There are many towns and cities renowned for their art galleries; home to iconic pieces of art; bases for ever changing art installations. You may have visited some; queued to see the Mona Lisa, visited Florence just to see Michelangelo’s David; marvelled at the latest ‘big art’ in the Tate Turbine hall, but have you been to Wigan?
Wigan. A gritty, dark northern town immortalised by George Orwell – the name of the town probably still conjures up images to many of clogs and pit brow lasses, run down housing and coal dust. You might know us for our pies; maybe you’ve heard of our famous rugby and football teams; you might have danced the night away in our casino to the sounds of northern soul, but the home of cutting-edge art? Really? Wigan? Art?
As the world of retail continues to migrate online, Wigan, like many towns in the UK, has seen a steady decline in its town centre with an endless cycle of shops closing, leading to less visitors, a decline in spending leading to shops closing, negatively impacting the economic growth of the town. Creative thinking was needed to entice people into the town centre and bring it back to life.
Thankfully Wigan Council, led by Chief Executive, Alison McKenzie Folan, had a vision. Recognising that the arts sector is currently booming, bringing in over £8 billion to the UK economy, it was decided to create a ‘cultural hub’ on the top floor of one of Wigan’s shopping centres, utilising six empty shops.
Wigan based artists, Al Homes and Al Taylor, were bought in to breath life into a five-year program igniting arts and culture across the whole of the Wigan borough.
Their manifesto saw the launch of Wigan’s ‘The Fire Within’ in May 2019, transforming a shopping centre floor into a bright, exciting public space with innovative artwork, music, performance art and dance. More than 36,000 visitors both local and from across the world have visited the ground breaking installations since opening, enjoying the diverse exhibits.
Ensuring the space continues to attract visitors, Autumn 2019 saw four of the exhibition rooms transformed into a brand-new exhibition, ‘Love is a Rebellious Bird’, which was launched on November 2nd.
The four new exhibition spaces take visitors on a “breathtaking journey from the tender precarious moment we are born to the hour of our death” featuring artworks, videos, poetry, performance and much more.
From the moment you enter the first room, ‘Birth’, and hear the haunting voice of activist Greta Thunberg declaring “you have stolen my dreams and childhood…” - her powerful message intensified by the music and images accompanying her, your journey through life begins. ‘Rebel’, ‘Love’ and ‘Rebirth’ complete the four new rooms displaying work from a range of mainly local artists.
So, Wigan. An arts hub? Are you finding it hard to believe at this point? World renowned artists curating exhibitions in our home town. Art gracing the walls of once busy shops. Music and prose reaching out across the once busy walkways of the Galleries inviting you to come inside and listen and look and learn. Wigan?
The thing that impressed us the most was the sheer size and scale of the installation, stretching out, filling almost the whole floor of what was once a shopping centre full of people.
And in our home town.
A bus ride away, ten minutes in the car, walking distance from the train. Exciting, innovative art.
Established artists like leading lady Ghislaine Howard, exhibiting in almost every room; her easily recognisable, thought provoking paintings covering everything from birth to death, human suffering and massacres.
Local artist, Jane Fairhurst, based at Cross Street Arts in Standish, proudly showcasing her Hokusai inspired series, ‘Freefall’, depicting a small hybrid figure appearing to ‘freefall' to its doom.
Photogrammetrist Lee McStein, in his first major exhibition, displaying the stunning Ba bird from Mrs Goodison’s Egyptology Collection at The Atkinson.
Performance poet Louise Fazackerley reading from her latest work ‘The Lolitas’ accompanied by a lioness and artwork from Ghislaine and Jane.
Breastfeeding portraits by Klaire Doyle, photography from Livia Lazar, textiles from Claire Barber, colliery pigeons exquisitely drawn by Mary Griffiths. Fashion silhouettes from Callum Clint, Liz Chapman’s bird nests, Anne Louise Kershaw remembering the suffragettes, music from The Lynchs; all overseen and exhibited under the guidance of Al and Al, artists in their own right creating and exhibiting a selection of their own computer-generated environments.
Every room contains a wealth of images, sound and objects provoking you to consider how to make the world a better place. Themes inspired by Extinction Rebellion Wigan and conversations with past visitors, fearing for the future of the planet and trying to find a way to navigate a path to save it.
All of this in addition to the Fire Within HQ hosting local bands and performers, Leigh Film Society events, talks and open mic sessions.
And the ICONS exhibition space housing, amongst other artworks, one of Wigan’s most famous, forgotten artists, Theodore Major. Born and raised in Wigan he exhibited his grim depictions of Wigan streets and factories and nightmare imaginations alongside artists such as LS Lowry; refusing to sell his work to the ‘elite’ and choosing to display his own work at his Appley Bridge studio making it available for all to share.
And all of this in our home town.
Our home town.
A truly outstanding achievement by Al and Al bringing together such a wide range of work and making it freely available to the people of Wigan and visitors to the town.
Go and see it even if you think you don’t like art. It’s not just paintings or dull pictures hanging on the wall – each of its rooms designed to overload your emotions with music and images and sounds.
Wigan. We might be just a small northern town, but do not underestimate the ambition of Wigan Council and its efforts to improve the lives of the people living here.
Time in a public space art gallery; time to think; time to reflect; time to share in the work of some talented local artists. Breathing space from the stresses and strains of your life if only for an hour or two.
Wigan. That small northern town with a pier and lots of pies. A cultural hub for art? We may surprise you. After all we won the FA cup once.
Oh, and if you find yourself in Wigan coming to see the exhibition, why not try some or all of our Wander Years ‘Walk to Wigan Pier’ – a guide to help you find some of the best places to photograph in Wigan whilst enjoying a walk around the town.
Read more about Ghislaine Howard and her exhibit as part of the Peterloo Commemorations in Manchester 2019.
For more photos of this stunning exhibition visit our gallery page.