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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Watching the rain out of the window again, I am kept from working on my garden for another day.  Being forced indoors has; however, made me think about the concept and meaning of gardens, and how their meaning is explored in contemporary art.

Back in June 2011, I met  Apolonija Šušteršič  (pronounced apple-ony-a shoshtershay) when I was visiting her home town of Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Our group was lucky to catch her there as Šušteršič’s international practise takes her all over the world.  We caught up with her in a community garden that she initiated for one neighbourhood in Ljubljana.  The garden occupied a former wasteland space, in a city where land is cheap and abundant, but the pace of rejuvenating run-down areas is slow – reminding me a bit of the situation here in Liverpool.  (Interestingly, we were visiting at a time when Maribor – the country’s second city – was preparing for 2012 when it would have European Capital of Culture status.)  Around 30 people participate in the care – and reap the rewards – of Šušteršič’s garden, which is surrounded by high-rise flats.  Each family or individual has their own raised bed and everyone shares in the hard work required to keep the rocky ground hydrated.

Ljubljana is a capital city trying to spearhead a new identity for its country, and move away from its pigeonhole as a former Yugoslav nation. Former architect Šušteršič wants her projects to help audiences to think differently about their environment as well as about the decisions and motivations of politicians and policy makers.  Urban gardens symbolise togetherness as well as responding proactively to the global food shortages and the anxiety around food miles and industrialisation. Ironically, Šušteršič revealed to us she isn’t actually that green-fingered and she learns gardening skills from the other participants.

I was reminded of Šušteršič’s garden recently, when I heard Fritz Haeg speaking at Metal, the arts venue at Edge Hill station in Liverpool.  Haeg is working on the Everton Park project, which will be part of Liverpool Biennial 2012.  Like Šušteršič, Haeg was trained as an architect; although he has moved away from what he calls ‘Art and Architecture with a capital A’, to create events, build gardens and teach yoga, using the lifestyle he has adopted at his home in Los Angeles as the starting point. In his project entitled ‘Edible Estates’ Haeg helps families to build vegetable gardens at the front of their houses; by being visible he hopes to encourage more conversations to start.

Haeg’s projects are about empowering people to find local solutions to globalised problems as well as, sometimes, introducing young people to gardening for the first time.  He has worked in cities such as Istanbul and Budapest, introducing gardens and ‘modest gestures’ to what he calls ‘the dystopian mess of early 21st-century urban life’.  At Everton Park, Haeg hopes to initiate a long-term project which may or may not involve ‘food gardening, cooking, tours, wildlife restoration, native wildflower plantings, archaeology digs, performances, and maybe even a pond’ in partnership with Field Operations and the National Wildflower Centre.  For more information keep an eye on his website (www.fritzhaeg.com) and www.biennial.com.  Another interesting local project is www.alphafarm.org, which is part of Manchester International Festival – hopefully I will be writing more about that soon.

Some of the time my own garden feels like a hard fought battle against weeds, cats, slugs, sciarid flies (a new and unwelcome resident) and high-winds to generate a modest amount of edible produce; and yet it is an important expression of my desire to impact as little as possible on the resources of this planet.  I say ‘as little as possible’ as it is hard in a world of disposable fashion and the expectation of international travel and tomatoes all year round. Sometimes projects such as those by Haeg and Šušteršič blur the boundaries between art, life and, well, gardening.  But I think that they are important in taking art theory and making art active and meaningful and embedded in daily life.  I am not making art when I am gardening, but by thinking about these issues and actively trying to make our planet more sustainable I hope I am taking on some of their spirit.

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For Plans Within Plans, the second exhibition in the Royal Standard’s 2012 programme, the artist-led gallery has changed its exhibition space; putting down carpeting and creating sub-rooms so that Richard Whitby’s video works are presented separately from each other. They are each distinct and yet there are reoccurring themes (of cinema and architecture) and repeating motifs (including hand-held amateur filming and nostalgia). The exhibition title is a quote from David Lynch’s 1984 science fiction compromised epic Dune based on the books of Frank Herbert.

By aligning himself with this cult artist-turned-filmmaker, Whitby signals an intent to tread his own path between the two disciplines, whilst also making reference to a conflict between creative vision and corporate pressures. In Dune, one of the humanoid mutant ‘Guild Navigators’ declares, “You are transparent… I see many things… I see plans within plans.” The navigators fold space and so have developed extrasensory perception – Whitby’s art is about folding back the layers and seeing beyond the obvious.

In his essay Angels, The Phoenix, Bats, Battery Hens and Vultures Whitby writes how he does not want to be an ‘embedded agent of regeneration’. This is how he feels sometimes as an artist; specifically being part of the Bow Arts TrustLive/Work scheme, which provides him with an affordable residence and studio, in exchange for his complicity in a bigger regeneration agenda. In his video The Beating of Vast Wings we see some of these frustrations made into digital flesh: a bird pecks his dead friend and then we watch a digger in operation on a building site. It is a poetic response to some very big issues, the likes of which would leave many of us feeling annoyed, even disenfranchised, but mostly helpless to stop the pace of change in our cities and lives.

Because Whitby works in the medium of art-video and not narrative cinema, he is able to incorporate a lot of other concerns into the 16 minute duration of The Beating of Vast Wings. The framework of the film is a half-remembered re-telling of the story of Salome from Austrian composer Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera. Salome the opera was based on the German translation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 tragic play, originally in French, which took its inspiration from an Old Testament story. It feels appropriate for Whitby to use a story that has already been through a series of interpretations and re-interpretations; in the same way that his visuals are a collage of production techniques and seemingly unrelated imagery. It is testimony to his skills as a filmmaker that his works are engaging enough to watch in their entirety.

Whitby has been busy since 2006 forging an international career as both artist and writer. His references – to David Lynch, Richard Strauss, A Time to Love and a Time to Die an obscure 1950s American Hollywood film and to Liverpool-born filmmaker Terence Davies – embroider an international political and cultural story through the three new video works in this exhibition and place Liverpool, Whitby’s birthplace, within this narrative. Whitby has enjoyed the opportunity to exhibit in his home town, which he describes as ‘a city of jarring contrasts’, and use Liverpool as the basis for a new video work. For someone as concerned with the politics of regeneration, Liverpool is a fertile subject matter, even without his personal connection to the city.

The combination of nostalgia and unease many feel about changes to the urban landscape is perfectly captured in his film Inspirations: 7 Interviews with Local Architects. The improvised interviews with actors produce moments of humour and insight as well as exposing the gulf between the intention of the designs for new buildings and the way they are regarded and used by the people of the city. In the sculpture Plans within Plans, a partner piece to the film, architectural models are submerged in coloured sand (pictured), reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty scene in Planet of the Apes. Together, the film and the sculpture, are the most consummate and enduring work in the show.

Whitby is talking to the Royal Standard about participating in their symposium, planned for later in 2012. Hopefully this will enable this fascinating artist to continue his working relationship with the city, something he says he is keen to do. This exhibition does not provide a blue-print for a new world order, instead it suggests that we should ask more questions and look more deeply into the changes around us. Conversations have begun here, which beg to carry on, whether in the pub, a symposium, or Whitby’s next body of work.

I recently spent a nostalgic weekend in Norwich.  Nostalgic in a Cath Kidson and cupcakes way for a time and objects that were not really like that the first time round.  I lived in Norwich from 1990-2003; however, my decade in Liverpool has made me a tourist in my ‘home’ city, which allows me to enjoy Norwich – and Norfolk’s – offer in a way I never did as a resident. Lamb feeding, cobbled streets, antique shops and cream teas all featured in this outrageously kitsch trip.  But I injected a bit of edge with a taste of English whisky at St George’s distillery, a delicious lunch in The Bar at Cinema City (a genuinely independent cinema with an adjacent bar-restaurant in a converted medieval building), a drink in the shabby chic York Tavern and an excellent exhibition at NUCA Gallery (the gallery attached to Norwich University College of the Arts).

Against the backdrop of the self-proclaimed ‘Fine City’, the artist books of the Coracle publishing house work very well.  A selection of Coracle’s output is on display at NUCA until 21 April 2012 in the exhibition Printed in Norfolk: Coracle Publications 1989-2012.  Coracle is a printer-publisher, which set up in London in the 1970s, directed by artist and writer Erica Van Horn and poet and artist Simon Cutts.  In 1996 they moved production of their distinctive brand of small-edition books and works on paper to South Tipperary Ireland, but for a short period in the 1990s also operated another base in Norfolk.

Some of the books are linguistic-visual puns; others illustrate poetry, or are the outcome of little ideas like wondering whether artworks can be produced from envelope interiors.  The books are displayed next to printed lolly sticks, ceramic houses or other quirky objects that inspired them; they reference art history, illustrate poems, and are often the result of collaborations.  Collaborators have included environmental artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. The imagery and typography that they employ have not strayed far from the approach that they established in the 1970s.  Springs of rosemary, cottages, fungi, tables and twisted miscellaneous metal items all appear in distinctive pared-down form.  Hand-writing is contrasted with printed text and many pages are left intentionally blank. As the Arts and Crafts movement 100 years earlier applied to its textiles and decorative arts, Coracle has taken the mass-produced printed book and given it the care and attention of a hand-crafted one-off.  Many editions are contained within beautiful slip-cases, sewn, ring-bound or presented as a series of cards.

I particularly like the work of Van Horn, either on her own or collaborating with Cutts or others.  It might be a bit gentle for some tastes, but for me Van Horn’s drawings capture small observations and over-looked forms and make them timeless and important.  I first saw Van Horn’s work in the exhibition A Private Affair at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston where her work was shown alongside contemporary artists such as Roger Hiorns, Chris Offili, Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry.  There is a streak of anti-establishment and art criticism in Coracle’s output as well, which keeps the work fresh and challenging.

Coracle embodies a utopian spirit that could exist in the past or the future, where like-minded people can join together to make a living and help other people to imagine alternative ways of being.  It is a shame that they had to close their satellite branch as the ideology of this small publishing house works well in a city where history, modernity and contemporary life seem to co-exist peacefully.  NUCA has partnered with the Book Hive, an independent book shop round the corner on London Street, to offer many of the current titles for sale.  The prices range from £5 to £40 for books and up to £100s for a limited edition print (these can be purchased directly from their website at http://www.coracle.ie/index.html).  Judging by the visitors to the exhibition and the custom in the Book Hive, as well as the company’s longevity, there is definitely room for this kind of home-spun publishing in the 21st century, and it can hold its own alongside e-books and ipad apps.  Sometimes it is nice to slow down the pace of life, and Coracle feels like the equivalent of taking a break from urban living to eat a cream tea by the river.

There are plenty of other great eateries, visual arts and music venues, shops and architectural treats in Norwich, but I spent the last day of my visit at Happisburgh, a seaside town around 20 miles east of the city.  This strange reflective place is losing its coastline at a rate of around 12 metres a year.  As a visitor attraction, this is fascinating, as the debris of former homes along the coast, buffed into smooth chunks, mingles with the stones, shells and seaweed.  If you want to think about the power of nature or the inevitable passing of time, this is as good a location to do it in as any.  Norwich, and Happisburgh, is not as well known as it should be; possibly because the motorway peters out at Coventry if you are travelling from the west of England, and at Cambridge (1.5 hours away) if you are travelling from the south.  There is a special quality to Norfolk, which I attribute to its proximity to London, while at the same time feeling remote and removed from the rest of the country.  You have to make a special trip – as it isn’t on the way to anywhere – but if you can make the time, Norwich is well worth a visit.