Michele Allen presents two exhibitions this spring: 'Public & Private' and 'For The Elevation of Man'. Both explore the unwritten histories of the North-East of England, and the processes by which we imagine the third person plural: how the collective category of 'we' is formed, or deformed.
Her first exhibition, 'Public and Private' explores the roles of education in our lives, and our society. This body of work has been created during a four-month residency at Durham Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site, and the home of Durham University's 'University College'. The work responds to the Castle's history as a site of government, its current use as a home to students of University College, and its relationship to the wider region: Sunderland is a historical province of County Durham. University College is known as the 'founding' college of Durham University: in 1832 it marked the beginning of the first University in the North of England, half a millennium after Oxford and Cambridge were established. Allen's residency allowed her to research the history of the Castle as a site of political and military power and more recently a place of learning; the running of the University as an institution and a set of historic buildings; and the collections of books and artworks owned by both.
Allen's work invites us to ask several questions. Who gains from the structures of education we have inherited? What exactly is it that they gain? Is knowledge a form of power or a form of personal empowerment? Or is it one of the few ways that we have to make our way into and through the wider worlds that lie beyond our own?
Her video work 'Aesop's Feast' juxtaposes footage of the Durham Miners' Gala in Durham city centre, attended annually by hundreds of thousands, with a soundtrack recorded in Durham Castle that features students' musical performances. 'Aesop's Feast' draws our attention to both what Allen calls "the role of education as a means of emancipation in the Trade Union Movement", and to the role that education has in stretching our capabilities as human beings, including that of our imaginative empathy with the wider world.
The exhibition also includes photographs from the Castle, and of its historic special collections. These include books and artefacts that have been preserved for decades or centuries. We also see the rites and rituals of those living or working in a venerable institution: a form of 'everyday life'.