Review: Yarn Bombing

reviews the wonderful and wonderfully wacky event at York Art Gallery before it temporarily closes for reconstruction

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Venue: York Art Gallery

A new urban art form invaded sunny York’s Exhibition Square today: Yarnboming. Otherwise known as ‘guerrilla knitting’ – an oxymoron in itself – the practise conjures up phantasmagorias of grandmas in balaclavas raiding the Sainsbury’s local for their next hit of Werther’s Originals. In reality though, the graffiti knitting movement that originated in America at the turn of the century has jumped the pond and taken up residence in the UK, extending its woolly reach internationally as far as Australia and parts of Asia: Guerrilla knitters are wrapping our major cities in colourful knitted art one ball of wool at a time. Yarnbombing has developed, through the help of Londoner Lauren O’Farrell and her graffiti collective, Knit the City, into a socio-political statement as well as an aesthetically pleasing spectacle, amid twenty first century concrete metropolises. Picture Banksy in a bobble hat. This non-permanent, gentle form of street art was initially a medium that primarily concerned itself with reclaiming and personalising sterile, disused spaces by literally, attaching knitted paraphernalia to any available surface.

Perhaps then, it is an apt way of saying goodbye to York Art Gallery for the next few years, as the institution closes its doors tomorrow for major refurbishment. The stone of the nineteenth century Corinthian columns were today adorned in all the vibrant colours of the spectrum, homemade bunting hung beneath the archways to rival any female student’s bedroom. Sock bunnies and woollen pigeons were artfully placed around the building and square. Even the sculpture of William Etty was given a new lease of life and some protection from the cold thanks to its new woolly scarf. This spectacle was not just a chance for the public to cull their sock collections, post-Christmas influx, though. It was designed to attract those who would usually walk past the Art Gallery – the inviting display hoping to draw them inside and encourage involvement in developing the city’s art scene. The guerrilla knitters were successful in their not-so-covert operations.

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Through the gallery doors there is hardly room to move, but it is certainly worth dodging prams and pedestrians to see what has become of the empty art spaces. Every wall space in the entire building has been covered in crayon, pencil, pen, paint: a colourful display of York’s artistic talent. Children drew families, houses and pets, some show off their fantastical imaginations with images of fairies and monsters. Adults drew mature images of nature and beauty. An extraordinary array of illustration was crafted today: some exceptional pencil portraits, nudes, insightful decorated quotations. Some people simply left their mark with a name and a date, the occasional hand print. There was so little space left by mid-afternoon that even the stairwell was being covered, inch by inch, in markings and sketches. Away from hive of activity at the edges of the room, small craft sessions were taking place; clay sculpting, pot and quilt making, performance art and short theatrical productions all added to the noise, colour and diversity of artistic merit here.

Being an History of Art student myself, I have been familiar with York Art Gallery for the past few years. The crowd drawn in today is second in size only to that of the David Hockney exhibition in 2011. A very busy Jenny Alexander, Assistant Curator of Fine Arts, takes a few minutes to talk to me about today’s events, saying that “by lunchtime sixteen hundred people had been through the doors and some have stayed all day.” An astonishing number. All those here today have been invited to put forward their own ideas concerning the improvement and renovations at York Art Gallery. With a budget of £7.6 million and a two year time-scale, the council’s mission to build a “bigger and better gallery for all” should be achievable in time for Easter of 2015. With plans for a new Fine Art store, a new layout, more community outreach work and hopes for a vastly diverse collection of global artwork spanning the epochs, York Art Gallery should be coming back better than ever.

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