The Dark Rooms, South West Cornwall

The Dark Rooms is an exciting project by Newlyn-based curator and artist Jesse Leroy Smith that took place in the near derelict Passmore Edwards School of Science and Art building in Helston, South West Cornwall on 2-3 February 2013. Viewing contemporary installation art and mixed media sculptures in museums and galleries is inevitable, for many of us, but “discovering” works of art; sculptures, installations, videowork, conceptual and performance art scattered about in a large, dark, disused building is both eerie and exciting.

On the ground floor are various exciting installation, video and performance artworks and a smaller exhibition, Parameters of the Dark, curated by Falmouth University MA students. This was an important initiative championed by Leroy Smith. Second year student Ashley Sheekey says, “To be able to see my work in a context like this and in relation to the work of other artists has been really beneficial for me, and has left me with a lot of questions about how I can develop the work further.”

A long, gloomy corridor runs along the institutional building. This is punctuated by a stairwell and a lone cymbal, a drumstick and a micophone hanging beside it, this invites the visitor to loudly announce their presence – the sound resonating up, through the tall, dark staircase.

Moving upstairs, a grainy film of a flying seagull taking flight appears on the landing and further on, Faye Dobinson’s video of a leaf dancing in the Cornish air reminds us of the reason that artists have flocked to Cornwall for centuries to be inspired by its rough coastline and light.

Filmmaker Graham Gaunt, one of the artists included in an evening of film shorts by local filmmakers on Friday 1 March, is particularly fascinated by the landscape around West Penwith, exploring it through the technique of time-lapse; photographs taken in sequence and then made into a film. One of Gaunt’s films, Dark Nights, which is included the exhibition, won the “Directors choice” award at the 2012 Cornwall Film Festival awards ceremony. It captures the haunting beauty of the Cornish coastline and Gaunt has perfectly matched it to a soundtrack by Danish musician Agnes Obel. “[In the dark].. it’s hard to distinguish what might be in the shadows or whether they hold any real definition” Gaunt says, explaining that in time, through the time-lapse technique, “soft and hard edges begin to reveal themselves.”

Another artist whose work also relates to the exhibition’s title is James Hankey, whose work reflects on photographic techniques of the past In two rooms, he shows antique photographic equipment and makes an actual dark room to develop photographs of visitors to the exhibition.

Upstairs, a small attic room is the perfect venue for the work of visual artist Jonathan Hayter. In his light sculpture, Worlds in collision; Transit in the Attic he explores the themes of change and transition in a colourful projection of dark and light suspended shapes, the patterns and shadows dance around the walls in a quiet harmony reminiscent of the first abstract artist, Wassily Kandinsky.

The building is a contradictory venue for this wildly experimental art, since it is the relic of a bygone age. Commissioned in the last years of the 19th century by Cornish philanthropist Passmore Edwards to house the School of Science and Art, it is a sturdy three story stone building, which was saved from demolition when it was bought by the Cornubian Arts and Science Trust (CAST) in 2012. CAST is led by the independent curator, Teresa Gleadowe, who plans to transform the building into a cultural centre, housing artists’ studios, workshops and a cafe. The wife of Tate Director, Nick Serota, Gleadowe has not only worked for the Tate Gallery (1989-1992) she was also head of the successful Curating for Contemporary Art MA course, at the Royal College of Arts (1992-2006).

The many staircases and high windows in the Helston building make it an ideal site for artists’ studios and also for sizeable groups of visitors to wander along the corridors. “Jesse Leroy Smith approached us with the idea of making a project in the building before it is occupied as studios, and we welcomed this idea,” explains Gleadowe. “The Dark Rooms is an astonishing achievement and it is amazing that Jesse Leroy Jones was able to put together such an exceptional project and attract such a large and enthusiastic audience in such a short space of time. It was thrilling to see the building come alive with this dynamic and innovative exhibition.”

Leroy Smith plans to make a film documenting the exhibition, showing how spaces such as this dark, haunting shell can be transformed by the creative minds of international artists active in Cornwall. Some of the artists included in The Dark Rooms are; Tim Shaw, Von Calhau, Richard Ballinger, Michelle Hannah, Tom James Bond and Ben Wayman amongst others. Here’s hoping the event in February will be the first of many.

Friday 1 March will host an evening of film shorts by local filmmakers.

Sophie Kazan

Image courtesy of Rachel Gaunt.