Described in the run-up as Warrington’s version of the Venice Biennale because of its city ‘pavilions’ approach, my high expectations of North – a new visual arts strand of Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival – were tempered with a fair bit of scepticism. Curated by Will Lunn (founder of Copperfield Gallery, London), the premise was to inject some outsider expertise into the existing festival’s offer. But would it work?

The main event at North – its so-called focus exhibition – is just that; a tightly curated focus on big names from the contemporary art world, gathered together in a small room in Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.

For The Dream Of Modern Living?, freelance critic Paul Carey-Kent has selected new and old works that respond to Ikea – a nod to the fact that the Swedish company opened its first British store here in 1987.

The show is built around Guy Ben-Ner’s video Stealing Beauty (2007). Filmed without permission in real Ikea stores, Ben-Ner and his wife and two children play out family dramas – including ‘washing’ invisible dishes after dinner – until interrupted, and cut off, by security staff.

The stars of this show, though, are the sculptures: Ryan Gander’s multiple attempts at lamp making, made out of plastic boxes drilled with holes, propped up with knives and held in place by elastic; Stuart Hartley’s remodelling of Ikea shelving units into glowing, abstract works; and David Rickard’s plaster boxes blown apart with explosives.

Daintily-placed pavilions

The real pleasure of North, however, is its pavilions, daintily placed around town. The public spaces of Warrington’s high street – including former shops and banks, sandwiched in between 99p shops and Greggs the bakers – have been re-appropriated into mini art spaces.

Stepping out of the central museum and onto the streets, visitors will see independent galleries representing a variety of cities north of London.

The Birmingham Pavilion is curated by Ikon Gallery with artists Cathy Wade and Kevin Ryan, who have taken over a former bank and filled it with tiny paintings of Shaun Ryder from Manchester band Happy Mondays. This bizarre homage is the latest iteration of the ongoing Shaun Ryder Beermat Show, which makes use of mats that were originally produced to promote Ryder’s TV show on UFOs, which used the tagline: ‘It’s no hoax’.

The singer’s decorated face is stuck to tables, cashier desks and deposit boxes. One paying-in-slip table has been carefully turned into a Ryder altar. The beer mat, Ryan explains, is the perfect canvas: portable, easy to source and a talking point for the artists invited to participate.

The other pavilions continue in a similar vein. The Liverpool Pavilion, curated by Fran Disley and Kevin Hunt of MODEL, use a beautiful Victorian waiting room/station master’s office on platform two at Bank Quay train station. As venues go, it’s guaranteed a steady audience; when I was there, people waiting for the Virgin train to London popped in to have a look (with expressions best described as bemused).

Cheekily entitled Scouse House, or as Disley put it “a survey of Scouseness”, like the Birmingham pavilion it is an ongoing project (travelling onto Dublin after North). The title and the works may be tongue-in-cheek – including Nicki McCubbing’s grubby and masked child, I’m A Touched Up Freak On A Winning Streak (2010) and Peter Martin’s tribute to Liverpool’s more salacious retail offer, Come On Ladies… (2014) – but this has a serious advocacy purpose: to chart and promote Liverpool-born artists who are doing well internationally.

Leeds has so much to offer, it seems, that the city has two pavilions. In Part One, East Street Arts has cleverly utilised the opportunity to host a series of artist residencies. For the first 10 days of the festival, Josh Gibbs will be quietly building tiny, melancholy houses on a table positioned in front of one of the Pyramid Art Centre’s huge glass windows.

Part Two has been curated by Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, a gallery in Leeds city centre recently under threat of closure. Making a new home in Warrington’s bewilderingly kitsch Hatters Row for the duration of the festival, many of the featured artists – including Claudia Dance-Wells and Josef Zachary Shanley Jackson – are young graduates.

There are also pavilions for Manchester, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sheffield.

North clearly adds an ambitious new dimension to Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival and, while this debut has its teething problems, they seem surmountable: mainly confused branding (is this WCAF or North?) and staffing issues (it needs more manpower, including in communications and event management).

Crucially, though, it needs funding – what a pleasure it would be to see each pavilion receive a healthy pot of money to commission new works from artists all across the North. Next year, perhaps?

More on

Northern art and soul: Warrington festival addresses North-South divide – Laura Robertson talks to North curator Will Lunn and artists involved in the festival