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Culture: Factory's dereliction of beauty; A dose of art has just hit a derelict X-Ray factory in Smethwick. Terry Grimley reports on the latest project from the Sozo Collective.

Byline: Terry Grimley

Hours before the Radioactive exhibition opened on Friday night in a derelict factory in Smethwick, no one seemed quite sure how many artists were taking part.

Sixty-five seemed the best estimate, but who knows? In the course of a tour my guide, opening the door to a former office, said 'There's nothing in here . . .' and was surprised to find that someone had filled it with paintings since he last looked.

The exhibition is the third in as many years to be staged by the Sozo Collective. Two years ago curator Dave Pollard knocked his own house in Handsworth about to accommodate a group exhibition, last year he and his colleagues expanded to a row of five condemned houses, and now they have taken over a factory in Foundry Lane which formerly housed Commercial X-Rays Ltd and the Morris Motor Company.

This time they have joined forces with West Bromwich-based arts and media company The Public, whose spectacular new headquarters, designed by Will Alsop, is now under construction. The plan is that they will jointly develop the venue into a permanent, or at least semi-permanent, site for artists to make and show work, in a project called Re:Location.

Does this seem at all confusing? Wait till you see the show. Nothing could be more drastically removed from the art world ideal of a pure white cube in which to show off art.

Here paintings hang on peeling walls in a rambling warren of a building. Newly introduced artworks rub shoulders with the graffiti left by the last wave of factory workers.

Dave Pollard's own contribution is a real-scale reproduction of his childhood home, as remembered through a child's eyes. It's bound up for him with memories of his father leaving for, or coming home from, work - but here it's almost impossible to tell where home ends and the workplace begins.

Work on display inside the building is linked by the theme of work, or in the case of Julian Bull's surround-screen video installation, the reveries of blue skies, soothing waves or flickering fires into which we might like to escape from it.

Upstairs there is a chance to see a selection from an extraordinary find - 500 glass negatives abandoned in the factory, covering a range of subjects including Birmingham buildings and products.

Exhibits in the courtyard outside are more loosely themed, but include Kirsty Wood's one-and-a-half-lifesized Monument to the Unknown Worker, built of chicken-wire over a steel armature and now being laboriously clad in lead recycled from the upper floors, where it used to insulate the X-Ray equipment.

'Where else would I get the opportunity to make something of this size on a subject I feel so strongly about?' she says. 'He's a monument to all the people who have worked in places they hated. You have a memorial to the unknown soldier, which is fine, but if your grandfather died in an industrial accident you don't have anywhere to go.'

Visitors to Radioactive will be able to see work in progress on Kirsty's piece. Other artists putting the finishing touches to exhibits on Friday included Pamela Wells, a Californian who has lived in the West Midlands on-and-off for the last decade, who has created a vivid banner from plastic carrier bags and wrappings collected in nearby shops.

She says it was her interest in community arts, much more developed here, that attracted her to the area.

She doubts that a comparable project would be possible in Los Angeles, where art is shaped and paid for by commercial rather than social values. Here, she tends to sell her services as an artist rather than individual works.

There is a similar democratic spirit about the Throne Room by Martin Humphreys, a kind of decorative gazebo incorporating a ring of grand chairs of equal status, with a slightly sinister element added by the crows pecking at the roof.

This is one of the most striking things in Radioactive, together with the mural painted jointly by Susan McClure and Iranian artist Mohsen Keiany which, combining English and Iranian traditions, also manages to incorporate one of the first paintings of Birmingham's Selfridges.

Radioactive is open to the public until Oct 11 (Tue-Sun 2pm-8pm; closed Mon; admission free), at Sabrina House, Foundry Lane, Smethwick. It is a five-minute walk from the Handsworth, Booth Street, Midland Metro stop (turn right down Booth Street, then left into Foundry Lane). For more information, visit the website at


Clockwise from top, Susan McLure having a well deserved cup of tea after completing Silk Road which she has made with Mohsen Keian; a painting by Ernie Hudson based on Andy Warhol's Factory; artist Joe Johnson with his work
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 29, 2003
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