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openeye2

“Stand still, and I will read to thee / A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy / These three hours that we have spent / Walking here, two shadows went / Along with us, which we ourselves produced / But now the sun is just above our head / We do those shadows tread”… These are the opening words of John Donne’s 17th-century metaphysical poem, A Lecture Upon The Shadow, which lends its title to the outcome of a collaboration between ShanghART, Shanghai and Open Eye, Liverpool.

­To linger over Donne’s poem for a moment before we enter the exhibition in its second incarnation ­at Open Eye; there is both hard and softness (‘lecturing’ contrasted with ‘love’) and powerful imagery in the form of the shadow. It talks about time and change, and the phases of love. Phases, changes, and, indeed, metaphysics (a strand of philosophy concerned with abstract thought, being, time, causality and trust) can all be found in this exhibition if you look for them. There is a playful attitude towards light, as well as a long dark shadow cast by a gaggle of less than law-abiding CEOs.

The artists are divided into groups of three to occupy the two spaces that make up the ground-floor exhibition area – both countries represented in each room. David Penny (pictured, above) says of his work (displayed alongside Liang Yue and Man Yi in the first space) that it is the outcome of an interest in “still life, unwanted things… [and] photography as a productive device”. He photographs images, torn from art books and made into delicate sculptural objects, applies a colour filter and finishes them with a box frame; a process beginning and ending with an image, transforming the ephemeral into the substantial.

Either side of Penny are images that are painterly but at the same time recall 1990s fashion magazine photography; disregarding the need to sit firmly in either figuration or abstraction, or to stick with colour or black and white. They suggest stories (Man Yi, is that water running down the street or blood?), intimacy, loneliness; there are Kusama-esque spots of colour, textures, journalism; but the experience is not chaotic. They share a sensibility with images on instagram or flickr; but those websites struggle to preserve this much engagement in the medium of photography.

In the second room, Tabitha Jussa describes how, having not spoken to any former residents in her research process, there were many at the opening who wanted to “share their histories and memories” of the place in her image. She has produced a composite image, but hyper-real, not invented. New-build housing peeks through the spaces between formerly grand homes built by an Edwardian philanthropist. This kind of vista will be familiar to many people who live in Liverpool, due to the dramatic fluxes in population through the decades, and doubtless well intended changes in policy.

‘Policy’ is a word that hangs slightly menacingly in the air in this room. The final UK artist, David Jacques, isn’t dealing with conventional world leaders or authorities, but rather the new-world order of Chief Executives of multinational companies. Here they are shown as caricatures in perverse narratives; their faces, copied from corporate websites, are given Nazi uniforms and lizards’ tails. This project is a departure from his usual text-based work but consistent with his politics (it was too much for the Chinese authorities, who prohibited its showing in Shanghai). But, despite its dark subject matter, there is something comical in its ‘Ickean’ conspiratorial urgency.

The last Chinese artist has an articulate but cautious message, which is complemented by Jussa and Jacques. Fan Shi San’s Two of Us series mourns the siblings that never were due to the one child policy that controls population growth in China. Fan’s images, of all the artworks in the exhibition, embed themselves in your mind’s eye: the bleak settings and heartbreaking facial expressions communicate the loneliness many experience as a consequence of being only children. Each pair of figures look sadly away from each other, unable to offer comfort to their imaginary twin.

Twinning is an appropriate theme, as it is likely the reason that this exhibition came to be. Liverpool and Shanghai have been ‘twinned’ since 1999. There are some obvious reasons for this particular pairing: both regional capitals gained their wealth and character through their ports, which acted as windows to the world. In A Lecture Upon The Shadow, we are invited to consider the similarities and differences of these two locations, and also offered an example of what is possible with a collaboration between a private and a public organisation.

Visually, the art of these six artists sits easily together, despite the variety of approaches. There is inquisitiveness and questioning (of life and the photography process) which can be found in all of the artists. Perhaps the curators borrowed Donne’s imagery as even after 400 years academics cannot come up with a definitive interpretation of his poem, and so it provides only the loosest of frameworks. However, curatorial looseness doesn’t diminish enjoyment, the artists are individually memorable and collectively they produce a show of very high quality.

A Lecture Upon the Shadow runs at Open Eye Gallery until 17 February 2013

Article first published on thedoublenegative.co.uk in January 2013

“Are you going in?” asks a friendly Gallery Attendant, perched on a stool outside the gallery. I affirm that I am. “This one builds up slowly,” he says mysteriously. OK…

I walk down a corridor, with no idea what is round the corner. There is a noise like the crackle of static. At the end of the corridor I turn into a room that is so opaquely black, another person could have been in there and I wouldn’t have known. The crackle has intensified into a sensation that’s akin to standing in your garden watching other people’s fireworks over the fence when you’re too cheap to buy your own.

Winter Sparks is a stripped-down, quintessential FACT show. Immersive, sensory, playful and delivering what it claims on the tin: creative technology. But – apologies for the cheesy question – is it art? I’m always wary of pseudo-science art exhibitions, worrying that I come away learning less than I would from watching a Royal Society Christmas lecture. However, Winter Sparks doesn’t wear its scientific theory on its sleeve; it is confrontational and textured – and evokes memories and emotions in a way that only good art can.

Evolving Spark Network by Edwin can der Heide is an artwork that’s not for the migraine prone. After some minutes the lights start to move in waves, accompanied by a noise like pulling a resistant plaster off skin. The lights and the sound become more frantic and urgent (“like an army of nails” is how one visitor described it). By the end I am struck by how thoughtfully it seems to have been produced, almost like an orchestral arrangement. At times it reminded me of marching drummers, other times a hailstorm, a crowd, gun-fire or applause.

I am glad I stayed until the end, and I was tempted to stay for another cycle. I wasn’t surprised to hear that some visitors stay for up to an hour but also unsurprised that Gallery Attendants wear noise-blocking head phones. Upstairs, the exhibition has further potential health and safety implications; before you enter I am warned: “Don’t touch anything, don’t trip over the plinths, don’t stand too close and,” a pause, “please turn your phone off.”

Behind the heavy black curtain Impacts, by Alexandre Burton, comprises two distinct but similar sculptures. Coils of copper suspended from the ceiling make sounds like mini lightning bolts as they emit purple veins of electricity onto panels of glass. The inflamed nerves reveal the rawness and aggression that we often forget are properties of electricity: ubiquitous and everyday but potentially lethal. One sculpture seems to be having a conversation with itself, but the other turns its angry voice directly on to the viewer.

As I descend the stairs, I get a good look at the last, and most humorous of the three exhibits, Wilberforces, by Peter Bosch & Simone Simons. Undulating above FACT’s central atrium are two microphones and what appears to be a smartphone dangling on the end of a slinky. The film that the phone is shooting (it wouldn’t be a FACT exhibition without an element of filming and live-feedback) is streamed into a small booth. With its Lynch-ian horror film production values, mysterious howling, fuzz and VHS vibe, the film may not be for everyone, but I could have sat there for hours.

The first exhibition in FACT’s 2013 programme is a good reminder of what this digital arts organisation does well. The show is takes as its theoretical starting point the inventor Nikola Tesla – the engineer who pioneered modern electrical supply systems and was known for his high-voltage electrical experiments – but it is possible to engage with the sculptures simply as good examples of minimalist art. Winter Sparks may not have the wow factor of 2011’s bar-raising ZEE, but it demonstrates that there is plenty of humour and emotion to be found in the field of creative technology.

Article first published on creativetourist.com January 2013

Why the explosion in original art sales and art fairs, says Linda Pittwood, and are they any good for art?

Thinking about art fairs, I cast my mind back to the last three years of the Manchester Contemporary. Closed my eyes and thought about how this contemporary art showcase has gradually gained in confidence and introduced me to artists I hadn’t heard of before. It has educated me about what Han Feng did next after winning the John Moores Painting Prize China in 2010, and allowed me to revisit artists such as Samantha Donnelly. The recent involvement of art magazine, Corridor 8, as well as the Contemporary Art Society, has also given the Manchester Contemporary critical edge and national relevance.

The problem is that most people who rate the Manchester Contemporary won’t even acknowledge its bawdier populist cousin, the Buy Art Fair, which takes place at the same time. I always go to this, in case there are gems hiding amongst the wacky cow portraits; with the Buy Art Fair, the tone shifts from the critical to the brazenly commercial. Whereas the Manchester Contemporary is the result of a strong network of commercial galleries, the booths of the Buy Art Fair don’t have much to say about the state of the arts today.

How can two events taking place at the same time, with broadly the same aims, feel so different? The prerogative of all art fairs is to get people in a room with art, and try to sell it to them. All fairs, good or bad, can be an intense, condensed art experience. There is none of the physical and head space that a gallery will allow; there is no ironing out of fixtures and fittings so that visitors can enjoy the art without distractions. But, in spite or because of their intensity, art fairs in their most thoughtful incarnation can be a snapshot of a city’s thriving arts ecology.

In Liverpool there has been a sudden explosion of art fairs: Cave in September, The Great Liverpool Art Fair in November and two just before the end of 2012: the Winter Arts Market and the print ‘edition’ of the Liverpool Art Fair. As in Manchester, they vary wildly; some very sensitively curated (Cave), others with more of a craft focus (The Great Liverpool Art Fair) and some, such as the Winter Arts Market, a combination of the two (the latter blogged about the younger artists it exhibited, such as Hannah Bitowski, former member of the artist-run Royal Standard in Liverpool).

For all their differences, the quality that unites all of the North West events, and distinguishes them from art fair beast Frieze, is that they have a warmth. By which I mean: the gallerists, artists and other representatives want to talk to visitors (customers?) rather than waiting for the punter to make the first move. At Frieze this creates a weird tension; it is almost as though you are sharing the same space as the art and the gallerists, except they are in another dimension. Even the Grizedale Arts presentation in the project space here (brilliant though it was, especially Bedwyr Williams’ ‘curator cadaver’ cake) somehow failed to thaw the ice.

Perhaps the art fairs in Liverpool have moved in to fill a hole. They don’t offer the same experience as some of the cutting-edge galleries that succumbed to funding cuts, migrated to London (Ceri Hand) or shut up shop all together (A Foundation). But they have laudable aims: introducing ordinary people to artists, exposing visitors to new ideas and encouraging them to support artists through purchasing and collecting contemporary art. Liverpool is one of the most deprived areas of the country, so for the city to support this many arts selling events there must be a market here, as the Manchester Contemporary has already proved there is further east. I take the art fairs as a positive sign of, if not economic recovery, certainly proof of the North West’s enduring love affair with the visual arts.

Image: Buy Art Fair, Manchester, 2012.

Article first published on creativetourist.com December 2012