Neil Hennessy-Vass visits the Sainsbury Centre at the UEA in Norwich to view What Is Truth? an exhibition which leaves you asking questions.

The first thing that strikes you when you enter the Sainsbury Centre is the innovative display known as the ‘living area’, a space where everything essentially has equal billing.

The Sainsbury Centre

The visual syntax allows the visitor to view in a 360-degree fashion a collection of eclectic art from around the world. All placed at eye level height and in open glass cases, the effect is like being in a particularly well-endowed private home of an art collector of immaculate taste. And in a way that’s exactly what you are in. Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury had spent 40 years accumulating works from European artists and further afield and decided to employ Norman Foster to design and execute his first public building in 1974. The doors opened in 1978 and the rest as they say is history.

Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, © Pete Huggins
Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, © Pete Huggins

Sitting within the campus of UAE the centre is a resource hub as well as being a world leader in many fields. Headed up by Professor Jago Cooper, a bright, vivacious mercurial-minded director with several decades of museum curation experience under his belt, he spearheaded the relaunch in 2023, positioning the museum as the ‘first in the world to formally recognise the living lifeforce of art, enabling people to build relationships across an arts landscape’.

This was my first visit, it’s less than two hours by train from London and only a short ride on a bus from the station or a manageable walk if the weather is on your side.

What Is Truth?

My reason for visiting was to see what all the fuss was about concerning their latest exhibition What is Truth?

The six-month investigation into a series of interlinked exhibits intrigued me. In a world full of AI and fake news the exhibition helps the visitor discover whether we are all being hoodwinked into believing a distorted reality, and in some cases does that matter? After all what is truth is at best ambiguous at worst a misleading statement. One person’s truth is another’s lie, so I was delighted to see the first exhibit in a set of five examining our triumph of space called In Event of Moon Disaster.

What Is Truth?
Halsey Burgund and Francesca Panetta. President Nixon reads out In Event of Moon Disaster speech. Copyright MIT and Halsey Burgund

This is an Emmy Award winning interactive piece by Hasley Burgund and Francesca Panettta that uses AI to depict a USA television broadcast by President Nixon announcing the 1969 moon landing mission had ended in failure. The creation of a mid-century living room complete with specially designed wallpaper, a mock-up of a newspaper headlining ‘Astronauts Stranded on Moon’, and a sofa to sit with plenty of teak furniture all assist in the technology’s task of convincing us that it was a total disaster and the two who landed on the moon never returned.

What makes this incredibly compelling is that the words spoken by an actor impersonating President Nixon and synched with the assistance of AI to existing television footage are from a real speech that was written to be used if there was such a disaster. The whole idea is so fantastic it could just be true I thought to myself. I was minded of the 1977 film Capricorn One, a fiction covering a brilliant deceit created by the US government to make a manned space flight to Mars look real because they realised that it wasn’t technically possible to achieve it at the time. It’s best piece of installation I have seen for years.

Stuart Franklin 'The Tank Man' stopping the column of T59 tanks. Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. 4th June 1989.© Stuart Franklin and Magnum Photos
Stuart Franklin ‘The Tank Man’ stopping the column of T59 tanks. Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China © Stuart Franklin and Magnum Photos

The other exhibits look at Liquid Gender, Jeffrey Gibson: no simple word for time, and The Camera Never Lies which examines through the impact of photography and the narrative of truth. There will be 80 photographers in all but the first three offer parallax views of what became known as Tank Man during the 1989 protests and massacre in Tiananmen Square.

There is a rich and constant seam of provocative culture and art at the Sainsbury Centre that is just begging to be uncovered by any unsuspecting visitor such as myself. The sheer quantity and quality of exhibits and thought-provoking projects such as What is Truth?, which is on until 4 August 2024 really make this a must see.

What is Truth?

Sainsbury Centre, UEA, Norwich.

Main image: In Event Of Moon Disaster at the Sainsbury Centre. Photo. Kate Wolstenholme.