It is 50 years since the Museum of Modern Art Oxford opened in a former Victorian brewery in the city’s centre, offering a flash of forward-thinking within a stronghold of fusty academia.
To mark the anniversary, the gallery, which rebranded itself Modern Art Oxford in 2002, is hosting Kaleidoscope, a year-long series of exhibitions celebrating its history.
The first instalment, The Indivisible Present, opened in February, and featured 24 Hour Psycho (1993) and Sleep (2013), two immaculate film installations by, respectively, Douglas Gordon and Elizabeth Price, both recipients of the Turner Prize.
Now Kaleidoscope’s final chapter, The Vanished Reality, featuring 10 artists, has been unveiled to the public. And, again, as well as keeping an eye on the gallery’s past, the curators are mindful of art’s future.
The past is represented at the threshold to the first gallery in the form of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece of conceptual art from 1964. Known as an “instruction painting”, it was created by Yoko Ono, who first exhibited at the gallery in its inaugural year, and is the only artist to have featured in all five Kaleidoscope exhibitions.
A small pad of 250 sheets of paper, which visitors are encouraged to tear off, is attached to the wall. Each sheet is printed with an exhortation: “Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.” This terse message, of course, subverts the bourgeois way in which art is valued as a commodity.
However, while I can understand why the gallery is proud of its association with Ono, who also had a retrospective here in 1997, this particular “concept” – like so much of her work – is, unfortunately, naïve and trite.
Far more invigorating is a nearby sculpture, a new commission by the Polish artist Maria Loboda, which dominates the gallery. It consists of a giant ring of what look like sheaves of wheat, held in place by steel bands, so that the whole homespun circular structure stands upright, creating a kind of portal.
Apparently, it is meant to resemble a “chinowa”, a sacred grassy threshold in the Shinto religion in Japan. But it also has a distinctly pagan, Wicker Man-like quality, as though it hails from a rural backwater where it was fashioned to celebrate the end of harvest. As a result, it casts a dark, bewitching spell.
Elsewhere, there are other impressive sculptures, including three colourful “cut-outs” of animals printed onto aluminium by the up-and-coming Estonian artist Katja Novitskova, as well as several sleek and stylish forms by the Egyptian sculptor Iman Issa, which look like weapons-grade Brancusis.