Aspex Portsmouth

Week 2, Nils Norman, 40 Stories

Joanne Bushnell, Director

If 2019 feels like a pre-covid world away, try casting your mind back to 2008!  In the spring/summer of that year, just prior to the major stock market crash that had such a devastating impact on society and the arts, we presented Ruins, Monuments and Follies a solo project by internationally acclaimed artist Nils Norman.

Having seen Nils’ work in the Global Cities exhibition at Tate Modern in 2007, I was interested in his accessible approach to imagining new ways we can live more lightly within the world. His work actively addresses the negative impacts of capitalism and the climate crisis, which is now more widely understood and accepted.  

The commission for Aspex addressed Portsmouth’s urban landscape, and included a solo exhibition at the gallery; a series of posters warning of flooding, sited in bus stops around the City; and a mural in the subway pedestrian entrance to Gunwharf Quays (the retail and leisure complex where Aspex is based), that remained in situ until 2016. 

Ruins, Monuments and Follies explored the changing nature of public space, city design and the challenges of urban ecology. The exhibition included sculptures and digital drawings featuring local architectural landmarks, adapted and ‘recycled’ by the artist. We were invited to re-imagine the City, envisioning a DIY reclamation of public space by local people, the re-appropriation of our shared histories and how urban life could be more sustainable. Twelve years on, this work is every bit as relevant, if not more so.

Organised in association with Gunwharf Quays Management, the bringing together of a corporate entity and an artist known for his principled stance was incredibly challenging for the team and I. Negotiating relationships with commercial supporters and fundraising is essential for all arts organisations who cannot exist on public funds alone, so it is a credit to all parties involved that we were able to navigate our differences, find common ground and present an artwork which remained in such a prominent position for eight years. 

True to Nils’ principles recycling continued through to the end of the project and a bus stop donated by Clear Channel Outdoor for the exhibition was re-sited in Curdridge, providing the village with a valued amenity and exhibition space. It feels timely to look back on this project, as Portsmouth invests in its flood defences and a new city vision, while at the gallery we continue to work with artists to explore ways to improve sustainability and lessen our negative impact on the environment.