Review of The World We Live In: Art and the Urban Environment by Milly Coco Hocken

14 March 2023

When Leonard Cohen wrote of ‘the city that moved me, confused me, and soothed me’ he conveyed the power of the urban environment to leave a profound imprint on the human psyche. It is this very sensation that Leicester Museum and Art Gallery’s latest exhibition takes as its impetus. Consisting of 61 works from the past 101 years, The World We Live In invites us to consider the evolution of the city over the last century and our role within that (hi)story.

Since their genesis, cities have served as a locus for creative expression in all its forms and the exhibition negotiates this plurality of approaches with particular dexterity. Instead of being presented with a unitary vision, the overlapping accounts of the urban experience on display grant the visitor the agency to draw their own conclusions, unique to each person’s conception of what it is to exist within the metropolis.

‘This is representative of working people’ one note reads in the comment book, and that final word is all-important, for it is our bodies that furnish the built-up landscape and activate it. People are the vital ingredient to any city, a fact which the curators seem to be acutely aware of, since many of the pieces included in The World We Live In, from both the Arts Council Collection and Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, are peppered with figures. Such a decision offers a human element to the otherwise architecturally heavy content of the exhibition.

Recognisable views such as Lowry’s Industrial Landscape (1950) sit alongside hidden gems like Scaffolding - Festival of Britain (1950), a painting that reveals John Berger to be just as competent with the paintbrush as he was with the pen.

Permeating all areas of the gallery is the somewhat jarring audio of The All-Hearing (2014), a 13-minute film created by Lawrence Abu Hamdan that focuses on two Cairene sheikhs who flout the government-sanctioned topic to deliver a sermon – ironically - on the issues of noise pollution. Mirroring the cacophony of the city, the curatorial choice to screen Abu Hamdan’s work without headphones seems appropriate, enabling the sounds to colonise our eardrums in a way that is both consistent with the theme of this exhibition and deeply immersive.


<p>In light of multiple lockdowns, <em>The World We Live In</em>’s meditation on the spaces many of us inhabit resonates today in ways it undoubtedly would not have done two years ago. An image of Leicester (or even Norwich or Swansea — the other destinations of this touring show) would have been a welcome addition to the wall dedicated to documentary photographs of urban life in 1960s and 1970s Britain.</p>

<p>That being said, the aims of this exhibition appear to transcend the local, encouraging contemplations that are bound by neither time nor place. Upon stepping out of the museum, one cannot help feeling that there is something more consequential about the city streets they walk.</p><p><strong>Milly Coco Hocken is a BA student at the History of Art Department, University of Leicester.</strong></p>


The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.