25 September 2011 - 22 January 2012
The town’s heritage as a centre of power for the ancient king Cunobelin (mythologised as William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline) and the principal city of Roman Britain, was the starting point for an exhibition of contemporary art that considered how history is recovered, represented and reenacted.
Camulodunum drew directly on themes embedded in firstsite’s (then) new architecture. Located in a town where modern buildings neighbour monuments to antiquity, the firstsite building is designed to stand on ancient land without disturbing the remains of the unexcavated Roman buildings beneath.
New works were commissioned from international contemporary artists Michaela Eichwald, Aleksandra Mir, Karin Ruggaber and Danh Vo, presented with loans from major public collections and objects from the town’s important archaeological holdings.
Camulodunum explored themes of excavation, ritual and reenactment, gathering anecdotes from literature, popular culture and local legend. The exhibition considered how artworks negotiate their relationship to artefacts in the museum, the notion of objects as a source of information and the idea of contemporary culture as future historical record.
An 88-page catalogue was published alongside the exhibition, featuring colour images, and essays by Louisa Buck, Michelle Cotton, and Charlotte Higgins. It is available from firstsite’s shop at a special exhibition price of £9.95.
This exhibition was accompanied by a series of talks, film screenings and other events, programmed for firstsite’s opening season.
...in turns gentle, intelligent, populist and subversive, the exhibition invites us to see Colchester's historic pageants alongside the work of the Neo Naturists – a post-punk performance group (including local boy Grayson Perry). The sexuality of ruins and statues is explored by Sarah Lucas's Penetralia works and Richard Hawkins's collages and ruminations on the "misuse" of statues' backsides. These gleeful subversions and potential portals are echoed in Robert Smithson's Chalk-Mirror Displacement (1969), a historic work that draws endless landscapes out of mirrors and piles of chalk on the gallery floor, and Rebecca Warren's vitrine of neons, sculptures and bits of trash, a tiny little wasteland of contemporary art. A civilisation in fragments which sits atop another civilisation in fragments.
Laura McLean-Ferris, The Independent
'An approachable charting of pathways between Colchester's history and the traditions of modern and contemporary art. Slices of the town's past, such as photographs of the Colchester Pageant of 1909 – an almost militarily effcient restaging of episodes from the town's history – are juxtaposed with tenuously Colchester-apt works of art, such as Andy Warhol's screen print of 1969, Soup II: Oyster Stew.'
Andrew Graham-Dixon, The Sunday Telegraph
'The sloping wall comes into its own with a newly commissioned series of phtographs by the Polish artist Aleksandra Mir. Playing on the theme of "six degrees of separation", she has found 100 connections, from Sir William Gilberd, a local scholar from the sixteenth century who served as physician to Queen Elizabeth I, to the present day. Called HELLO Colchester, the sequence is clever and amusing, and works well on the long curve.'
Richard Holledge, The Times
'Ancient coins and pottery join work by the likes of Chinese art megastar Ai Weiwei and land art legend Robert Smithson, as well as four major new commissions. Aleksandra Mir mines Colchester's history as a garrison town; surreal resin creations by Michaela Eichwald suggest fossils; Karin Ruggaber's concrete relief is an abstract take on the mouldings that adorn old building; and Danh Vo is trying to make a full-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty in fragments, beginning with the iconic torch-wielding hand.'
Skye Sherwin, Guardian Guide
Andrew Graham-Dixon visits firstsite
BBC Culture Show, October 2011