The Reliquary of the (Late) 20th century: Mark Lecky’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness

Mark Leckey Dream English Kid 1964-1999 AD

“That over-reaching proletarian drive to be more, (I am nothing but should be everything)”
Mark Fisher

“Art inevitably arrives here to be celebrated. This is the world I belong to now. But at one point I belonged to another intelligence.”
Mark Lecky

By Kenn Taylor

Inside Tate Britain’s cavernous, Modernist extension, Birkenhead-born artist Mark Lecky has overseen the construction of a replica of the M53 motorway. Specifically, of the bridge at Eastham Rake. A place where Lecky spent a significant part of his youth, hanging out and having the kind of experiences that young people do, ones that burn into the memory with an intensity that few do in adulthood. The bridge has appeared with increasing frequency in his work over the past few years. Now, here, removed from context, reduced to a symbol, elevated to a monument, it is used as a canvas for the video and multimedia works that have formed the most well-known parts of Lecky’s practice.

Like Lecky, I also grew up in the shadow of the M53, the motorway’s bulk abutted my primary school, its grass verge consuming many sacrifices of footballs. Here the motorway cleaved through the heart of the various overspill estates of Birkenhead and snaked down along to Ellesmere Port, a route Lecky took himself when he moved aged nine to what was then still, just about, a booming new town of growing industries. Ellesmere Port may not be conventionally pretty, but it has a striking landscape. The elevated motorway, even still in the 1990s cutting through an oversized terrain of oil refineries, car plants and paper mills, all at night dramatically lit. A place where the houses and civic buildings of the town seemed almost an afterthought. Not unlike the Teesside landscape which so influenced a young Ridley Scott when he made Blade Runner. Much of this industry is now shuttered.

Already an admirer of Lecky’s work, on hearing he’d got Tate to rebuild a bit of the M53 in its hallowed halls on the elite riverbank of Pimlico, my immediate reaction was LOL, go ‘ead. This was something I must see. Yet of course, I should have known the actual structure, diligently fabricated by Tate’s technical team, wouldn’t have the atmospheric power of the sodium lit exhibition poster, a still from one of Lecky’s films. Looking to indulge in the uncanny of seeing something humdrum from my own youth made large, placed on the altar of culture, was always likely to result in a degree of disappointment. Though this motorway played a far less significant role in my life than it seems to have done in Lecky’s. Here in the Tate he is reconstructing his own remembrance of things past on an epic scale. Yet, the further time passed for me from being sat crossed legged under the fake motorway, the clearer I could see what Lecky was reaching for, how the installation embodies so much of what he has always been getting at.

The bridge serves as a base for a selection of his work from 1999 to the latest piece created for this exhibition, Under Under In, all played on a loop. Starting with his most famous work Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a cut up amalgam of recovered footage of young people in urban Britain, charting the passage of musical time from Northern Soul in the 1970s to rave in the early 1990s. Fiorucci has an uncanny, dream like quality, but at the same time flows with a rhythm intensely related to the cultures that it embodies. Often forgotten are the intercutting shots of post war housing estates and shopping precincts and the young people in them, forming these nascent cultures quite different from the earnest rationality the designers of such landscapes imagined. A deadpan voice reads out a list of clothing brands popular with the causals to which Lecky once belonged. A desire for individual expression and colour away from the mass concrete and brick of Modernism. A desire that still ends up with uniformity to an extent, though no more or less than most subcultures. In Fiorucci too the occasional glimpse of the possibility of transcendental feeling despite everything – and many more at least reaching for it. The potential for magic in bleakness. Northern Soul danced to by industrial workers, rave danced to by their unemployed children. Decades are cut through in 15 minutes.

The next piece is Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD another filmic collage. This one more personal to Lecky, exploring his own memories of time passing through found and created footage. A portrait of the artist through the images and culture that made him who he is. In Dream English Kid, the optimism of the 1960s abounds at the opening, from the images of the space race and the single twang of a Beatles chord, cutting to that more day-to-day vision of the future from that era – the ever flowing path of concrete, steel and tarmac, the motorway. A bright white sun shines down on it as Lecky overlays a fractured version of Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ speech that talked about the optimistic potential for socialism driven by modern technology. Good Quality Well Paid Jobs and Better Homes in Bright New Town Britain. Few people remember Wilson actually grew up in Wirral and spent his career as a Merseyside MP. Ellesmere Port and many places like it were at the heart of Wilson’s dream. A record player spins. A chrome hubcap spins. The post war dream moving forward fast.

View of Dream English Kid 1964–1999 AD at Cabinet London 2015

In Lecky’s book of this exhibition, he has a picture of the first Vauxhall car made in their new Ellesmere Port plant, rolling out during the same period that Lecky was born. It was then and for some time after, the largest employer in the whole of Wirral. Across the UK, many families like Lecky’s moved, or were moved, along the motorways, promised a better life in far out new towns and overspill estates with new industries. All intended to replace the old darkness of inner-urban Victorian landscapes. Landscapes like the now long gone Liverpool sugar refineries of Henry Tate. The fortune from which paid for this very gallery and a packet of whose sugar Lecky lingers on in Dream English Kid. How soon though that dream died, the workforce of the Vauxhall plant more than halving by the 1980s and a host of negative social impacts cascading out from that. The populations of these areas then often written off and blamed for the arrogance and failures of others. The ghosts of lost industries, broken promises and hopes that were too rigidly cast in concrete still haunt much of the UK.

Dream English Kid shifts too from the warm, sunny white heat of the dream to the sodium lit, dirty, graffiti covered reality. The emergence of a new working class youth culture inside of the shell of the increasingly crumbling Modernist vision. In the film, urban decay grows. Amongst deteriorating brick and concrete, just a snatch of colour from a Benson and Hedges shop sign. The red glow and grey dust of a feared nuclear winter. A bottle of Cinzano and dancing. The interrelationship and disconnect between day to day life and geopolitics. Dream English Kid then moves to Lecky’s squat life in late 80s London, the undercurrent of culture carrying on in the cracks after Thatcher’s victory. The strange new alienation and optimism of the approach of the millennium and the empty threat of Y2K. As Lecky’s memories become sharper, more contemporary, the intensity of the film fades.

Under Under In is Lecky’s most recent piece, produced for this show and perhaps the most expansive. An extensive multimedia work, featuring young actors, dressed in casuals. Again, uncanny, they mess around, but in a strangely alien way, later contorting their bodies to ‘recreate’ the shape of the bridge. It’s now no longer a dream of a bright future, nor the underground base of young subversion, but a monument of uncertain origin, site of rituals unclear. “You’re away with the fairies!” is shouted at one point. A Merseyside phrase frequently said from adults to children who dare to question cold, dead, decaying perceptions of the world in any way. Lecky talks in interviews of a supernatural experience he had under the bridge as a child. It being unclear if his cleansing of doors of perception was induced by the sonic vibrations from cars overhead, fumes from industry, or just his own imagination.

It seems the further Lecky travels from his youth on the urban fringes of industrial towns, the more he reaches back into it. The more successful he his, the greater the complexity and sophistication with which he can reconstruct his own memories and snapshots of the cultures of the time he has passed through, cultures in the past rarely paid heed to in the mainstream art world. Leading on to now, one of the foremost art palaces investing in this huge replica motorway and complex multimedia production. Yet the further he reaches back, the more elaborate the recreation, the more distant it feels. Under Under In is I think the least resonant of the three pieces.

Like so many born away from cultural power, Lecky worked a long time before he was heard in the place where art is acknowledged and recorded in the official annals. Yet on reaching that point, the more he is listened to, admired and platformed, perhaps the greater his realisation that the most important stuff remains out there, in places that continue to be ignored and talked over. The harder perhaps it is for him to reach back and grasp something that is never quite there, really, that magic. As the DJ Shadow record says, You Can’t Go Home Again.

Jeremy Deller, another artist with a deep interest in the culture of dance music, is of the same generation as Lecky, but, as he freely admits, a far more privileged background. Lecky and Deller’s paths of experience intermingled in London squat culture, where wealthy ‘slummers’ and the working class in the arts once crossed over, but no longer. Deller seems more interested in placing that culture formally in an art historical background. Lecky’s response is more emotional, intuitive. One inside reaching out, one outside reaching in. Yet both respecting one of the most important aspects of culture of the last 30 years.

Still from Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore 1999

As Deller puts it in his film Everybody in the Place though, we should not forget that the hedonistic youth culture of rave was also in part of an admission of failure. Hedonism as a reaction against the state when it became clear they could not change the structure of the state. The time when the dream of the White Heat of Technology bringing a stable utopia of everyday life, changed into the dream of a temporary White Heat from Technology, the fleeting utopia of a rave in an abandoned warehouse or airfield. The pattern endlessly repeated to escape the cold tomorrow that reminds us of the decay of the everyday.

There’s something particular about being an artist from one of the many unloved, fringe places, where access to art and the ability to be creative is all the more important due to scarcity, discouragement and narrowness of stimulus. Especially pre-Internet. Romance and intrigue are in the eye of those who hold it and project it. The bleaker the situation, the harder the gnashing desire for magic, the deeper the thirst for colour and stimulation in whatever form it can be found. Lecky’s first monograph On Pleasure Bent has a brilliant choice for its cover, the alluring gold of a Benson and Hedges cigarette packet. In the late 20th century, cigarettes and stimulation and socialising and the close but always unobtainable magic glow of golden consumerism promised by packet and magazine, bus stop and billboard. B&H, Cinzano or whatever. A need to be away with the fairies. This intense craving never appreciated by those for whom art, stimulation and opportunity was not a dearth, but a deluge.

If like Lecky, you become one of the rare people who do get to fill marble halls with your imagination, why not tell people about what you are and where you are from? See people sit amongst it in appreciation of something few would be able to point to on a map. Demonstrate that such a place has its own drama and as much capacity to drive a fevered imagination and be worthy of depiction in culture as anywhere else. I see this too in the work of George Shaw, his paintings of the Tile Hill estate in Coventry he grew up on, imbued with the intensity of feeling that is more conventionally draped over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the monuments of Rome or the streets of Berlin.

Yet if Lecky was haunted at the bridge, something about this bridge should haunt us. This installation is, to quote Lecky’s Exorcism of the Bridge @ Eastham Rake, a reliquary of the 20th century, containing now, finally, venerated and established relics of the past for us to appreciate. Yet however alluring nostalgia can be to all of us, I still pay heed to the historic view of nostalgia being a disease, a comfort that ignores the raw and uncomfortable of the here and now. This is all a culture of the past, no more or less valid or important than what young people create and experience now. Lecky reminds us that such cultures and experiences often don’t have their importance respected or acknowledged. That’s if they’re not actively demonised. This was just his and it deserves its elevation to monumental status.

But in absorbing a bit of the magic he recreates we shouldn’t forget that the social decay that accompanied the rise of these past youth cultures remains. The layers of paint applied to the bridge during the New Labour era have long flaked off. The future of the Vauxhall Motors plant at Ellesmere Port, having shrank even further in recent years, now hangs in the balance, overshadowed by Brexit, lost in the horse trading of the global motor industry. And little of the urban regeneration that has recharged Britain’s inner cities, many now increasingly reoccupied by the middle and upper classes, has reached out to the overspill estates and new towns where former inner city dwellers got moved. Young people living in Ellesmere Port and all the many places like it, are no doubt still having just as intense experiences. Loitering in underpasses, now both physical and digital. But will they be afforded the same opportunities as Lecky was, who was able to redo his O-Levels aged 20 and attend art college at no cost. Things which helped him to (eventually) be heard and represent the culture he came from. Will they get the opportunity to fill the marble halls of the Tate in future with their own dreams and memories?

This piece was published by The Double Negative in January 2020 and republished by the Working Class Academics Conference in April 2020.

Images: Dream English Kid, 1964–1999 AD 2015 (still) Courtesy of the artist © Mark Leckey; Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore 1999 (still) Courtesy of the artist © Mark Leckey; Installation views of Dream English, Kid 1964–1999 AD at Cabinet, London, 2015 Photo: Mark Blower

Distinctly

Helen and her Hula Hoop by Chris Killip
Helen and her Hula Hoop by Chris Killip


27th September – 24th November 2019

Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead
Part of LOOK Photo Biennial 2019

By Kenn Taylor

Distinctly
 features the work of ten photographers whose images capture aspects of life in Britain over the last sixty years up to the present day. The exhibition takes up two of the Williamson’s spacious, well-lit galleries, which give the diversity and volume of work in the show room to breathe. The Williamson is a great space for art and has been showing increasingly dynamic programming of late.

Some of the first pictures featured are from Martin Parr’s weather series; well known, but less typical of his work being in black and white. More than the weather, these images seem most to capture the physical landscape of much of urban Britain in the 1980s and early 90s – rain stained concrete and a general air of being run down. The people are just a small part of these scenes, hunkered down in resignation, even if only because of the drizzle.

The Williamson by Robert Darch

A stark contrast from these are Trish Murtha’s images of children playing, joshing and hanging around, in the 1970s ruins of Victorian streets. In these pictures the children are vivid and central. Images like these are a staple of British photography of that era, but contain more warmth than most, a product perhaps of Murtha’s familiarity with her subject, from her own upbringing in Elswick, Newcastle.

Ken Grant’s images of 80s and 90s Merseyside meanwhile, capture a landscape and community familiar to me, but his pictures are always more than just documentary, each heavy with a particular mood and sometimes the air of drama having just happened, or about to. 

Markéta Luskačová’s photographs of London street musicians from the 1970s to the 90s seem much older than their era, featuring people with dress and instruments appearing to be from the start – not the end – of the 20th century. John Myers’ 1970s images too, capture how many people were living in an almost Victorian way right into that decade, even as boxes of Surf and chipboard walls highlight the creeping advance of the consumer world we’re more familiar with.

Youth Unemployment in Elswick by Trish Murtha
Youth Unemployment in Elswick by Trish Murtha

Both Myers and Luskačová’s pictures show in many respects how slowly things changed in the 20th century for most people, right up until the 1970s, with other photographers in this exhibition capturing how rapidly things changed after that. The two roads of Britain after then, the decay and the hyper development that scars the country in different ways, run through many of these works, whether a central theme or in the background. Daniel Meadows’ portraits, first in the 1970s and then of the same people in the early 2000s, picture those who lived through and experienced that change.

Flipping this over though are Robert Darch’s recent images of agricultural life in south west England. While clearly contemporary, the traditional work seems to exist out of time. It’s almost a shock to see colour in his images after so much black and white, but colour is also central in Kirsty Mackay’s images looking at housing and landscape in her native Glasgow and their relationship to the city’s challenges with poor health.

Distinctly By Declan Connolly
Distinctly By Declan Connolly

Chris Killip’s large prints of work from his In Flagrante series are amongst the better known and the most dramatic works in the exhibition. The deep contrast between dark and light tones and sharp cropping making them at once intense, brilliant documentary and at the same time strikingly cinematic.

Niall McDiarmid’s recent portraits of people in high streets around the UK, happy to be photographed, confident, dressed in their gear to go to town, feel very different to the rest of the images in Distinctly and a necessary reminder of the expression of individual, sometimes vivid personality. Even some of these portraits, however, are also framed to a degree by the run down streets in the background, omnipresent.

Decay unnecessarily frames the images in this exhibition in a literal sense too, with the damp in the walls of the Williamson clear in one of the galleries. Like so many museums and galleries in Britain, no doubt a product of limited funds leading to endlessly deferred maintenance.

Images such as those in Distinctly, have resonance with audiences, I think, because they capture some essential aspects of humanity, as well as the specificity of certain cultures in Britain, whilst highlighting realities familiar to so many though not always seen in art. Over six decades in the UK, the brief periods of intense boom followed by long periods of stagnation and decay, the kind that leaves children playing in ruins and resignation on the faces of adults. These photographs portray people and landscapes from the concrete edges of the North East coastline to the ever-changing communities of East London, who are so often marginalised, mistreated, talked over, misrepresented; shown here instead with dignity, vividness and complexity.

Carrie Harris in Women of Iron
Carrie Harris featured in Women of Iron

Mention must be made also about the strong work by the young women photographers featured in the adjacent exhibition Women of Iron, which captures Birkenhead’s Cammell Laird shipyard, in particular its female workforce. Images which stand up just fine against the work in Distinctly by far more experienced photographers. This was a project developed by Wirral’s Creative Youth Development programme. Such programmes are amongst the most important part of public cultural provision and there are not nearly enough opportunities like that for young people. Wirral is drawing to an end this year as Borough of Culture within the Liverpool City Region. Now, like everywhere else in the UK, it deserves a lifetime of the level of arts activity and opportunities that has been seen within it.

This piece was published by Corridor8 in February 2020.

Images copyright: Chris Killip, Robert Darch, Trish Murtha, Declan Connolly, Suzanne St Claire

Time and Tom Wood

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Text Kenn Taylor
Images Tom Wood

The Pier Head – Tom Wood
Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool
12th January – 25th March 2018

“They were outside the groove of history and it was my job to get them in, all of them.”
The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

The thing that gets me most in Tom Wood’s series of images on and around the Mersey Ferries is the intensity of the eyes. Across years, generations, genders, locations, so many of his subjects in these photographs either look intently into the distance or, more strikingly, straight into the lens and into you. I’m drawn to an old video clip of former Open Eye Director Paul Mellor – an early champion of Wood’s work in the gallery he has returned to with this show: “I think he has a care and empathy for the subject matter and the people. I think he’s a humanitarian photographer, if there is such a thing.”

Full disclosure, seeing Wood’s images years ago and how they captured places, people and an era so familiar to me in such a powerful way, was one of the things that drew me into visual arts. Merseyside, like many deprived areas, has had no shortage over the years of photographers keen to bob in and capture ‘poverty porn’. Which when you know a place well, its layers and complexity, can become deeply tiresome. Even if the photographer’s intentions are well meant, their ‘truth’ is usually two dimensional.

Wood is one of a few whose work stretches far beyond this, no doubt in part due to his deep familiarity with his subject, having photographed the area as a local resident over decades. In contrast to others, Wood captures his subjects not as types, but individuals as significant as in any high society or celebrity portrait. Sure, in some expressions or behaviour is humorous, but in others it is sad and still more it is powerfully dignified as he gets that shot of the confidence of youth, the resigned wisdom of old age, the cynicism of having been pushed to the fringe of society. And of course, the boredom of waiting.

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Like his previous work that focused on bus travel, All Zones Off Peak, here Wood captures the commute and its varied humanity. His Pier Head images differ from All Zones though in that the ferries and their terminals were, much more than the busses, also a ‘sit off’. Somewhere for the young and old especially to hang around, mess about, chat, linger. He photographs friends, couples, individuals’ heading somewhere or just passing the time. Snapping different generations over several decades, Wood captures continuity and change. Faces seem ever familiar. In contrast, fashion and hair styles shift rapidly. It was a particular part of the poisonous stereotypes pushed to the area in the 1990s to attack Scousers for a fondness for sportswear. These images remind that was only part of the fashion story. Not to mention that the often unique ways clothes were worn in the area was done with an originality rarely matched when such looks were copied elsewhere. Again, the particular detail of fashion in cruder hands could become voyeurism, but not here. You look at his subjects and their styles, but they look back into you.

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People are the heart of Wood’s images but the background detail is important as well, as much a part of their role now as social document as the fashions. While the images here span from the 70s to late 90s, the bulk are from mid 80s to mid 90s. This is a time in Merseyside history that artists, writers and academics rarely look too, preferring to tap into the swinging, for some, 1960s, the radical era of the late 70s and early 80s, or the more recent, if patchy, renaissance. Yet the period between the 80s and 90s that Wood captures so powerfully is important as well as it was perhaps Liverpool’s nadir. Coming as it did after the collapse of the brief Militant period when Merseyside was largely cut off and left to rot. Treated so often nationally with either contempt or indifference, negative stereotypes about the area came to the fore even in supposedly polite and liberal circles.

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This was the Merseyside I grew up in. Almost nothing new was built. Most of the theatres and gig venues closed. So much seemed of the past, decaying, like the ageing, smoky 1960s busses and ferries we waited for, while opportunity, change, a positive future, seemed distant, if not impossible. The local media became deeply nostalgic for ‘the better times’. What radicalism existed largely retreated to educated urban circles and had little impact on the city’s poor and unfashionable fringes.

Wood, intended or not, captures this atmosphere. Both the crumbling grandeur of the Victorian docks and jetties, rusting, grassed over, silent. But also the decay of 1960s optimism as exemplified by the rotting Modernism of the graffiti covered Pier Head terminal. Today its concrete and steel would be lauded by fans of once-again fashionable Brutalism, its Formica’d cafe turned into a themed eatery. Then, it was just a reminder of how everything had fallen apart. The Merseyside of today still remains highly deprived and faces numerous challenges, but it has come far from being so unrelentingly crushed in a way that people who came to know the area later on struggle to grasp.

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What Wood also captures though is that, despite the national mistreatment, life in Liverpool did indeed go on. People survived and even occasionally thrived despite the shit they had been given. Not crude stereotypes or even that other media trope, ‘sympathetic victims of a cruel system’, but individual human beings with their own stories, part of a culture that carried on despite seemingly impossible odds.

The landscape of the river and those who travel across it, as they have done so since around the 12th century, has now changed from that photographed by Wood. Just as the young, moody people in sportswear in 1987 confused and in turn were confused by the older people sporting headscarves and flat caps, so young people today must look these images with a distance hard to bridge. The differences in fashion and scenery though are just the visual demonstration of the bigger gap. That of experience and understanding between generations in an ever faster rapidly changing word, each one with its new sets of opportunities, joys, problems and challenges. Wood captures his subjects with dignity, young and old, but the generational gap remains for them as it does for all of us. We look at them, they look at us, but never quite understand what the other has seen and felt, like looking across a river into the distance.

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This piece was published by Corridor 8 in March 2018.

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