Artrudge – Birmingham’s Custard Factory

by Elliot Davies

Custard Factory BirminghamArtrudge is a semi-occasional feature in which one of our number trudges around a place looking at art. This time, we’re having a look at Birmingham’s creative hub, the Custard Factory.

I’ve never liked custard. It’s foul, depraved, unnatural stuff. It’s the type of substance that makes you wonder just what sort of unholy accidents had to take place to spawn it in the first place. Did it ooze from some kind of pustule in the corner of a sentient charnel house? Did a wheezing half-living dogsbody declare to the room – “behold God’s mistake” – before proceeding to shovel it into his rotten mouth (the dirty sod)?

Even the name sounds repulsive. Custard. I can’t help but hear it in the raspy voice of a nursing home Lothario as played by Griff Rhys Jones. “Cust-aaaaaard” he sneers, licking his dry lips with a dry tongue, as his dressing gown falls open to reveal just a little bit too much unwashed grey chest hair (the filthy sod).

Custard factories, then, are surely inherently evil hives of horror, where hideous yellow clouds of sickly sweet terror linger like malignant spirits. However, they are not beyond redemption. In the early 1990s, Birmingham undertook an extensive rehabilitation project of the former Birds Custard Factory, which had been closed since the 60s.

Over the past two decades, The Custard Factory Project has resulted in the creation of hundreds of jobs, and given Birmingham a whole new creative hub. The place now hosts scores of shops, studios, eateries, venues and permanent installations. It’s an invigorating sprawl of 19th century industrialism, 20th century modernism, and contemporary street art.

It’s a multicoloured cluster of creativity and positivity. To walk through the place is enough to make you understand that, right here, great ideas are had on an hourly basis. It feels like Byker Grove as decorated by Baz Luhrmann, Jamie Hewlett and William Gibson. It’s the sort of place that makes you understand why the word “happening” was once used as a positive adjective. Here, stuff is undoubtedly happening.

If The Custard Factory had a sound, it would be vibrantly urban; sunsoaked, bleary, and smoking hot. Think of a sound that’s halfway between Four Tet in 2005 and Miles Davis in 1972.

Unfortunately, we visited The Custard Factory on a sleepy Sunday. Hardly anyone was around, hardly anywhere was open, and it was quite chilly. I wouldn’t go as far as to describe the atmosphere as post-apocalyptic, but it did feel a little bit like walking around the deserted Emerald City at the start of Return to Oz.

A group of skaters sat by the fountain. A Wheelers assault felt inevitable.

Nevertheless, it was still possible to take in the artwork. The Custard Factory, you see, is a work of art in itself. Most surfaces are splashed with colour, and many buildings incorporate large permanent installations by international artists.

Zambian artist Tawny Gray has a number large sculptures at The Custard Factory. The Green Man is the largest sculpture in Birmingham. Standing at 12m high, he’s an awe-inspiring product of Gray’s love of making huge structures “and figuring out how to make them…not fall over…”

On a soporific Sunday afternoon, The Green Man radiated all the veiled menace and barely-contained power of a sleeping giant. Perhaps when The Custard Factory awakes, he does too?

Another sculpture of Gray’s is found within the Zellig complex, and is entitled The Deluge 2010. It’s a 10m hanging sculpture depicting falling bodies. All faces are placid and all bodies are nude, so perhaps this is intended to be a vision of the afterlife. All the same, it’s hard to not feel a vague sense of disquiet, and even vertigo, when looking up at this transcended crowd.

Tawny Gray, born Toin Adams, is part of The Imaginary Beings collective. Their manifesto speaks of provocative statements as an antidote to everyday complacency. Many people treat The Custard Factory as a place of work. How does it make them feel, to see such disjointed pieces as The Deluge 2010 as part of their daily grind? Do they eventually take it for granted, or does the sculpture’s innate power survive the nine to five?

Also lining the walls are relics from City of Colours, Birmingham’s first ever graffiti and street art festival, which took place in September 2014. Over 100 artists were involved, and I imagine that, for the duration of the festival, The Custard Factory was a pulsating electrified hub of beats, paint and poetry.

I wasn’t there. My role is more like that of an archaeologist. I treat these works like petrified Pompeii corpses, as moments captured in time. I attempt to picture the life, the soul, the motion, and the conviction that went into creating these frozen relics.

I’m afraid I’m unable to credit an artist to each piece, but information on the artists involved in City of Colour 2014 can be found here. The one on the left is my favourite. I’d hang that on a wall. I’ve got a thing about pumpkins and skulls, and I regularly experience hangovers.

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