How did we get here? / Where do we go now? was a large-scale exhibition, which took over a former H&M store within the Grosvenor Shopping Centre in Chester, UK. Using a remodelled space that offered an immersive gallery environment in the heart of the city, the aim was to bring art to an audience who might not normally step into a typical museum space.
The exhibition, commissioned by Chester Visual Arts and Arts Council England, presented various works of Roberts – celebrated for his breath-taking tableaux images that touch on prevalent and contentious topics – allowing audiences to explore diverse and complex ideas and acting as a catalyst for important conversations about the state of Britain today.
Composed of two parts; ‘How did we get here?’ showcased photographic, video and installation pieces spanning the past 15 years of Roberts’s work in Britain; works exploring identity, belonging and the complex relationship between history, place, and culture. The second part, ‘Where do we go now?’ was an open invitation for visitors to activate the space as they felt fit. For instance, during the exhibition the space hosted performances by buskers and contemporary theatre groups alongside participatory workshops and open sessions with arts groups (including Photoworks and Redeye) where visitors were given an opportunity to respond creatively to the current social climate, culminating in a new artwork (The Public Gallery), that developed during the exhibition and was unveiled in the shop-front window on the last week of the show.
Roberts also utilised elements of the former H&M store for the exhibition, incorporating detritus that was found discarded in the shop and appropriating props from other closed-down stores in the Grosvenor Shopping Centre, such as advertising lightboxes from Top Shop and sale signs. The tills were repurposed as a place to sell his books and artist posters (made in collaboration with Flying Leaps) and newly produced merchandise in order to help raise money for Chester Visual Arts’ ongoing activities.
From exposing our post-imperial predicament, the complications of New Commonwealth immigration, and the Brexit schism, to the possibilities of UK devolution and the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the works displayed over two floors offered a commentary on the social and political issues that were facing Britain, whilst questioning the choices that have led us to where we are today. Together with the public’s intervention, the two elements of the exhibition acted as a stimulus for open discussion about the function of the British High Street as the future use of urban spaces are increasingly debated.
“Across the entirety of his work, Roberts creates an edgy incongruity – echoes of remembered history butt up against contemporary culture and very particular local and regional contexts. These tensions are exposed in a non-judgemental way as Roberts layers ideas of national character through relationships to both place and particular moments in time. His apparently quiet, detached chronicling of the events and public atmospheres of Britain’s recent past charts the mood swings of an increasingly rich and diverse culture, discreetly opening-up complex ideas about the abiding influence of a country’s past on its ever expansive and fluid present.”
Dr Cathy Putz, Director of Programmes, Derby Museums & Trustee of Chester Visual Arts
Video walk-around of exhibition (vimeo)
Exhibition commentary by Dr Cathy Putz, Director of Programmes, Derby Museums (pdf)
Channel 4 News feature (link)