Exhibition review: An Other World by Lo and Vee @ Leeds Central Library


In the labyrinthine confines of Leeds General Library, visual arts duo Lo & Vee have transformed Room 700 into a fantastical realm of twisted fiction, inspired by the books that furnish the striking Headrow building. Taking inspiration from established locations in literature as well as plates from myriad reference books and journals, they have created a new space for children and adults alike to lose themselves in the wilderness of the forests, the depths of the sea and beyond.

Illustrations, sculpture and interactive pieces make up the exhibition, which continues until 20 August, which have been created by Lo Whitehead and Vee Hartley with the purpose to “engage your imagination”. The works spread through the lofty room, invoking a sense of child-like wonderment, regardless of age. The whimsical nature of their art is complemented by the library in which the exhibition is hosted.

Leeds General Library, built in 1884, is an imposing stone establishment, bedecked in wood panelling and tiles, which could make anyone feel like they’re in a CS Lewis novel. Inextricably, the illustrations, primarily in pen and ink, take inspiration from folklore and nature, and on the surface are visually lovely. However, on closer inspection, there is a darker edge to the works: the mainly black and white illustrations are sporadically peppered with bursts of colour to draw the eye and encourage independent thought, much like the books that encouraged the art itself. The juxtaposition of mermaids, bears and mythical maps alongside these huge tomes, from the Library’s permanent collection, creates a space where your mind is free to wander and conjure ideas and stories.

As mentioned before, the library is a perfect location for An Other World, and it is worth thinking if this exhibition would be as effective in a different location. Is location important when displaying art? We so often see art in white-washed galleries with no distractions, to focus attention on the works. But in this instance, it is part of the experience for your mind to be pulled from one part of the room to other, hoping your body keeps up with you. If Lo & Vee adopted the traditional clinical surroundings, it wouldn’t be the same exhibition. Surely, we aren’t supposed to just look at the art then leave and forget about it, so it’s really heartening to see an interactive portion of the exhibit where you’re more than welcome to colour in a large map mural – a truly collaborative effort between Lo & Vee and whoever wants to join in – with little packs of pencils.

This absolutely charming part of An Other World heightens the adventure for everyone. It’s just one piece amongst the many others, but it compels you to think of how we are subconsciously restrained by convention. We are obliged to keep quiet in galleries, museums, libraries, but in most of these situations, we are learning and expanding our knowledge. Lo & Vee take these conventions and flip them on their head – having fun and appreciating culture shouldn’t be mutually exclusive and An Other World really hammers this home in the most inclusive way.

I must stress that although the works are fun and whimsical, they are of a very high quality. It’s really easy to dismiss illustration due to its simplicity but the art on show is brilliant and evocative – you want to swim with Whitehead’s jellyfish and explore Hartley’s landscapes, and you’re more than welcome to desire that. There are no rules in this world, and it’s a nice change.