Art animating life

Al and Al are an artist duo working with Philip Glass, the BFI and Wigan Council. The pair talk about lighting a fire under the town’s cultural scene 

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Popping down to the shops has taken on a new meaning in Wigan town centre, where six empty units in the Galleries shopping centre have been converted into a series of public cultural and performance spaces.

The Fire Within is the brainchild of artist and filmmaker duo Al and Al. Since opening last May in the partly deserted shopping complex, it is now home to five galleries, a performance space that doubles as a community hub, artists’ studios and rehearsal spaces for upcoming local bands such as The Lathums.

“It’s a huge space – the size of Tate Modern in London – but a completely inclusive way to celebrate the town’s cultural heritage,” says Al Taylor, one half of Al and Al. “People don’t realise the wealth of cultural history here and the amazing people that came from the town.”

One such unsung Wigan artist is Theodore Major, several of whose dramatic and visionary paintings are on show. “Major was a purist who was not interested in the commercial art market,” say Taylor. “He rarely exhibited and refused to sell his paintings. But he ended up having to donate two to Wigan Council in lieu of his poll tax, which he refused to pay.” Al and Al are also planning a major retrospective of his work.

Partners in life and art, Al Taylor, from Wigan, and Al Holmes, from Prestwich, formed their practice together after art college in London, and work with contemporary figures such as Philip Glass on his space opera Icarus: At the Edge of Time. But when Al Taylor’s mum became ill, they returned to Wigan to care for her and stayed on after she died.

The Fire Within was designed as a temporary pop-up but has been so successful that Wigan Council asked the pair to stay on. The centrepiece is a gold Egyptian mask with huge obsidian eyes. “It dates from the time of Tutankhamun and Nefertiti, and people can’t quite believe what they are seeing, but it’s from the museum’s collections,” says Holmes. “The mask perfectly fits the message we want to convey, which is that culture is the mask, or face, of a place, and we are saying: “Don’t erase your face.”

The current exhibition, Love is a Rebellious Bird, foregrounds the work of mainly local women artists, including performance poet Louise Fazackerley and the paintings and drawings of Ghislaine Howard and Jane Fairhurst about pregnancy, birth and motherhood. Caring for the earth as well as each other are also themes in the work of more women and non-binary artists on show.

“We wanted to connect with people who don’t normally go to museums and galleries,” say Holmes. “We can react quickly because of our fluid structure and openness to ideas and issues that mainstream institutions find harder to talk about.”

The Fire Within now has a five-year manifesto and the backing of Wigan Council to create more studio and social spaces from the empty shop units. “We have the support of all the major cultural organisations in the region including Home, the Whitworth and the Imperial War Museum,” explains Taylor. “An amazing alignment of people are working with us now, including international curators, but our main focus is on local talent.”

Al and Al have ambitious plans to make the town into a cultural destination. “Culture forms an integral part of the economic ecology,” says Taylor. “But it’s also about how we redefine what happens in our town centres. Retail has moved online and we have these huge spaces in our town centres and high streets that need new life and purpose.

“It’s been something of a culture shock for us, showing in such a public space, and going from concept to opening in 10 weeks. But with the council’s amazing team, from the joiner who built the pyramid base for the Egyptian mask to the IT guy who we really pushed out of his comfort zone to build our amazing website, and everyone else who has given hours of their time voluntarily, it’s been an incredible experience, and the reaction from audiences has been extraordinary.”

The Fire Within describes the explosive, combustible ground beneath our feet. Nearby Astley Green colliery – now the Lancashire Mining Museum – produced some of the best coal in the world and The Fire Within also refers to the spirit that powered the massive transformation of the Industrial Revolution. The colliery is now a museum, and the shops have moved online. But Wigan is lighting new fires now.

The next exhibition, Digital Wigan, opens in June and looks at future issues of sentient machines and climate change (thefirewithin.org.uk)

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