On Tropism: Grand Union x University of Birmingham Art History & Curating



On Tropism

Grand Union and seven University of Birmingham MA Curating students are working together to launch On Tropism, a project platforming new bodies of work by three Grand Union studio artists, opening in June 2021. 

On Tropism consists of an online performance by composer Dan Cippico; illustrations displayed on billboards across Birmingham’s canals by Mengxia Liu and a mail art project by photographer Adam Neal. Each artist’s work is accompanied by online panel talks, providing space for everyone discuss the themes and topics addressed within their work in more detail. 

Birmingham Conservatoire trained multi-disciplinary composer and performer Dan Cippico will present a new composition, Wildforms, in the form of a series of video works presented on Grand Union’s website. Wildforms references childhood nostalgia through an evocative blend of electronica, ambient sounds, recorders, ukuleles, shakers and bells. 

Intended to facilitate a joint reflection on connection, love and loss after a year of isolation, Northfield-based artist Adam Neal’s body of work Until Then, takes the form of ‘mailed art’ packages. Until Then is Adam’s tribute to the joy, warmth and humour of his late grandmother’s legacy, and will be sent to twenty UK based participants for whom experiences of fondly remembering their elders especially resonate.  

Guided by the stories and memories of Birmingham-based canal residents, Mengxia Liu has produced a series of illustrations depicting the experiences of those who know our cities waterways best. These illustrations will be displayed in public art form, on billboards overlooked by Grand Union’s new canal side garden.  

‘Tropism’ is a biological term that usually refers to the movement of a plant’s growth, in response to external stimulus. It encapsulates how both curator and artists conceptions of art making and display have been challenged and expanded, during a time of rapid adaption to new and untested ways of working. The innovative mechanisms of display utilised by In Tropism are the result of approaching the many obstacles brought about by a global pandemic as an opportunity to think creatively.


Canal side dreams, Mengxia Liu, 2021.

In Conversation with Mengxia Liu. In this artist’s talk, Mengxia Liu will be in conversation with co-curators from On Tropism regarding her recent work, Canal Side Dreams. Find out more and book your free place here.

Using reportage style techniques to observe and interact with Birmingham’s diverse communities, Chinese illustrator Mengxia takes inspiration from the rich sensory experiences of public events such as Frankfurt Christmas Market and Bullring Open Market. In her intricate studies of the mundane and often overlooked, Mengxia explores the overlapping narratives that inform vibrant city life.  

After her graduation from Birmingham City University, Mengxia has been commissioned by clients such as Ancestry.com and The Philosopher’s Magazine. She is currently collaborating with Ruskin Mill Land Trust.  

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the meaning of topics such as home, mobility and accessibility, into greater consideration. Taking a cue from these issues and from Grand Union Gallery’s namesake, Mengxia was motivated to explore how these themes resonated with those who call Birmingham’s historic canal networks home. Through conversations made possible by the hospitality and generosity of local canal residents, the unique routines and shifting circumstances of canal life have been brought into relief, informing her new works ‘Canalside dreams’. 

On Tropism will showcase this newly commissioned public work, in the form of two large scale illustrations, scaled on billboards donated by Canal and River Trust and installed along the Grand Union canal. A new addition to the canal landscape, Canalside dreams is able to be viewed from Grand Union’s garden space, from the public walkway or waterway, making it accessible to anyone who inhabits or stumbles upon this space.  

Mengxia’s sketchbook, detailing the development of ‘Canalside dreams’, is also available for online viewing, via PDF format. Canalside dreams is further accompanied by an interview as part of our series of Artist In Conversation programme, providing space for Mengxia to discuss the themes explored within further.  


Through photographic and text-based methods, Northfield based artist Adam Neal explores intersections between working class contemporary culture and inter-generational familial relationships.  

‘Until then’ is Adam’s tribute to the joy, warmth and humour of his late grandmother’s legacy. Intended to facilitate a joint reflection on connection, loss and love during the Covid-19 pandemic, this project takes the form of ‘mailed art’ packages sent to an intimate audience of twenty UK based participants, for whom experiences of fondly remembering their elders especially resonate. 

Mail art is an artistic movement that initially developed in the 1960s, as an egalitarian method of sharing art that circumvented the approval and regulation of official art institutions. However, within ‘Until Then’, mail art is utilised as a direct, intimate and personal method of display, that allows the participant to interact with the emotive themes of the work within the privacy, safety and comfort of their own surroundings, at their desired pace.  

Within each package, Adam builds a sentimental yet tongue in cheek portrait of his grandmother and the memories that precede her. Still life photography prints of treasured ornaments and digitally lifted handwritten notes accompany elements the participant is invited to complete. Half-finished crosswords by Adam’s grandmother, and blank postcards with a prompt, one to be filled and returned to Adam, the other to keep or send to a loved one, encourage the exchange of stories and experiences that keep each of our memories alive.  


Wildforms, Dan Cippico, 2021.

Online In Conversation with Dan Cipicco. In this artist’s talk, Dan Cippico will be in conversation with co-curators from On Tropism regarding his recent work, Wildforms. Find out more and book a free place here.

Dan Cippico is a Birmingham Conservatoire trained multi-disciplinary composer and performer, whose practice spans a wide range of approaches and mediums, such as improvisation, song writing, electronic and mixed media. Since graduating from Birmingham City University, Cippico’s conceptual works moved to composing collected sounds. The artist’s work is best understood as ambient sound art that uses natural materials and field recordings.  

The work exhibited as part of On Tropism will be Dan Cippico’s most recent composition, ‘Wildforms’. To quote the artist, ‘From the collision of organic and urban origins, emerges the electronic sound of ‘Wildforms’. Coarse percussion crackles underneath ambient textures scattered with mutated audio recordings that all morph into highly evocative compositions.’ Within ‘Wildforms’, Cippico emotes feelings of nostalgia for a childhood past, reflected through the artists use of instruments most associated with childhood, such as recorders, ukuleles, shakers and bells. Cippico will also perform wearing a custom-made venetian mask, a key aspect of ‘Wildforms’ visual identity, and a tool that has helped this performance to be cathartic for the artist. 

For Dan Cippico’s project within this exhibition, there will be a performance of pieces from the aforementioned ‘Wildforms’. This performance will be premiered through Grand Unions YouTube channel, and also through Grand Union’s Instagram via the live function. This original premier will be available to view for a short period of time before being removed from these platforms, in order to mimic the organicness and temporality of a live performance. Following this, there will be three further videos comprised of edited material from the original performance, which will be released following in a periodical manner. These pieces will exist permanently on the artists own YouTube channel, and will be linked through Tropism’s homepage within the Grand Union site.