Dion Kitson at Ikon and in the JQ

"I spent years trying to get rid of my accent to sound more intelligent," says Dudley's Dion Kitson "Now I'd take f*cking elocution lessons just to get it back." The accent may not be as pronounced as it once was, but Kitson has all the other hallmarks of a Black Countryite. Grounded, humble, family-orientated (an entire section of his work is dedicated to his dad, who he ribs relentlessly but with that wonderful warmth of a West Midlander) — the entire Ikon Gallery collection has nods to Dudley, a place he says has "an allegorical message for the rest of the country".

There's wry smile on his face at all times, as if the joke's on us, and he shifts about on his seat incessantly, seemingly uncomfortable surrounded, as he is on this occasion, by representatives of English Heritage. I'd wager they're not his archetypal companions and his occasional profanity lands awkwardly right back at some of them, shifting in their seats just like him. If Dion notices it too, he doesn't care. 

We've all just had a brief tour around Dion's first solo exhibition, Rue Britannia, which takes place at Ikon and runs concurrently with guided tours of another of Dion's exhibitions over at J.W. Evans Silver Factory, in the JQ, which is under the stewardship of English Heritage. I've not had the chance to see the JQ works yet (I'll tell you what I know about them further down) but his art at Ikon is, and I say this with no hyperbole, the most engaging and curious work I've written about in ten and half years of I Choose Birmingham. I can only beg you to go and see them. 

Incisive, enterprising and laced with wit, Kitson’s work dissects British class and identity, reshaping its visual hallmarks and traditions across sculpture, installation, film and found objects.

Ode to Rubbish Mountain (above) is a miniature recreation of the pseudo-iconic landfill pile that was removed from Brierley Hill in 2016 after a five year local battle to have it sorted. Nearby a fish flaps about, dying in a net, near a tackle box marked 'Shakespeare'. A torn trampoline bedecks a wall (top), echoing Lucio Fontana — there's madness and genius here. And fun.

Kitson’s lifelong fascination with the royal family comes to expression through a ‘waxwork’ of a young Prince Harry (above) after the death of his mother. Facing the floor, and a wall, it's haunting stuff. Your emotions are lurching from laughter to sorrow in just a few steps. 

Visitors can play on a functional pool table, as Kitson brings the staple of the British pub into the gallery. Unable not to tinker, of course, the pool cues are topped with mop and broom heads. Nearby, a school table with rulers laid out like a music box plays the tune of Rule Britannia! on a loop – a hubristic swansong of empire... 

Elsewhere a real BT Openreach greenbox is attended by a waxwork 3D printed engineer, kneeling to a shrine dedicated to communication. "These workers are always in High Vis clothing and yet they're the blink and you'll miss them heroes of society," says Kitson. "Where would we be without them?"

Slung from a suspended telegraph wire are the unmistakable ruby slippers of Dorothy. The Wizard of Oz — a whimsical, trippy and yearning tale of searching for the way home — is a key reference point for Kitson and a self-portrait as the Tin Man also appears in his installation at J.W. Evans Silver Factory.

Through Silver Lining, an off-site commission for English Heritage, Kitson honours a lost industrial past, utilising new technologies to create sculptural interventions in the former silver factory, celebrating the history and popular culture of Birmingham.

In 2008, English Heritage acquired J.W. Evans Silver in the Jewellery Quarter, which began as a cottage industry in 1881. The workshops are preserved in situ, containing thousands of dies for the manufacture of silverware; the entire factory’s working equipment; and the workers' ephemera, magazines and posters.

Like J W Evans himself, Kitson studied at Birmingham School of Art and worked in the Jewellery Quarter learning the metal casting process. The exhibition comprises twenty works in total. In the former Director's office, for example, a Newton’s cradle is made from laughing gas canisters (above), perched on the office desk while a hammer, apparently bent through telekinesis is found among tools; as is a Frosty Jack cider bottle cast in metal and a silver heroin spoon.

An empty cupboard is transformed by Kitson into a cabinet of curiosities, filled with deflated footballs resembling oversized jewels of baroque proportions, while a 60s clock is filled with beans. Nope, no idea either. 

In one room fifteen mugs of tea are dunked by mechanised biscuits while nearby a vice clings tight to seven golden cigarette butts.

One of the most complete surviving historic factories in the area, J W Evans Silver Factory is a preserved time capsule of a lost industrial world — art in its own right. At its heyday in the early 20th century, the JQ employed tens of thousands of people, but as demand for the ornate table silverware produced by businesses like J W Evans’s slowly declined, the factory finally closed in 2008. Today, it is as if the inhabitants of the factory simply walked out, leaving the remnants of their skilled craft, including machinery, dies and finished works, behind them, Dion's addition making the tours an absolute must between now and September 6, two days before Rue Britannia closes at Ikon.

Rue Britannia is free and does not need to be booked (do make a contribution if possible) while tours of J.W.Evans can be booked here at a cost of £11 per person. English Heritage members go free.