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The Crack Magazine

Image credit Annie O'Donnell, 1952 ICI Christmas Party.jpg

Chem Tales Over Tees Valley

Chemical City is a major thematic exhibition on the legacies of synthetics production in the Tees Valley. You can see it at MIMA.

Certain towns and cities are forever associated with a certain type of industry. One thinks of automobiles in Detroit, or, closer to home, shipbuilding and coal mining in Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham. In Middlesbrough, and the wider Tees Valley, the production of chemicals is strongly linked with the area. This, in part, is largely due to Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI, to you and me), which was a major employer in that part of the world. The multinational organisation, which was around from the 1920s to 2011, shaped the Tees Valley’s built environment, local ecology and sense of place. And the incredible innovations that were honed during that period by the company led to the development of materials and products such as Perspex, Dricold, paints, synthetic dyes, polyester and nylon. Naturally, ICI’s presence in the region is highlighted in this wide reaching exhibition, which opens with a focus on the development of plastics in the area, and then expands into broader social, economic, material and ecological themes. Through displays of company magazines, press photographs, archival film footage, material samples, products and personal memorabilia, the exhibition’s first gallery animates life within Teesside ICI during the corporation’s heyday.

The second gallery features two newly-commission significant artworks. An impressive 13-meter-long wall painting by Onya McCausland is rendered in paint made by the artist from waste ochre at a mine water treatment site in Saltburn. There’s also a large display-structure by Annie O’Donnell, which is based on the area’s industrial architecture, and houses sculptures and collages relating to the artist’s family experiences of working with Chemicals and plastics.

The third display illustrates some of the ecological impact of synthetic dyes and fibres in fast fashion through a showcase of contemporary products – a handbag made from cacti, shoes made from banana leaves, a biodegradable t-shirt dyed with algae – that addresses waste and toxicity.

The final gallery shows blown glass sculptures, a video piece and floor installation by artist Katarina Zdjelar that expands on themes of conflict, memory and international connections.

MIMA’s Artistic Director Elinor Morgan comments: “For the first time we are combining contemporary mainstream fashion products and newly commissioned artworks and historic archival materials. We hope this will create a rich experience for our visitors and community of learners, leading to new understandings of material innovation and environmental concerns. Three major commissions bring together talented artists based in the Tees Valley, London and Rotterdam. “Synthetics production has left a complex legacy and through this exhibition we take an affectionate look at the positive experiences of those who worked to make the shiny, glamorous products of the future, as well as a critical look at the ecological impact of this industry and others. It has been incredible to work with experts Esther Lesley and Lynne Hugill to analyse these social histories on one hand, and to understand contemporary creative responses to the problems of plastics production on the other.”

Chemical City, until 24 April 2022, MIMA, Middlesbrough. mima.art