.
From April 2-29, the 48Sheet project (named after the number of sheets it takes to cover a standard billboard) will transform up to 100 spots in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Walsall by commissioning dozens of artists (both local and international) to create eye-catching public “artistic interventions” to make what must be the world’s biggest ever public art gallery.
This groundbreaking project, which carries the theme of “cultural curiosity”, is the brainchild of Claire Farrell, founder and creative director of EC Arts, whose previous work includes the Festival of Extreme Building and the transformation of Digbeth Coach Station as part of the area’s 2009 public art project and £15 million redevelopment plan.
“It was working on that when I learned all about urban planning and the Big City Plan and it just fascinated me,” she said. “It opened my eyes to how much it takes to change just a small section of the city.”
It was around that time that the economy began to nosedive, but Ms Farrell was already working out how she could expand the public art programme using what was already in place.
“I just looked up at a billboard and thought ‘wow’ – we’re inundated with them and sometimes they’re really clever and make you smile and sometimes they’re awful and my mind edits them out, but they’re a prominent feature in our lives, you can’t avoid them.”
Having tested the water with a pilot project of half a dozen billboards around Pershore Street in September 2010, the “adult” 48Sheet – which has been supported by NEC Graphix – will use dozens of billboards across the region, exhibiting work by numerous artists from as far afield as Pittsburgh, Toronto, China and India, as well as many local and emerging artists from the UK.
The 48Sheet project has been made possible by £90,000 funding from the Arts Council and £50,000 worth of support from JCDecaux (who have given over their billboards for the month), as well as support in kind from numerous partners, including the Ikon Gallery, Marketing Birmingham, The Mailbox, Idea Birmingham, Birmingham City University, Birmingham Institute of Art & Design and Glenn Howells Architects.
The billboards have been carefully chosen to form advertising free ‘clusters’, and will be accompanied by online, printed and GPS maps so that visitors can navigate their way around the urban gallery via walking, cycling and bus routes.
There will also be workshops, talks, mini exhibitions and other public supported events throughout the month.
Project partner Glenn Howells said: “48Sheet will be marvellously subversive across the entire city. It challenges our tolerance to increasing levels of advertising by swapping it for art.
"Birmingham’s pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and passengers will be treated to an unexpected range of ideas and images from around the world.”
Internationally-renowned artists Madeln Company (Shanghai) and Raqs Media Collective (Delhi) have been selected to create new work for 45 of the billboards by the Fourth Guangzhou Triennial Co-Curators and two of the 48Sheet project partners – Jonathan Watkins, Director of the Ikon
Gallery and Dr Jiang Jiehong, Director of Centre for Chinese Visual Arts and Birmingham Institute of Art & Design.
While much of the art will have been created digitally beforehand, four artists will, on launch day April 2, paint live.
One of these is Canadian Tidal Grace, who has been artist in residence at 48Sheet’s creative space on the ground floor of The Mailbox, where he and fellow artists including Matt Watkins and Faith Pearson will be exhibiting more examples of their work.
“I got a message from Claire saying ‘I like your stuff’ and asking me for a proposal,” says Tidal, who hails from Toronto.
“It’s just the sheer size of the things [that attracted me] – I’ve wanted to paint that big for a long time and this is a great opportunity to do it. I’ve noticed my style has changed rapidly since I’ve been here,” he added.
“I don’t know why, but it’s just getting dirtier. Birmingham seems to be a mish-mash, an overlay on an overlay and that’s just how I’m working right now.
"My work has always been loaded and I’m conscious of that; I’m going to be painting outside in public and I can feel that pressure to ‘play nice’, but we’ll see how we go.”
Neil Rami, chief executive of Marketing Birmingham, said: “48Sheet is a fantastic addition to Birmingham’s already thriving culture scene, promising visitors a spectacular experience as they travel round and explore the city, cementing our growing reputation as a centre for innovation in the arts.”