A core part of Brighton & Hove’s cultural identity, Fabrica is celebrating a quarter century of stunning site-specific contemporary art installations. Based in a former Regency church, this visual arts organisation has brought in some of the world’s most celebrated artists to its city-centre gallery, including David Shirley, Assocreation, Walter & Zoniel and Anish Kapoor, to create events which are accessible, friendly and fiercely innovative.
From the spectacle to the tactile, fun and warmth are ever-present in Fabrica’s shows which was perfectly summed up in Swedish artist Jacob Dahlgren’s vibrant On Balance in 2014. A co-commission with Brighton Festival, it brought together two of his works and challenged the concept of art just being something to stare at approvingly. Heaven is a Place on Earth gathered 713 polished bathroom scales in eye-scorching candy hues, while The Wonderful World of Abstraction formed kaleidoscopic sculptural shapes from 1000’s of metres of multi-coloured ribbon. Visitors were encouraged to play with both works, and experience moments of physical and social contact.
“It’s amazing to look back over the last 25 years and think about all the artists we’ve worked with, and the experiences that they’ve created for audiences,” says Fabrica’s Director, Liz Whitehead. By their nature, installations often seek to make art less isolated, often presenting everyday materials to better connect with an audience. Sculptor Susie Macmurray’s landmark show, Resonance, suspended thousands of musical manuscripts from the Fabrica’s ceiling in 2013. These included hymns which may once have been sung there when it was a church, along with chamber works, jazz and more contemporary music. Creating a delicate landscape which responded the building’s history, it emphasised how music offers a shared ephemeral and emotional experience.
Since opening in 1996, Fabrica has worked with over 250 artists – either as exhibitors or as artists-in-residence. Whether it’s a new exhibition by a breakthrough creative, or existing work from an international name, the main consideration is in how the show will resonate with the surroundings of this unconverted 19 century chapel. One wonderful example of this ambition was Brian Eno’s bold and immersive 77 Million Paintings, a hypnotic and constantly evolving light installation. Part of 2010’s Brighton Festival, this combination of shifting soundscapes and computer-manipulated images was reminiscent of a huge stained-glass window.
This Grade II-listed building was built, like so many of the city’s icons, by Thomas Kemp. This politician and property developer had left the Church of England and required somewhere to worship with his nonconformist sect. Designed in 1817 by Amon Wilds, the chapel went with Kemp when he returned to Anglicanism and was renamed the Holy Trinity Church. Subsequent additions to the building have been attributed to Somers Clarke, whose work can also be seen at Chichester Cathedral, St Peter’s and St Martin’s, and Sir Charles Barry, the architect for St Peter’s Church, the original Sussex County Hospital and The Palace of Westminster.
By 1996, the building had been deconsecrated and largely ignored for a decade. Artists from Brighton’s Red Herring Studios, with support from South East Arts, Brighton Borough Council, The Foundation for Sport and the Arts, and the Chichester Diocese, reimagined it as Fabrica – a focal point for contemporary visual art practice in the city. The name is a blend of the words ‘fabricate’ in English and ‘fabriquer’ in French. With some variations, it also means ‘factory’ in several European languages, aligning with a desire for the gallery to be a place of creation.
Providing space for artists to test the boundaries of their practice, Fabrica intentionally seeks to shift audience’s focus from what art represents visually to what it communicates about our reality. A work which combined an extreme technical feat with significantly altering the gallery’s interior was 2015’s astonishing Fragility. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva filled the space with a series of delicate veils. These hangings diffused the seaside sunlight and offered a profound experience as the viewer walked beneath. Constructed using waste product from the pork industry, the work’s beautiful translucent materials offered a bold contrast to Fabrica’s solid stone walls, along with a bold statement about mortality and decay.
This Duke Street gallery exhibits three main shows a year, often developed in partnership, along with regular commissions and artists-in-residence. While assisting with creative’s professional development, Fabrica engages with schools, further and higher education students and local groups to widen understanding and participation in the arts. This willingness to interact with and learn from the community it serves has prompted a range of works responding to subcultures and fashions. Ewan Spencer’s Kick Over The Statues examined tribes and style. During summer 2016, he photographed young Londoners at Notting Hill Carnival, all communicating their identity through the language of clothing and personal styling. His exhibition drew from the rich plurality amongst youth movements and placed them against a backdrop of a rich global and constantly evolving cultural history.
A recurring them amongst Fabrica’s shows is portraying other perspectives. Luminary, by Ron Haselden, offered a monumental walk-through installation constructed of evocative LED light pictures. Developed from drawings by older people, the work’s light emission was a metaphor for how the least visible and vocal amongst us can still offer important knowledge and perspective to society. To remain as open-access as possible, exhibitions are free to the public. Fabrica is supported by a range of different sources, including regular funding the Arts Council England, previous help from the European Union’s Interreg and Creative Europe programmes, as well as individual donations and venue hire.
Local links extend to other art organisations, with Fabrica continually working with Lighthouse, Photoworks and Brighton Festival. There are also valuable partnerships with galleries in France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and North Macedonia, which facilitated access to significant levels of EU funding for commissions, alongside expanding educational work. The relationship with Brighton Festival brought Olafur Eliasson’s exquisite The Forked Forest Path to Fabrica this year. The internationally renowned Danish–Icelandic artist built a fairy-tale woodland in the space. Using materials sustainably sourced from Lewes’s Foxwood Foresty, Stanmer Park, Wilderness Wood and Laughton Greenwood, it explored mankind’s relationship with nature and its impact on folklore.
Great modern art generates a dialogue, either directly or by placing conversations in different contexts. In 2017, the UK premiere of Ipek Duben’s They/Onlar cast a light on society’s attitudes to outsiders. The multi-screen video installation offered stories from across the ethnic, religious and gender spectrum in her native Turkey. By discussing histories, attitudes, prejudices, hear-say and personal experiences, it helps us better understand our own preconceptions and reactions to others.
In 2013, Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen unveiled her ambitious The Blue Route. Creating large-scale installations from everyday objects such as second-hand clothing, she evokes feelings of personal loss, collective memory, and local history in her work. Using donations from locals, she filled the void inside Fabrica with huge layers and chains made from old shirts. Whether you view the piece as a comment on loss, the passage of time and or commercialism, it undeniably created an intimate connection between itself and the viewer.
While we’ve given the tiniest glimpse into the past, Fabrica is ever moving forward with its compelling programme. Coming up this summer is the world premiere of Wolfgang Weileder’s Kiosk. Running on Sun 11 July – Sun 29 Aug, the German artist questions social inclusion, diversity and common ground in our culture. Designed using the bold visual language of Islamic architecture and fabricated using reclaimed church pews, it challenges attitudes around sacred buildings. ‘Kiosk’ is originally a Persian word for a pavilion which was used to contemplate and meditate, while in the West it refers to a small shop. This contradiction of terms enables the work to generate a debate about what really defines space. It stands to continue Fabrica’s 25-year mission to value art as not something to simply be observed, but as a manifestation of ideas working in context with their surroundings which evoke emotions, conversations and a desire to know more.