Bread and Houses

The Anfield Home Tour

Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial

 

By Kenn Taylor

It’s rather surreal to be taken on a tour of a city you live in, but then this is quite a different tour. We start conventionally enough, by the Edwardian splendor of the Cunard building at the heart of Liverpool‘s regenerated waterfront, but soon we will be heading to the other side of the city – and the other side of Britain.

After we pile into the minibus, our tour guide Carl “with a C not a K, that’s just weird” Ainsworth announces that we’re heading for a district in the north of the city, Anfield. The word for many means solely the home ground of Liverpool FC, but Anfield is also one of the city’s oldest residential districts.

Welcome to the Anfield Home Tour, part of the Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest visual arts festival. The arts in Liverpool have always had something of a social conscience, and the Biennial is no exception; we are not heading to Anfield to look at football stadia or recently restored Stanley Park, but to learn some things about housing, community and regeneration.

Our first stop is Everton Park, where Carl tells us a story that sums up the British urban landscape in microcosm. From the top of the hill above the Mersey, there are amazing views across central Liverpool as far as the mountains of Wales on a good day. It was this view which led rich merchants to build fine houses here in the 18th century, some of which remain. With the expansion of nearby docks and industry, however, speculators built hundreds of densely packed terraced houses in the area, described by Carl as a “tidal wave”.

The merchants then moved further out, and a tight-knit working class community was formed on streets so steep that is some cases they had railings to help people climb them. Then, from the 1930s onwards, there were successive ‘slum clearance’ programmes, culminating in mass demolition in the 1960s. Many people were moved to overspill estates and new towns on the edge of the city. Others meanwhile lived out Le Corbusier’s vision of ‘a machine for living in’ at huge new high-rise blocks of flats. Some enjoyed scaling these new heights, and those old ‘tight-knit’ streets also often meant horrible conditions, but the dream soon turned sour. Carl reveals that some of these ‘new visions’ in housing were demolished fewer than ten years after being built.

In the 1980s, from the rubble of tower blocks came Everton Park , a green space on wasteland; but one with little thought given to its integration into the local area. Carl says: “Many former residents of the area come here to have picnics right where their houses used to be. You’d think from all that history, the powers that be would have learned.”

We find that they did not. Anfield was one of many areas in the UK subject to the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI). Despite the housing boom from the 1990s onwards, there were areas of the UK that stagnated, mostly in the north of England. The then government took up a report from Birmingham University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Studies. They decided what was needed was demolition, en masse, and new built homes, en masse. The process became the HMRI.

We arrive in Anfield to an area of new homes built by Keepmoat Construction. There’s been criticism from some that such houses in HMRI areas aren’t as ‘nice and neat’ as the terraces they replaced. However, as Carl points out, they do have gardens, off-street parking and modern levels of insulation and damp proofing, things denied to many though not all of the old houses. The tragedy of these homes, one often lost broadsheet debates about aesthetics, is that many people who owned the demolished homes did not get a good enough price for them under compulsory purchase orders to buy one of the new ones. They often had to take out second mortgages in old age to be able to buy somewhere to live. New homes in a community are all very well, but not if the community has to get into debt to buy them when they owned their old homes outright. With the cancellation of HMRI by the present government, we are told it was even touch and go if these new homes would be built or just wasteland left in their place.

As Carl points out, the biggest problem with HMRI was in its title: market renewal, not community or neighborhood renewal. This was of course, pre-crunch, when the market appeared to have the answer to everything; it just needed to be helped on its way. Speaking of markets, in my favourite part of the tour Carl passes two bricks around the bus, one from the new building site and one from the demolished homes. The new brick we are told is worth 30p, the old brick £1. Apparently bricks from the demolished homes are being exported to building sites around the UK, even abroad. Carl tells us: “There’s about 20,000 bricks in an average terrace, whole streets demolished, you do the math.”

As we drive down Granton Road, one of the ‘tinned up’ streets awaiting demolition, Carl plays a recording by Jayne Lawless, a former resident, recalling how just a few years ago, every house in the street was occupied. She speaks of the “controlled decline” under HMRI, which saw people pushed to leave, one by one, until the last residents left in despair. She says: “They said we were deprived, don’t remember being deprived.”

However, Anfield isn’t all dereliction, although newspapers have been full of emotive photos of empty homes. That is one reality, but just round the corner is another. Skerries Road is a traditional terraced street renovated to looking almost new by residents who refused to move. It shows how a different approach can succeed.

Then another local resident, Bob, gets on the bus as we drive past the house where he lived for 50 years. Now it sits empty, with abandoned properties all around. Yet this wasn’t a HMRI street. When former council houses were sold under ‘right to buy’, many ended up owned by landlords who rented to whoever they could get. Bob says this saw an increase of “unruly families” moving in, and with them anti-social behavior, crime and then often abandonment. Bob is a regular on Liverpool’s pub singing scene and gives us a rendition of ‘This Old House’ by Rosemary Clooney, before we move on.

We finish the tour at the former Mitchell’s Bakery, a local business for over 100 years which closed in 2010 and has now become a community hub, the centre of a two-year plan worked up between artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, on a Liverpool Biennial commission, and a myriad of other participants and project partners.

When they began, they had no idea where the idea would lead. The answer is a long-term plan to re-open the bakery as a cooperative, offering local people jobs and training and a Community Land Trust (CLT). If the city council lifts the current clearance order on the building, the CLT hopes to buy it and refurbish the bakery’s former living accommodation. Architect Marianne Heaslip and a group of local young people have drawn up the plans. In the long run the CLT would like to take on more buildings in the area and renovate them for not for profit re-occupation. The bakery has now been refurbished internally and with community members undergoing training, they hope to start trading soon.

Then, a surprise: over tea and cakes, it is revealed that Carl is actually actor Graham Hicks, but that all the stories we have heard are true. Britt Jurgensen, who directed the tour and co-wrote its script with Graham and local novelist Debbie Morgan, adds that many in the community were reluctant to get involved with this project. They had been let down so much by outsiders in the past. But this external spark brought people together who were frustrated by waiting for others to make decisions for them and has acted as a new impetus for residents to become stakeholders in their neighbourhood.

“This is our future,” says Britt, a theatre professional who lives locally and is a member of the CLT and the bakery cooperative. Progress will be slow but from the ground up, not a grand vision imposed from outside. The catalyst may have been the Liverpool Biennial, but local people are now taking things far beyond the ideas of any curators or artists. She says: “I hope we will be able to sustain ourselves as a group and know when to pass responsibilities on to new people. I hope we will be courageous enough to admit when we make mistakes and adapt our plans when it is appropriate. And I hope we will continue to enjoy ourselves whilst we do all that.”

As we munch cake, there is much discussion within our tour group, many of whom have never met before, about the injustice, the problems, and the potential solutions for Anfield and elsewhere. Overall, the feeling is one of energy, of something good coming out of a mess and of things finally, slowly, heading in the right direction.

In the hierarchy of needs in austere times in deprived areas, art may come pretty low, but if art can help regain food and shelter, pride and spirit, then it has a purpose both practical and ephemeral. This was a story that could have been complex, technical, dull and aggressively ideological; instead it has been brilliantly reduced to its actual simplicity: what has been done to a community, and what needs to be done to repair the damage.

The Liverpool Biennial has often struggled to define itself apart from all the other art festivals in the world. Given Liverpool’s weather, it isn’t necessarily going to attract the crowds that head to Venice, Lisbon or Miami. With more projects like this though, it can express itself as something unique in the world.

The Anfield Home Tour is a fine art work. It may also be a fine bit of sociology, entertainment, architecture, history, politics, and cake, but it is an art work. And it is one that should be compulsory consumption for every government minister, every housing association director, every town planner, student of architecture and social affairs correspondent. Its message is simple, and one we should all have learned long ago: The people who know what is best for communities are communities themselves and they are the only people who can truly regenerate an area.

The success of the Eldonian Village, a self-organised community that began in Liverpool in an area of urban blight in the 1980s, just a mile or so from Anfield, is testament to what can be achieved if the support and will is there. Anfield clearly has the will. It remains to be seen though, if those powers that be, whatever coloured rosette they happen to wear, will give them the power and the financial resources to build on this creative start.

This piece appeared on The Guardian in October 2012.

www.2up2down.org.uk

Images Copyright Mark Loudon, Jerry Hardman-Jones and Britt Jurgensen.

In Praise of the Gallery Invigilator

By Kenn Taylor 

The designer hymens had to be the peak – a work of art by Julia Reodica, part of her hymNext Designer Hymen Series. Having to ‘interpret’ this piece to men, women and children of all backgrounds was one of the more challenging tasks during my time as a gallery assistant – one of the many names applied to those who look after art, the spaces it is displayed in and the people who visit it. After a few months of describing designer hymens to the public I felt confident the old adage of ‘selling coals to Newcastle’ would be a piece of cake.

I worked as a gallery assistant of one form or another for nearly three years through numerous exhibitions in a contemporary arts institutions, and this gave me a perspective on the changing nature of this largely unsung role. In traditional museums and galleries, the role of the invigilator was very much one based around security, protecting precious works of art from the unknown whims of the public. This and perhaps occasionally suggesting where a particular painting – or the toilets – could be found.

In today’s new institutions though, the invigilator, while still fulfilling the role of keeping an eye on things and giving directions to the nearest gents, is also called upon to be interpreter, facilitator, demonstrator, guide and technician.

During my own tenure as an invigilator, my role varied from daily discussions with visitors about how a video projection could constitute art to more unusual tasks, including coordinating community takeovers of gallery spaces, making small animals out of pipe cleaners with children (a high point) and looking after shoes in an exhibition which required visitors to remove them – armed of course with a can of Odor Eaters.

A key task was demonstrating how to engage with various interactive pieces, ranging from huge wooden contraptions to talking sofas. In addition to having to apologise to people when ‘interactives’ failed – as they so often did – to stand up to the rigours of the public interacting with them.

I now have another job in the cultural sector, but memories of my time as a gallery assistant were prompted recently when I visited two exhibitions where the invigilator played a key role in the experience of the artwork.

The first was ZEE by artist Kurt Hentschläger. With this piece, the invigilator’s role involved leading participants into a small, smoke-engulfed room where they were subjected to intense strobe and pulse lights which cause the brain to generate surreal images. It was an exhilarating if extreme experience. The invigilator, while undergoing the same ordeal, repeatedly, was our guide and protector for the duration of our time in this disconcerting space – responsible for rescuing those people for whom it was too much, of which there were many.

The Humble Market project, put together by a mixture of Brazilian and UK theatre practitioners and artists, also saw an invigilators take you on an immersive journey designed to knock you out of your comfort zone. Here, they were responsible for everything from helping you dress up as a Brazilian carnival attendee to asking you searching questions about the nature of existence.

As certain branches of contemporary art become ever more based around the creation of installations, situations and ephemeral experiences, the function of the invigilator has increased and expanded. It has reached the point were this role frequently plays a crucial part in the creation of the artwork itself and certainly the gallery visitor’s experience of it. Depending on how an individual invigilator interprets what is presented to them to deliver, the experience becomes even more subjective for the visitor.

This adds another layer beyond the artist’s intention, audience preconception and curatorial interpretation. Speaking as a former invigilator, the experience of being literally ‘on the ground’ with any given exhibit for an extended period of time also sees you develop a unique relationship with an artwork. You are witness to every inch of detail, all its whims, the effects it has on an audience, its highs and lows.

This relationship can be more intense than that between the work and the artist who created it. This is especially true if the artists involved have had little hand in the actual fabrication or ‘demonstration’ of a piece, rather just the concept. It becomes the invigilator’s role to nurture, care for and present to the world someone else’s baby, whether you love it or not.

The role of the gallery invigilator is an area which deserves more thought and respect, yet is often forgotten by artists, critics and curators, even those who have been invigilators in the past. Currently many institutions under financial pressure seem keen to dispense with paid invigilators, replacing this important entry-level position, where a real understanding of arts audiences can be gained, with volunteers. This risks entrenching elitism in the arts, denying roles to anyone who can’t afford to volunteer for long periods of time.

Perhaps it is time that some acknowledgment be given to the important role that invigilators play in the ‘creation’ of many artworks and perhaps even academic research into the function that this unglamorous but vital job plays in our understanding and experience of so much contemporary art

This piece appeared on The Guardian and Museums Journal in July 2012. 

Why George Shaw should have won the Turner Prize

    

By Kenn Taylor

I always take an interest in art’s biggest bauble, the Turner Prize, and usually have my favourite entrants, but for once, in 2011, I was actually excited about a nominee. It was through the prize I learned about the work of George Shaw, comprising of paintings, in Humbrol enamel model paint, of seemingly insignificant places in the area of Coventry where he grew up.

Occasionally, something just speaks to you. I’m not from Coventry and my feeble attempts at Airfix as a child were limited, but his representation of abandoned pubs, bent fences, tatty lock-up garages and scrappy woodland appealed greatly to me. There was a personal recognition that the landscapes he was painting looked similar to where I grew up, but more importantly, and why I wanted him to win the Turner, was that his work felt so representative of where the UK is now as a country.

This is not to disparage Turner winner Martin Boyce’s work, which I also like. However, Shaw’s paintings seem much more significant, almost like a stark acknowledgment of a Britain brought back down to Earth after what Adrian Mole writer Sue Townsend brilliantly referred to as ‘The Cappuccino Years’. The time when we pretended everything was getting better in new modern sophisticated Britain, when really they were getting worse, covered only briefly by froth on the surface now swept away.

Coventry, like pretty much everywhere outside the South East of England, has suffered economic decline, in particular in its once thriving car industry. However Coventry’s decline was not in a dramatic, easily aesthetic way the likes of Liverpool and Glasgow did in the 1980s; cities picked apart by so many ‘social realist’ photographers and documentary makers.

Coventry’s decline was slower, almost unknowable. A breaking apart, due to various factors, of economic, social and cultural ties, something that has now enveloped much of Britain, from Dundee to Burnley, Ipswich to Plymouth. Shaw’s Coventry is neither the ‘gritty’ inner city like East London, places for the latest crop of art students to colonise, nor the ‘quaint’ leafy suburbs, but the area in between. Places where the hope of the post-war settlement, of new housing estates and modern factories and a better, more stable, more egalitarian world has decayed. Places confused, liminal, unsure of what anything means any more or where things are heading. The Britain that I know, the Britain David Cameron hasn’t got a clue about.

That’s not to say ‘The Cappuccino Years’ that led us to now didn’t have their plus points. For those of us in the arts it was a boom time. Galleries expanded and spread, audiences grew and diversified, there was cash for ambitious projects, and art entered more into the arena of mainstream culture. Now though, when I look back on so much of the work that was created at this time, at least that which dominated the public consciousness; the infamous Young British Artists, all those big public sculptures and the Tate Modern Turbine Hall projects. Grand visions assembled by armies of fabricators with money no object. Even if I like such work and still value it, I can’t help but think back into art history.

Back to the turning of the 19th century into the 20th, of the Fin de siècle, the Viennese Secession, the beautiful decadent work produced at the zenith of a culture that would soon collapse in on itself. A high point before everything that was solid melted into air, transformed by technological advances, war, depression, revolution, social change and scientific discovery. I look back and ponder that we might now be at a similar point again.

The sheer lack of monumentalism in Shaw’s work seems to me to represent the UK now. A country humbled from its arrogance that its laissez-faire, sado-monetarist system should be embraced by the world and that real industry could be replaced by finance and the ‘Cool Britannia’ cultural industries. Shaw shows instead the reality; a Britain cracked, dog-eared, confused, battered, half-shod, but in a way that is sublime and truthful rather than bleak.

His use of Humbrol model paints is also resonant. An everyday product that most people must have used at some point as children, Humbrol was once manufactured in Hull. Now it is produced in China and its old plant stands abandoned and boarded up. Hull being another place in the UK that has suffered slow, quiet, decline, ignored by those in the ever faster spinning wheel of the City of London, a wheel that has now fallen of its axis.

It was great seeing musician and former graffiti artist Goldie on Channel 4’s Turner Prize coverage from the Baltic in Gateshead. The very fact that the Turner prize was held in Gateshead, shown on Channel 4 and partially presented by Goldie is a positive product of the last ten to fifteen years, of art’s increasing popularity and expansion out of the capital and, to an extent, out of elite circles. Goldie’s open enthusiasm for fellow West Midlander Shaw’s work was also great in contrast to fellow presenter Matthew Collings, looking like Karl Marx and talking the usual jargon.

Shaw at least has been given a solo show in the Herbert Museum in Coventry, and like all Turner nominees, should see his work grow in popularity and price even though he didn’t win. Hats off to Martin Boyce, but we’ll see in decades, who was making the more important work, the work that captured the spirit of our age.

This piece appeared at a-n Online in January 2012.

Memory of a Hope

Ceri Hand Gallery, Liverpool

Until 3rd September 2011

The Ceri Hand Gallery has blazed a trail as a high-quality commercial gallery in Liverpool, its exhibitions often out-classing that in some of the city’s public venues, this despite its location on the fringes of the still un-redeveloped northern docklands.

This exhibition, one of the largest to have been staged in the former warehouse which has been nicely converted into a white-cube type space, features over 100 works and has been curated by the gallery’s artists themselves.

Based on the philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s concept of a ‘memory of a hope’, the theme was chosen by sculptor Matthew Houlding, drawing apparently on ‘reflecting spaces caught between construction, destruction and nostalgia’. Each artist involved picked two other artists whose work they would like to see in the exhibition alongside their own, with the show put together from the pieces subsequently submitted.

As with any group show, especially one as crammed as this, the works on display are hit and miss and dialogue between pieces often limited. Works of note include Geraint Evans’s ‘Homebase’ (2011), an oil painting of a log cabin display in the corner of a DIY store. It captures in vividly the attempt at an idealised, ‘take-home’ aesthetic, marred by a collapsed corner of the cabin’s flimsy picket fence and the shop’s grim utility.

Curious in its technique and vision is Kim Rugg’s ‘This is War Kid’ (2008) a comic book carefully cut up and re-assembled fractured, creating a multi-textured work that is almost sculpture. Also of note is Mary Griffith’s ‘Where Few Dwelled’ (2010/2011) series, a collection of detailed graphite on paper works, formed from interlinked patterns and shapes, which moodily recall the infinite world of space and physics.

A highlight is Riccardo Baruzzi’s ‘B_2134567’ (2011). Apparently a screen grab from the Head-up display of a military aircraft after its weapons have hit their target, the materials are shaped into a stark 3D topography that could be a representation of the landscape that is being devastated. Its content, form and colour are all riveting.

Oddly compelling is Tessa Power’s ‘A Happy Death’ (2011) a film work across three separate CRT monitors of a horse, on each monitor red, blue and green respectively, collapsing, dying and then getting back up.

Another couple of works fascinating in detail and technique are Elizabeth Rowe’s ‘Rock Walks’ and ‘Nail House’ (both 2011) made from newspaper sheets obliterated and enhanced by colour and patternation – a complex and intense re-appropriation of a mass media product.

Memory of a Hope is an interesting curatorial experiment which has created a varied and interesting show that has managed, just, not to be overwhelming, in this compact space.

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine August 2011.

Semiconductor: Worlds in the Making

FACT, Liverpool

Until 11th September

UK artist duo Semiconductor, otherwise known as Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, are, as their name suggests, fond of the use of cutting-edge technology. Yet their works look not just at the possibilities of their chosen medium, but at the very foundations of the physical world.

Gallery 1 is taken up entirely by the eponymous Worlds in the Making (2011) a huge three-channel, 23 minute moving image piece. It utilises filmed footage alongside scientific information, taking seismic data and translating it into audio and animation. Its sheer scope is impressive, but for all its size and high-tech tricks, the film is perhaps at its most compelling in the small details, the intense focus on the seismic needle and the slow panning shots across the fractured landscape.

In Gallery 2 meanwhile is Inferno Observatory (2011) an installation utilising old CRT televisions placed at various angles, displaying an array of archive footage found during Semiconductor’s fellowship at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. The juxtaposition of the massive scale and forces of these volcanoes with the mundane, repetitive human tasks of the volcanologists studying and monitoring them is fascinating and curious.

Semiconductor have used digital tools to examine the very core of the material world, the minerals at the heart of every bit of modern technology, and remind us the epicenes and importance of much of what we may perceive to be irrelevant to our lives, like geology, but also the banality behind much of how we understand this world. This is a compelling media art exhibition that’s worth experiencing.

This review appeared in the August/September issue of Aesthetica magazine

Look11

Liverpool, various venues

May – July 2011

A new entry on Liverpool’s cultural calendar, Look11, is a vast photography festival encompassing exhibitions, events and projects over several months. Like the similar but larger Liverpool Biennial, it has taken over many of the city’s arts venues for the duration and has an over-arching theme – ‘photography as a call to action’.

Open Eye Gallery has been promoting photography in Liverpool since it was founded in the 1970s. This will be the last exhibition in the Wood Street space that it has occupied since the early 90s, before it moves to a new, larger home on the waterfront. Appropriately, Uncommon Grace features images chosen from Open Eye’s archive, curated by American photographer Mitch Epstein, who will have his first UK solo show at their new space.

The shots are very much of their time, nearly all from the 1980s; they feature some of the most influential British photographers of the period, many of whom cut their teeth in Liverpool, including Tom Wood and Martin Parr. The lives of the working-class and the decaying fabric of the industrial north are the inevitable main themes of many of the images, with photographers like John Davies and Parr finding truth and beauty where others would see only ugliness and squalor. It’s a timely show, and you wonder what such photographers would think of Liverpool’s startling regeneration, and the Open Eye’s shiny new home.

Bluecoat has perhaps the most successful exhibition of the festival overall. Taking ‘Containment’ as there own ‘theme within a theme’, the show is varied, but high-quality and coherent. Ben Graville’s ‘In and out of the Old Bailey’ (2002-09) features ‘papped’ shots taken of prisoners through the mirrored glass of prison vans on their way into the UK’s central criminal courts. The images raise issues of privacy, media intrusion and voyeurism. Beyond this though, their power as portraits is undeniable; the garish colours, lack of focus and the candid poses, some defiant, others cowering, adding to their disconcerting fascination.

In total contrast, David Maisel’s ‘Library of Dust’ (2006) project records the corroded copper containers that hold the cremated remains of patients who died whilst in the Oregon State Mental Asylum. Dating from between 1883 and the 1970s, these ashes were never collected by the families of the deceased. The large and vivid images detail the copper decaying in rich greens and whites, only the faded institutional labels revealing their true grim purpose. That these works highlight the containment not only of human remains, but those who society deems as ‘other’, so much so that many were rejected by their own families even in death, is as poignant as it is troubling.

The vast Novas Contemporary Urban Centre is, as usual for festivals like this, filled to the brim with several different exhibitions. Its basement crypt holds the largest exhibition, which appears to have a documentary focus. Robert Polidori’s ‘New Orleans After the Flood’ (2005-6) is a series of large images of the destruction wrought on domestic environments by Hurricane Katrina. Featuring the bright colours of family homes wrecked with the dank grey floodwater and filth, the images are shocking in their epicenes and fascinating in there detail.

On an even larger scale, are Ed Burtynsky’s trademark large-format photographs of landscapes altered by man. ‘Oil Spill’ (2010) taken after last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, are some of his most recent images and, like so much of his work, are stunningly aesthetic in there approach, but terrible when you consider what they feature. His black and white images of ship-breaking in Bangladesh meanwhile, are even more gripping, featuring dirty, dishevelled human figures in a mess of mud and rotting metal, overwhelmed by the vast vessels they are dismantling. Closer to home, Ian Beesley’s shots from Hay Royds Colliery in Yorkshire highlight that similarly dirty work continues in the UK, despite what many think.

These are just three of the more interesting shows in Look11, whose venues encompass everything from Café walls to the city’s main Walker Art Gallery. The organisers have done a good job in pulling it all together. However, ‘photography as a call to action’ doesn’t seem to quite fit with much of the work exhibited.

While many photographers share this aim, many don’t, they want to represent the world in a certain way, a world that is complex and multifaceted. The decision to try and show differing work in pairs, or at least close context, is a good one, helping to create dialogue and ask questions of different images and photographers, rather than presenting any views as a singular truth. This seems to me a far better framing notion for this disparate collection of exhibitions than attempting to graft ‘a call to action’ onto them.

Nevertheless, Look11 is an impressive programme that it a must see for anyone interested in documentary photography. Hopefully the festival will get the chance to continue to develop over the next few years, despite the arts cuts, and continue to use photography as a tool to examine our complex, ever-shifting world.

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine in June 2011.

A Sense of Perspective

Tate Liverpool

Until 5th June 2001

A Sense of Perspective is an exhibition of works from Tate’s collection, curated by the member’s of Young Tate, the gallery’s engagement programme for 16 – 25 year olds. The exhibition is part of a wider partnership, Youth Art Interchange Phase II, with other galleries around Europe.

Programmes such as Young Tate are increasingly common in institutions up and down the UK, with participants frequently adding contextual ‘add ons’ and interpretation to core exhibitions. Here, Tate Liverpool takes things a step further with an exhibition in its ground floor gallery curated entirely by Young Tate. Everything from the theme to the layout and the public events has been programmed by them, albeit guided by Tate staff and the criteria for the project’s European funding (Which was, as you might expect, ‘European citizenship, identity and cultural democracy’).

Through a series of workshops and debates the young people at each of the four participating galleries, in Liverpool, London, Paris and Helsinki, came up with a unifying theme, A Sense of Perspective, with each group then free to interpret this in there own way. Young Tate decided on three sub-themes of ‘between generations’, ‘between cultures’ and ‘between spaces’ and to use the Tate collection to explore the complex and shifting nature of contemporary identity.

Young Tate state they chose the works that inspired the most discussion amongst them, with their ideas often distinct from the artists’ own stated intentions. They have selected both British and international artists and included several new acquisitions. Photography, video art, contemporary sculpture and mixed media works dominate, reflecting perhaps the most relevant fine art mediums for this age group, or simply the most relevant mediums for their ‘in between’ theme.

The exhibition is well laid out, with pieces working successfully next to each other despite the variety of artists and mediums. Stand outs include Mother Tongue (2002) a video work by Zineb Sedira. In it, Sedira speaks in French to her mother, who answers in Arabic, and to her daughter, who answers in English, reflecting starkly the inevitable evolution of culture between generations, exacerbated by globalisation and the speeding up of technology.

Meanwhile, Sarah Jones’s constructed reality images of teenage girls seemingly stuck in suburban middle-class mediocrity, Sitting Room (Francis Place) III (1997) and The Dining Room (Francis Place) I (1997) quietly notate the angsty experiences of millions of the young and artistic, while apparently ‘provoking considerable discussion within the group, raising issues of gender, class, age and entrapment.’ Adjacent, two shots by Wolfgang Tilmans of contemporary ambiguous sexuality The Cock (kiss) (2002) and Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees (1992), chosen as a companion to Jones’s images show instead young people confident, unabashed and raw.

A less well known gem is Martin Boyle’s Gate (We don’t meet here. We are always together first) (2004) fabricated from the type of cheap mesh and steel tube that guides the paths of millions of young people around schools, youth clubs etc. The artist’s own view is of the object as a direct physical link, an ‘aide-mémoire’, to youth, a time of increasing freedom yet still framed by adult barriers. Young Tate though see deeper, with the structure as a symbolic gateway between different generations and cultures.

Olafur Eliasson’s Yellow versus Purple (2003) features interchanging circles of yellow and blue light, slowly merging to form a purple sphere. This was interpreted by Young Tate as symbolising the pointlessness of attempting to view the world in binary extremes; left versus right, good versus evil, black versus white, when so much is indeed, two sides of the same coin. The work is both beautifully simple and visually striking.

Although a catalogue provides more detail on the project, there is a frustrating lack of contextual information in the exhibition itself about how it was brought together. Young Tate may have wanted their selections to speak for themselves, but as the curatorial process was just as much a part of the reasoning behind this exhibition, surely this is an oversight?

The participants of Young Tate have been given a golden opportunity, to curate a show at one of the country’s largest galleries, and in short, they have delivered. Not all of the works here are outstanding, but crucially they work in context of both the theme and the gallery space itself. There are some obvious choices, but there have also been some obscure works chosen that really resonate, the sign of a good curator if ever there was one.

Are such shows then perhaps the future of museum education? Young people taken on as by-proxy apprentices? It may offer a solution to the spiralling cost of art education, though if always thrown in at the deep end, will participants ever be able to explore wider ideas beyond the practical delivery of an exhibition?

The cards featuring the personal responses of the Young Tate members are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show, veering as they do between talking from the heart and typical ArtSpeak. The key test of such programmes will be if the members of Young Tate will be able to learn such terminologies so they can forget them. If they can retain the originality they show in how they have created this show within Tate’s systems and not be entirely absorbed and overwhelmed by the current dominant trends and ideas of cultural institutions, instead taking what they have learned and staking there own path.

This exhibition works on its own an interesting thematic interpretation of the Tate collection, but it’s worth seeing even more if you want to see something of the future of arts engagement and curating and a younger perspective on contemporary art and culture.

 This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine in April 2011

Carey Young – Memento Park

Cornerhouse, Manchester

Untill 20th March 2011

Born in Zambia in 1970, Carey Young grew up and studied in Manchester. She now works internationally utilising a variety of different media and settings. In particular though, her works critique contemporary culture and its prevailing systems. Memento Park is largely a retrospective, however the title comes from a new piece commissioned by the exhibition’s organising partners.

Gallery 2 is dominated by the large photographic prints that make up Body Techniques (2007) featuring Young, as she recreates scenes from a variety of well-known performance works by the likes of Bruce Nauman and VALIE EXPORT. The artist appears as a solitary figure amongst the vast construction sites of ever-expanding Dubai. The impermanence of such works sits uncomfortably with the flimsiness of such contemporary constructions rising rapidly out of the desert. However, whether Young is questioning is the landscape or merely using it as a canvas remains unclear.

Product Recall (2007) meanwhile, is a video of the artist laying on what resembles a psychiatrist’s couch, and as an analyst figure reads out a series of advertising slogans, she attempts to recall which corporation they relate to. The work forces you to consider how much advertising permeates our consciousness, however the effect is dimmed slightly by the fact that Young can’t seem to recall that many. Another interesting piece, Inventory (2007), sees Young collaborating with two scientists to work out the levels of all the elements in her body and subsequently their current market value, giving the artist a “price”. A clear take on the market value of art, artists and the individual.

In Gallery 3, several works deal with a world obsessed with legality, contracts and claims. A stand out is Terms and Conditions (2004) where a suited figure reads out a long legal disclaimer to those who wish to enter an idyllic beauty spot behind her, the text apparently culled from a range of corporate websites.

The title piece, Memento Park (2010), a film projected on a wall-sized screen is the most visually striking and subtly engaging work in the exhibition. The piece was filmed in Budapest’s eponymous Memento Park, where Soviet-era statues from across Hungary were deposited after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Shot in the intense light of dusk, it is startling to watch this slow, meandering film survey these huge, aggressive monuments to social realism reduced to gathered curiosities in a tatty park on the edge of town. Traffic and birdsong fight to become the soundtrack as Carey shows disembodied sections of the sculptures, a beard here, a fist there, looking as oddly out of context as the statues themselves.

As a whole, Young’s work seems to point towards the political, but her intent remains obscure and ambiguous. Many issues are raised through the different mediums, but frustratingly nothing is really said about any of them. Perhaps that’s the intention, the artist appears to be engaged in a passive resistance with the corporate world, but that passivity leaves many of the works feeling as cold and ambiguous as the actions of the corporations she questions.

By Kenn Taylor

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine February 2011.

Nam June Paik

Tate Liverpool  and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) Liverpool

Untill 13th March 2011

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, it appears as if “media art” is finally being accepted as a high art form. It has been nearly 60 years since Nam June Paik’s first experiments with sound, television and video emerged into the international art consciousness, and so reaching a point of major institutional recognition highlights just how far ahead of his time he really was.

Perhaps more profoundly, this first major retrospective since his death in 2006 signifies how so many of his ideas predicted our present day multimedia world, which is saturated with technology, information and interactivity.

Exhibited across both Tate Liverpool and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Tate does what it does best with a grand narrative retrospective, while FACT does what it does best with a focus on examining Paik’s use of video and cutting-edge mediums from the 1970s onwards.

Paik began his creative work with music. The first section at Tate examines, how his relationship with the radical composer John Cage informed all his later work and how, despite not considering himself a “visual artist”, he began to move into new mediums saying: “I knew there was something to be done in television and no one else was doing it.” Despite this, in his later work, he retained many of the concepts he learned whilst composing avant-garde music; chance, interaction and pushing the limits of technology.

From his earliest works Paik wanted to break down the boundary between artwork, artist, and viewer and viewed. The great hulk of Video Synthesiser 1969 (1992), developed by Paik and engineer, Shuya Abe, to allow participants to manipulate images on a screen without specialist technical knowledge, is startling. A lump of knobs, dials, leads and CRT monitors, it allowed, the general public (perhaps for the first time) to do what previously only broadcast engineers could do and what today any kid with a basic computer and internet connection could do.

As with so much retrospective documentation of performance and experimental work, the old televisions and tape machines detailing early works can only hint at the experience of witnessing or using them at the time. It’s hard to imagine when these common devices were cutting edge pieces of technology that were being used in a radical way, particularly now, because analogue TV sets and tape machines look like nothing more than junk-shop relics.

The best of Paik’s work though, transcends this. TV Garden 1974-77 (2010) one of his first large-scale installations, a series of televisions placed among a myriad of tropical plants each showing a mesmerising television mash-up Global Groove (1973) that could be a proto-YouTube video. Its continual, rhythmic flickering colours and sounds are beautiful, illuminating the foliage in the darkened room, and a prominent example of how Paik wanted to break down the barriers between the natural and technological.

Underpinning this were Paik’s Zen Buddhist beliefs. Often highlighted as his signature motif, his collection of “TV Buddhas” epitomises much of his art and philosophy. The ancient Buddhist symbol, in a variety of guises, sits watching a TV screen, displaying clearly, the interaction between humanity and technology and the contrasts he so loved; the Eastern and the Western, the old and new, the technological and the spiritual.

The contextual information in the gallery further highlights Paik’s desire for global human connectedness through technology. He is credited with coining the term “Information Superhighway” back in the 1970s. His foresight is also highlighted in 1994’s Internet Dream, a video wall displaying a constant stream of rapidly changing garishly coloured scenes to hypnotic effect shows his early awareness of our move towards information saturation and his celebration of its constant expansion with every shift forward in technology.

At FACT meanwhile, the cavernous Gallery 1 is entirely taken up by the spectacular installation Laser Cone 1998 (2001). A tent-like structure you lie beneath and experience an overwhelming, intense laser show. Like Internet Dream, it seems to reflect Paik’s interest in subjecting the viewer to the beauty inherent in visual overload.

Gallery 2, by contrast, is set out like a chic lounge where, armed with remote control, you’re invited to flick through hours of Paik’s video works. Some of Paik’s riffs on the potential of the medium and his love for pushing it to its limits look retro, in some cases, just boring, compared to today’s potential for intervention and experiment with media. However, their influence, on everything from MTV to Skype and today’s video artists, is clear and profound.

This retrospective is comprehensive, but not overwhelming, and, even spread across two venues, it’s easy to navigate through the artist’s life and career. This enables visitors to clearly see how his work morphed and changed with the times and advances in technology.

Paik was a pioneer of “media art”, yet it seems he always wanted what we have today. Not only did he realise the potential for technology to be used in art, but its potential to allow the viewer to take a more active role, for mediums to merge, and for anyone to make or manipulate the content. Paik understood that technological art needed to move beyond the medium, and like all great art, to be about humanity and its relationship to the world.

By Kenn Taylor

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine December 2010.

The Land Between Us: power, place and dislocation

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Untill 23rd January 2010

The Land between Us combines a variety of landscapes from the Whitworth’s fine collection with a selection of more recent and contemporary works, examining landscape as a genre and the places and power associated with it.

In Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forrest Path, Birch and Sycamore branches are woven into dense forest, creating an entrance to the exhibition that is both playful and unsettling. Beyond this is a diverse selection of works ranging from a Rembrandt etching to Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs.

A key theme is change; both in the landscapes themselves and who is representing them. William Holman Hunt’s idyllic Holy Land portrayed in The Plain of Rephaim from Zion, Jerusalem contrasts sharply with Larissa Sansour’s video work Soup over Bethlehem which examines the complex politics of contemporary Palestine.

Equally striking though are the continuities. J.M.W Turner’s rendition of Conway Castle, Caernarvonshire, a structure built in the 13th century to control and monitor local people, sits adjacent to Donavan Wylie’s South Armagh, Golf 40, West View 2007, a photograph of a British Army watchtower in Northern Ireland constructed for a similar purpose in more recent times.

By placing these works next to each other, the exhibition forces the viewer to confront the tensions between them and to look beyond to the power structures that influenced them. It’s a simple idea but creates a context for a radical re-examination of these works that manages to be both subtle and intellectually challenging whilst remaining accessible.

The Land Between Us is a curatorial marvel that should be viewed by all interested in the art and politics of land and landscape.

By Kenn Taylor

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine December 2010.