- x-church, Gainsborough
- East Midlands
The Viking. Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England in July 1013 and defeated the English army causing King Ethelred to flee the country; Sweyn was declared the new King in December. Gainsborough was his base throughout the campaign and briefly became the capital of England (and Denmark). Five weeks later he was killed, as was Gainsborough’s capital city status. Gainsborough is nowadays recurrently rated as being amongst the country’s most deprived towns, with high levels of unemployment, child, food and fuel poverty, with over half of the homes failing the decent homes test. It makes one wonder how different things might have been for the town if Gainsborough had remained the capital.
This historical and contemporary context is important in considering Marc Renshaw’s exhibition. x-church has been at the heart of the town’s recent cultural activity and extends beyond the visual arts into band practice and gigs, boxing training, professional wrestling bouts, youth clubs and more; over a number of years, x-church has impacted and revitalised the local community. The show is part of the Renshaw’s role as a Slumgothic Resident Artist, where an artist fee is given with no strings attached which is paid for by the boxing club’s rent. Renshaw has been present most Thursday evenings observing Gainsborough and translating his insights, alongside reflections on his own life, to oodles of drawings, leaving these and other small artistic ‘gifts’ around the building.
This year Gainsborough has been awarded levelling up funds of over ten million pounds as part of the ‘Thriving Gainsborough 2024’ initiative. This much-needed investment for the town and questions of who will benefit is at the heart of Renshaw’s project. The publicly available bid application shows the aim is ‘through regeneration of the town centre and local investment in cultural facilities, to revitalise the local economy and ultimately reduce the acute deprivation experienced across several wards.’ Renshaw’s project is on the surface a simple one – to re-assign x-church as the ‘Wealth Streams Development Agency’ (2023), presumably based on the venue’s cultural success suggesting that this could be an excellent place to start sharing Gainsborough’s newfound levelling-up wealth.
From the street I see prominent, striking banners advertising the ‘WSDA’, giving little clue that an art exhibition is inside. Inside the building, I pass through a glittering golden curtain, reminiscent of those found in corner shops or Matthew Kelly-era ‘Stars in Their Eyes’. My eyes are confronted by another much larger foil curtain across the vast nave. Beyond the shimmering veil, hundreds of drawings are pinned to the gold-painted ‘Wall of Wealth’ (2023). I scan my eyes over the vast pinboard-like collaged installation, it would be impossible not to such is the visual enticement. Many of the drawings prominently feature text, evoking binary reactions of hope and despair, aspiration against despondency, and aiming high versus feeling lost inside. Phrases pop and pull for my attention: ‘Last boat to Milton Keynes,’ ‘Billionaire’s Are Finding Things Difficult,’ ‘I never quite lost hope of impressing the Saville Row set,’ ‘A Serious Contemporary Artwork’, etc. Many of the drawings suggest Capitalism offers the way out, money will benefit and lead to success; as if money will save the artist. It is hard to read whether the artist truly believes this or is sceptical and critical of it, I suspect the work inhabits both simultaneously.
There appears to be an utopian dream that wealth might come to the artist and change their life, much like the promise the levelling up money for Gainsborough. When I spoke to the artist he mentioned how every time he starts a new drawing “there is the hope that this one might be the one.” He talked of how ‘this’ might be the one that sells for big bucks, the one that leads to another, greater opportunity, “the one that enables me to be a full-time artist.” Aspirations many artists hope for, but few find a reality, particularly those so far from the current capital city. Renshaw comes originally from the Isle of Man, a UK tax haven, a place where when you step off the ferry you are confronted by the logos and premises of offshore banks. This biographical information puts a context onto his hopes and aspirations on one side and the, for me more interesting, melancholic tone of the work.
Playing in the café (where a cup of tea or coffee is 30p) is a tv playing a slide show of thousands of Renshaw’s hand-drawn and digital drawings made over the last 25 years. One phrase stands out and feels pertinent to the overall feeling of the artist’s work; ‘This feels like a Jesus and Mary Chain kind of day,’ I would need a thousand words or more to explain why this is the case. A luminous, melancholic and white-noise-type mood that is synonymous with the Scottish band carries over into Renshaw’s film (‘A Life Spent Trying to Find Something’, 2023) playing in a dark room. The film points to another artistic approach to Wealth Streams Development Agency, one that feels more tender and poetic, further away from the toxicity of capitalist-driven desire chains. Here we see misty roadside landscapes, churned-up building-site city centres, flashing road signs and x-church itself. Renshaw digitally smudges and fogs parts of the images, adding mystery, intrigue, an unsettling of the ordered, through a disordering of the reality of the life depicted. A gaseous cloud of gold appears at intervals in different sites as if the wealth had literally landed on the streets and was ready to be given directly to ‘the people’. Here, I experienced a lingering and lasting impression, one that moved towards a sense of wonder and hope that could go with it. To return to the Jesus and Mary Chain, a lyrical refrain buzzed through my head as I watched Renshaw’s animated film and revelled in throbbing golden glow: “These days I feel immune, To all the sadness and the gloom.” Sat in x-church watching the film I felt the allure of the politically manipulative levelling up agenda to struggling and neglected communities and, yes, artists too.
Like so many Government, Arts Council and other bureaucratic initiatives, the reality is a favouring of those that can ‘talk and talk’ rather than looking to and trusting past evidence of what has had an impact. It would appear much of Gainsborough’s millions will be invested in a shiny new cinema, I hope this works out for the town, though one only has to look to the south of Lincolnshire to see the empty units surrounding a recent town centre multiplex in Thatcher’s hometown, Grantham. The most prescient pieces for me were those left by Renshaw in dusty corners behind the immense pillars that line the walls. In ‘Derivatives’ (2023) sheets of gold leaf swath over cobwebs. The forms created are extraordinary, they appear (quietly and sensitively) to celebrate what inhabits the space already and the often overlooked I hope (and wish I had more belief in that hope) the council also recognise the cultural gold that they have on their doorstep and x-church, Trinity Arts Centre and artists like Renshaw might be part of the cultural revitalisation project too and get a slice of the ‘wealth pie.’ As Shakespeare wrote: “All that glisters is not gold—Often have you heard that told.”