Beyond TOWIE: Focal Point Gallery presents Radical Essex & ‘The Peculiar People’

To launch Focal Point Gallery‘s upcoming series of events and exhibitions, Radical Essex, a project that will re-examine the history of Essex in relation to radicalism in thought, lifestyle, politics and architecture, the gallery presents ‘The Peculiar People.’

The show, which traces the history of ideological and social-political communal living experiments throughout the 20th Century to the present day, opens today, 19th April and features an extensive archival display speculating on alternative living experiments from the late 1800s to the 1980s, alongside visual art, architecture, design and literature that relate to these counter-cultural histories.

To get an inside look into the exhibition, as well as the greater Radical Essex project, ArtAttack spoke with Focal Point Gallery director, Joe Hill.

4. Silver End bus. Courtesy Braintree District Museum.jpg
Silver End bus. Courtesy Braintree District Museum

ArtAttack: What does Essex mean to you?

Joe Hill: Being from Yorkshire originally, I am used to the institutional racism suffered by county folk up and down the country, but I have never experienced anything like the degradation Essex people endure. If you believe these slurs, you’d imagine the marshes to be teeming with extreme hairstyles, white stilettoes and sharp-suited business people in souped-up cars.

I have now lived and worked in Essex for the past five years, and these perceptions (that I may have once bought into) were immediately dispelled when I found myself surrounded by the beautifully melancholic landscape and spent time with the diverse, creative and open-minded Essex people. It came to me as no surprise that the county was credited by Alfred Hitchcock as being the reason he chose to become a filmmaker, and a place he frequently returned to for inspiration.

AA: What is it about Essex that seems to inspire utopian experiments and revolutionary/non-conformist mentalities?

JH: I’ll refer to a quote by Ken Worpole, a contributor to the exhibition who stated, ‘Essex is neither part of East Anglia nor one of the Home Counties: it contains both radical and conservative elements, and is therefore open to all possibilities.’ Essex is a testing ground, where anything can be proposed and anything can happen. The position of the county in proximity to the coast, to London allows far ranging inspiration.  

5. In Darkest England and the Way Out by William Booth, 1890. Courtesy The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre.jpg
In Darkest England and the Way Out by William Booth, 1890. Courtesy of The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre

AA: Can you discuss 2-3 particularly interesting works in the exhibition that you think will be especially enticing to visitors?

JH: We are thrilled to include the pioneering modernist architect Cedric Price’s model for an inflatable roof over Southend High Street. It is the first time this has been shown and is a wonderful example of the innovative thinking and radical designs that were commissioned within the county.

Also on display is a collection of works by concrete poet and Lettrist Henri Chopin, made during his time living in Leigh-on-Sea, and pieces by Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson made as part of their collaborative community in Thorpe-le-Soken.

AA: A critical goal of your ‘Radical Essex’ project is to ‘re-examine the history of the county.’ Is this in any way a response to ‘Towie’ and other contemporary pop-culture that seem to focus on the county exclusively as being a place to party?

 JH: It is important to use this project to highlight an alternative narrative the county can celebrate. Most stereotypes are developed over hundreds of years, this one is a fairly recent accretion and is an important part of the county’s heritage, but there is something beyond Joey Essex… a radical, open-minded county that could once again lead the world in experimental and pioneering ways of building communities and cultivating creative practice.

– India Irving

Radical Essex ‘The Peculiar People’ is on view at Focal Point Gallery until 2 July, 2016; Elmer Square, Southend-on-Sea, SS1 1NB; Open Tuesday – Saturday 10AM-6PM (Saturday until 5PM); Admission: FREE

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