SYSON opened its doors in March 2013 and has since then been establishing itself as a contemporary commercial art gallery in the centre of Nottingham working closely with regional and internationally established artists. SYSON's broad programme is steadily developing and has accomplished a great deal in such a small space of time. SYSON will once again be sponsoring the Nottingham Castle Open and Director Jennie Syson will be awarding TheSyson Prize at the exhibition closing party and prize giving evening. In this interview Jennie talks about her role as a sponsor and what the future holds for SYSON.[Colette Griffin] Firstly can you give an introduction to SYSON and tell us a bit about what is coming up in the gallery’s programme for the rest of 2014?
[Jennie Syson] It’s a space on the edge of the Creative Quarter in Nottingham and a project I’ve wanted to do for about a decade. It’s a commercial gallery, which has a programme that attempts to do lots of different things, so it’s more than just a shop. Primarily working with artists who are based in the city who also have a diverse career outside of Nottingham, I do sometimes work with recent graduates, the gallery also presents work by more established artists, who may have had a 10-15 year career and are represented in other countries but not necessarily in the UK. We opened in March 2013, in the wake of doing an auction project with Nottingham Castle, which was a great collaboration to do. That was a test project to see whether selling contemporary art in the city would work – I’m glad to say it did. We have organised another auction event this year, which will take place on Friday 14th November, preceded by a two-week exhibition.
The programme to date has spanned about 10 projects and as well as exhibitions we’ve also presented, a book and print fair, residencies, artists’ talks and reading room sessions which look at philosophical and critical theory based texts in a more accessible way. We have just been trying things out. We’re currently based in an old Victorian shop unit on Beck Street, located next to Antenna Media Centre – our lovely landlords.
SYSON is a relatively new commercial contemporary art gallery, was your involvement in the Nottingham Castle Open a calculated decision which you anticipated would be mutually beneficial for you and the recipient of The Syson Prize? And had you hoped it would forge lasting bonds between SYSON and the artist you selected?
It was quite a natural collaboration to work with the Castle, as I’m an independent curator who is from Nottingham – so I feel at home in the gallery spaces and with the great team they have. I always knew I would find something good at the Nottingham Castle Open because in recent years the quality has just rocketed and it’s been a pleasure to see a more diverse range of contemporary art on show. It was a pleasure to be asked to award a prize associated with my gallery and it was just coincidental that it was someone who I already knew, but who’s work I didn’t. I already knew Liam, having been very invested in the Nottingham art scene for the past 10 years – and was aware of Tether, (an artists collective which Liam was previously involved with); however I didn’t know his individual practice at all.
It was really refreshing to see new work that it was so well developed, which I could instantly see would lend itself to an exhibition at SYSON. In the wake of Liam being awarded The Syson Prize and also The Ian Robinson Prize at the Castle Open people began to take more notice of his practice and he became more established as a solo studio member at Primary in his own right. I spent a lot of time talking with Liam about the best way to present that and to get across what he wanted his work to say. Interface became a conversation between different surfaces, and a new totem piece was made specifically for the exhibition. The work in the Castle Open became a maquette for a larger version that ended up at SYSON. There was an installation downstairs in the gallery, which gave the sense of being inside the totem, looking out. We were also able to incorporate his prize from Ian Robinson by creating an installation with vinyl on the downstairs window, this acted very much like a sundial, throughout the day you would see different coloured projections throwing themselves on to the floor or across the walls of the gallery. Liam worked with photographer James E Smith to document this happening – and this might form the basis for a new piece of work.
How did you go about working with Liam to best utilise the prize and what you were offering him as a sponsor?
Through a series of interviews and conversations about films and documentaries we came up with an idea that was more than just a display of totems. We had lots of conversations about historical documentaries and iconic television programmes concerned with ancient religious and ethnographic findings. Things like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos sat cheek by jowl to graphic novel references and an interest in science fiction and fantastical technology. We collated a blog to reflect that as part of the exhibition. Another thing that happened which was fortuitous was that we produced a limited edition of prints which are permanently available from the gallery on the website.
The Syson Prize seems very open ended and ambiguous, is this intentional? And do you have any ideas about how you want to work with this year’s winner?
Initially I really wanted to support a sculpture prize, as this was an underdeveloped area of the Castle Open, in previous years it perhaps didn’t reach as many people working in three-dimensional ways. Very wisely I was persuaded during talks with the castle to make it as broad as possible, just in case there wasn’t any sculpture in the show that I liked, but of course on that occasion I did end up picking a sculpture.
The prize also reflects my background as a commissioner and curator of public art and temporary site-specific projects. I’m happy for the prize to remain ambiguous, as artists themselves are diverse. It could result in a very traditional series of paintings or prints in the gallery, or an event in a cave, or a pub for example. The prize can present itself in any number of ways and hopefully I will get a flavour of that through what’s on display, depending on the selection.
As a sponsor what do you hope you are providing for the winner of The Syson Prize? And now that this is your second year as a prize giver has what you are looking for in a recipient changed?
An instinctive response to the work is my number one priority. It has to be good. As before, I am not necessarily looking for work I recognise – I actually really like the idea that statements are not given this year, so the selectors are also in the dark somewhat.
What I would offer the artist is development. The way SYSON is developing at the moment I don’t officially represent anybody but that will change in the next year and I will take on between 6 and 10 artists in the next 3 years to provide them with more formal representation at art fairs and also through a series of solo exhibitions. What I would be offering the winner of the prize would be in that model. I wouldn’t necessarily offer long term representation but for the time that they are working on that project with me they would get the same treatment as any artist that I work with. That would include career development advice, curatorial advice, encouragement to enter other things, help with a CV and portfolio to get them to that next stage.
Do you intend to continue supporting the Nottingham Castle Open as a sponsor?
My commitment to the prize will continue certainly for the next few years while I know that I am going to have a gallery space in Nottingham. I am really pleased to announce for the first time publicly that the gallery has been awarded a major grant from the Arts Council to do the things I have just been discussing. In the next few months there will be a lot of changes in the development of SYSON, both of where we are placed in the city and what we will be doing with artists.
Can you expand a little more on these exciting plans for SYSON coming into 2015?
2015 will see a range of solo exhibitions; I am really pleased to be working more intensively with Yelena Popova, Blue Firth and Marianna Simnett, amongst others. Many have strong connections with Nottingham even if they are not based here. I’m passionate about showing artists who have a developed career elsewhere, here on their home turf too. Yelena is widely collected and exhibited internationally; Blue has been doing some great public art commissions over the last few years and Marianna recently won the Jerwood Film & Video Umbrella Prize. All three will be having solo shows, allowing me to focus more on developing individual artist’s careers.
This past weekend the gallery took part in The Manchester Contemporary art fair and presented work by Kashif Nadim Chaudry, Blue Firth, Yelena Popova, Geoff Litherland, Candice Jacobs and of course Liam Aitken. It went fantastically well and I was delighted to meet so many other galleries and collectors in the North of England. I hope to continue developing a commercial arm to the strong artist led scene in the Midlands – and being a part of the Open is an essential part of that.
Colette Griffin Exhibitions & Visual Arts Assistant Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery