The Magic City:
The New Art at Deutsche Bank Birmingham

The exploding star turns out to be a cloud with a shimmering blue hue assembled together from thousands of words and sentences. Idris Khan gave the title A River Runs Happy to his wall piece for the entrance hall of the new Deutsche Bank branch in Birmingham at 5 Brindley Place. In order to gain a clearer understanding of the abstract term “happiness,” the British artist collected a wide variety of statements on the theme, which overlap in the work as countless rays. In all its multilayeredness, A River Runs Happy shows one thing in particular—that happiness is not a static feeling, and can only be defined in a very personal way.

One of the conference rooms of the building the bank recently moved into is also dedicated to Idris Khan; here, one of his photo works is on view, made shortly after he graduated from the Royal College of Art in London. Superimposing digital images, he merged 60 self-portraits by Rembrandt into a single image, a synthesis of the Dutch master’s entire lifetime. The technique is characteristic for Khan. “I appropriate what overwhelms me,” the artist explains. His homage’s oscillate between revealing and concealing, past and present.

The new Deutsche Bank art presentation encompasses around 200 works by British and international artists, many of whom have a connection to Birmingham. Idris Khan, for instance, was born here. Birmingham is an aspiring art city—this can be seen by the immediate surroundings in Brindleyplace, the area where the new Deutsche Bank branch is located. Since the 1990s, the former industrial section at the center of town has grown into a vibrant quarter: where dilapidated factories still dominated the streets of the area in the 1980s, there is now a wealth of restaurants, stores, and firms. And one of Great Britain’s renowned art institutions is also based in Brindleyplace—the Ikon Gallery, which looks back on a long-term partnership with Deutsche Bank. Imran Qureshi, the 2013 “Artist of the Year,” will be presented here in a major solo show this fall.

In 2009, the Raqs Media Collective, which hails from India, also exhibited its monumental work When the Scales Fall From Your Eyes in the Ikon Gallery. The artists’ group has created an installation of clocks for the entrance hall of the new bank building: The Arc of a Day takes us through a global working day between fear and ecstasy. “This is a snapshot of the world we are living in, traveling to, dreaming about, right now,” they explain.  

The silkscreen made by BAZ (Birmingham Art Zine) for the 7th Liverpool Biennial of 2012 proclaims Birmingham—The Magic City. In the work, the artists’ collective sent a greeting to the city on the Mersey that was both ironic and locally patriotic, because BAZ believes that “everything Birmingham does is magic and want the world to know about it—especially people in Liverpool!” The gigantic monument they show in their piece is based on a real-life model—one that greets visitors not to the English city, however, but to Birmingham, Alabama.

Besides BAZ, there are other young Birmingham-based artists in the collection, including Stuart Whipps, Ruth Claxton, and Elizabeth Rowe. They too often work with found imagery. Claxton uses a scalpel to alter postcards of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, adding patterns and stripes that add a surreal touch to the historical motifs. On the other hand, Rowe primarily uses image material from glossy magazines, scientific publications, and newspapers. “I’m very interested in images that we see in the mass media,” explains the artist, “because they are a way that we understand ourselves and a way of us thinking about our place in the world.”

Stuart Whipps pursues similar interests and uses a variety of sources to inspire his work—ranging from Margaret Thatcher’s speeches to the modernist architecture of the old public library in Birmingham. The work Pukou, CGI (2008) also contains a reference to his native city, albeit a hidden one. The photograph is part of the series Ming Jue: Photographs Of Longbridge and Nanjing and explores the relocation of the factory where the classic British MG Rover automobile was manufactured from Birmingham to the Chinese city of Nanjing. Whipps’s photographs bring to mind themes such as loss, absence, and alienation.  

There are international artists in Birmingham too, of course. The spectrum ranges from “modern classics” including Mona Hatoum and Markus Lüpertz to younger artists, such as the Finnish photographer Ola Kolehmainen and the Turkish artist Nilbar Güreş, whose work explores the clichés of female roles and the social realities in her native country. On view at Deutsche Bank is her photo work Cemile is standing from the series Open Phone Booth, in which Güreş depicts the situation in the East Anatolian village her father lives in. For decades now, the people here have been waiting in vain for home telephone service. Now, however, thanks to the new cell phone technology, they can finally enjoy direct contact with relatives and friends all over the world. To get good reception, however, they have to leave their village, which lies in a valley, and climb one of the surrounding mountains. Thus, the dramatic landscape is turned into an “open telephone booth”—a symbol for the longing to communicate and for community.