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Battle Company, 2008

Battle Company, 2008

Infidel. A person who does not believe in religion, or who adheres to a religion other than one’s own. The word has become synonymous with the so-called War on Terror: for many, war has become a religion in itself, requiring a belief in the ‘superpower’ of Western governments to fully support it. It is also the title of a book by award-winning photojournalist Tim Hetherington, from which Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery has taken work for a new exhibition, You Never See Them Like This.

For the first exhibition under the auspices of director Lorenzo Fusi, the team at Open Eye haven’t shied away from emotional and political intensity. “When I first saw Tim’s photos they had a very powerful effect on me,” Fusi says passionately. “They managed to shift my attention from the general political context to focus on the ‘human factor.’ He portrayed the US soldiers stationed in the Afghan outpost as human beings, not just as war professionals.” The Infidelphotographs show American soldiers at work, at rest, and off duty while stationed in the stunning but war-ravaged landscape of north-eastern Afghanistan; images of the soldiers asleep are especially – and unnervingly – tender. Hetherington gives them individuality and humanity despite their generic uniforms.

The Merseyside photographer’s work strikes a balance between gritty reality and his own personal expression. “Tim realised that objectivity in photography does not exist, there is always an editorial line and a context to take into account,” says Fusi. “He was fully and painfully aware of his role, that is, not to stop a conflict by means of his photos but to document a war that somebody else had started.”

There are further layers of meaning to this exhibition, and Hetherington’s personal story is as uplifting as it is tragic. Born in 1970 in Liverpool, he studied literature at Oxford University and photojournalism at Cardiff University before ascending to a bright international career as a photographer with positions at the Big Issueand Vanity Fair. Sadly, Hetherington died while covering the Libyan civil war in 2011 – and although this exhibition is a tribute, it does not intend to memorialise the photographer. “Tim was very busy experimenting at the time he was killed,” Fusi observes. “He had a lot questions and was still searching for the answers.” Hetherington died still committed to the pursuit of his task to document – and challenge misconceptions of – modern day warfare. You could almost describe the images at Open Eye using one of the messages on Tim’s tribute blog: “such a blow in my face, a hit in my heart and soul.”

First published in The Skinny

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This week I went to the exhibition Life’s an Illusion, Love is a Dream at The Royal Standard curated by Frances Disley.  The artist-curator says that one of the most exciting things about producing the show was sending the text that she wrote to artists and seeing how they responded.

One of the artists that she approached was David Osbaldeston, thinking he would offer to lend her a billboard sized etching.  She was, after all, interested in the ‘epic in art’. However, he proposed that she exhibit two handmade buildings the size of architect’s models; each sculpture crafted from images of the other structure.  Disley describes his process as “a deceptive game of reiteration” and says that they like all the works in the show combine a sideways look at ‘the epic’ with “something extra… a spiritual quality”.

Other surprises came in the form of a brand new body of work by Kaye Donachie and a touchingly personal series of pieces from Roderick Maclachlan.  Donachie exhibits widely and internationally (including a previous Liverpool outing at the Walker Art Gallery).  Maclachlan is less well known and Disley hopes that “people will visit the exhibition and be introduced to Roderick for the first time.”  His cinematic-photographic-installations stand out in a show of extremely high quality work. I hope the images below whet your appetite, but they don’t do the exhibition justice – if you get the chance over the next two weekends I recommend you give the show a look.

The exhibition is open Friday-Saturday until 27 July 2013.  Frances Disley is one of the four outgoing directors delivering an exhibition or event at the artist led venue this summer.  Keep an eye out on their website (here) for details of forthcoming events. The Royal Standard is an artist-led studio and gallery at Vauxhall Road, Liverpool.

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Black Sun Horizon isn’t the first exhibition where all the artworks on display are also available to view online – in fact it isn’t even the first to be shown in Liverpool this year.  What does this trend say about seeing contemporary art in a gallery in the 21st century? Is this the beginning of the end of temporary exhibitions, or is there something they can offer that does not translate into the virtual realm?  We might not resolve this question today but keep it in mind.

The question du jour is boredom: what is it and how do we cope with it?  Artist-curator and Director of The Royal Standard Dave Evans has bought together four video artworks that relate to the phenomena of over and under stimulation in modern life.  The gender of the artists (all men) suggests that boredom is more pertinent to the modern male; however, Evans doesn’t intend us to read too much into this, explaining each artist was chosen because of what their videos reveal about “experiencing the passage of time and the changing texture of boredom.”

Samuel Williams has kept boredom at bay by producing the 5-minute narrative film Natural Habitat, using functional items from the home as characters and the English riverside as the scene. The resulting ‘video sculpture’ is an enjoyable cross between Huckleberry Finn and Batteries Not Included.  From this entertaining start the works become slightly more, well, boring; repetition and obsession their central concepts.

Dermot and Natasha by Dick Jewell is a montage of footage from BBC Breakfast News, distilled down to benevolent gestures, flirtatious blinking and awkward tension.  As the background track by soul group Imagination says, “No words are spoken, the only sound we hear is body talk, body talk.”  Viewing this for 43 minutes induces something akin to the sinking feeling of realising you’ve spent hours refreshing social media for updates.

Next up is Corey Arcangel’s Drei Klavierstücke op 11: a remake of Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark early 20th-century piano composition, produced by splicing together clips of cats on pianos and resulting in an interesting example of shared videos as material rather than distribution method.  After Arcangel and Jewell’s assault on your senses you might welcome the way the final work, Bill Leslie’s Perfect Geometry, coaxes the viewer into a kind of mantra meditation-induced trance using slow-moving retro computer graphics.

Undoubtedly the no-frills setting for the exhibition encourages the viewer to spend time with the artworks in a way that would be hard in the distraction-rich online world.  However, the real beneficiaries of bringing these artists to Liverpool are the members of The Royal Standard. This includes Evans himself who says participating in the mysterious world of curation, “helps me see artworks differently and understand my subject better.” Evans’ insights are vital to understanding the show, but you won’t find them written on the wall.  If you get the opportunity to visit the gallery in person, the best thing to do is find Evans or one of his contemporaries and discuss what you think about Black Sun Horizon face to face.

Article first published corridor8.co.uk May 2013

The next outgoing director exhibition is opening shortly at The Royal Standard, Liverpool

Bay TV’s video is from May this year – I am really excited to be working on this project as part of my role as Exhibition Officer for Art Galleries at National Museums Liverpool. We’re bringing to Liverpool a unique selection of David Hockney’s early work from the 1960s and 70s.  The Walker’s painting and works on paper will be seen in a new light alongside works that chart the development of his style and examine reoccurring subject matter, such as his obsession with depicting water.

http://www.baytvliverpool.com/vod/?vid=BBV51a74de642fa6

“Photography is like a cracked mirror – it reflects us and distorts us at the same time,” says Patrick Henry, director of the Liverpool International Photography Festival, or LOOK/13, which this year takes as its theme the slightly confrontational question: ‘Who do you think you are?’ He continues: “It can be used positively to explore and experiment with self-image, or negatively to stereotype and categorise us.”

The biennial festival is only in its second instalment, having launched in 2011 as a response to a series of events initiated by Manchester-based photography network Redeye in 2007 (LOOK07). But the title of this year’s edition suggests it has already grown in confidence, with its titular question aimed squarely at the jugular of visitors, exhibitors and the city all at once.

To help answer its query, the festival is bringing a diverse selection of work to the city – some by late names we may not have encountered (August Sander, Weegee), and some by current big hitters (Rankin, Barbara Kruger). Within its programming, the festival attempts to place Liverpool within the history of photography (through the work of Merseyside photographer Keith Medley, and a compare/contrast exhibition bringing together Martin Parr and Tom Wood), and to blur the line between insiders looking out and outsiders looking in (an example being a new body of work by Kurt Tong – The Queen, The Chairman & I).

It seems as if almost every gallery in Liverpool is about to close its current exhibition to reopen for LightNight on 17 May, and the launch of LOOK – and the variety of venues involved – is testament to the medium’s chameleonic nature, as well as its enduring appeal. Central to the festival, of course, is Henry’s former home, Open Eye Gallery, which, since its opening in 1977, has earned itself a reputation for working with photographers that interest other photographers, without excluding the non-specialist audience. For LOOK/13 it maintains this balancing act by introducing us to Swedish artist Eva Stenram and French photographer Charles Fréger.

Stenram’s exhibition at Open Eye comprises suggestive images from her Drape series, in which women are obscured by – or almost become one with – their soft furnishings. There is a retro-pop quality to her images, not dissimilar to that of Richard Hamilton’s famous collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? – but with a feminist bite. They leave nothing for females to aspire to or men to gaze upon, apart from a hint of leg. By contrast, the ‘Wilder Men’ in Fréger’s portraits – part of his The Wild and The Wise exhibition – use disguise to, as he says, “allow them to cross the line between human and animal, real and spiritual, civilization and wilderness, death and rebirth.” On his travels, Fréger has found strikingly similar folk traditions all over Europe, leading him to observe that human behaviours might be more innate than we realise.

Elsewhere, for the duration of the festival the Bluecoat seems to be taking on the role of a national meeting point, co-producing an exhibition of early to mid-20th century portraiture and photojournalism by August Sander and Arthur ‘Weegee’ Fellig with Newcastle’s Side Gallery, and also hosting Brighton’s Miniclick, who are leading an afternoon of short talks, entitled Photo Pulse, which will bring together ten of the UK’s leading photographers to discuss the festival’s theme.

The festival is full of juxtapositions – not least of older and contemporary work. Within the Walker Art Gallery, the not too distant history of photography will be represented by Every Man and Woman is a Star, comprising the work of Martin Parr (who, Henry reminds me, “forged his signature style [in Liverpool] in the mid-80s”) and Tom ‘Photie Man’ Wood – while the ultra contemporary will be on display in new work by Rankin, whose stylised cross between fine art and fashion photography has earned him an international reputation. The ‘enfant terrible’ who co-founded Dazed & Confused magazine in the early 90s brings to the Walker a surprisingly tender and emotive series of portraits that, entitled ALIVE: In the Face of Death, examines mortality with unexpected results.

Understanding the importance of local talent as well as the work of artists with a national or international profile, in March LOOK issued a call for submissions responding to the brief ‘Made in Liverpool.’ Adam Lee, the project’s manager, suggests that interpretations of this theme could include references to “things like the docks and port, football, music, fashion, art and politics,” but that the images could also find a way to visualise Liverpool’s “humour and friendliness.” The difficult task of deciding which of the submitted images best and most creatively fulfil this brief falls to Liverpool Daily Post arts editor Laura Davis and photographer John Stoddart – and the works they select will be prominently presented as a giant slideshow during the festival’s opening event at Camp and Furnace.

Elsewhere, for his exhibition Processing – opening on 7 June under the banner of LOOK’s fringe, or ‘parallel programme’ – artist-curator Jack Welsh has taken the written critique of and response to artworks as his impetus. Having noticed a trend towards good quality critical writing in the Northwest, but feeling that it could go even further, Welsh says: “There is still much work to be done [to increase the] level of debate about art. It won’t be a quick fix. With Processing, I consider critical writing not just as a response but [also] as an intrinsic part of the overall artistic process.” For the exhibition, he has partnered three documentary photographers with three writers, but has given them an open brief: the only certainty is that what will result is an exhibition at The Cornerhouse Gallery, Hope University.

As might be expected, the big galleries (Tate, FACT, etc.) have strong offers linked to the festival – but it is in some of the smaller spaces that you will find the most intriguing exhibitions. At Liverpool John Moores University’s Exhibition Research Centre, Henry and Imogen Stidworthy are curating BLACKOUT, bringing together the work of four artists to ‘consider the relationship between viewer and (photographic) subject.’ At another, very different university gallery, the Victoria Gallery and Museum is presenting the work of Kurt Tong, a former health visitor in Liverpool who describes his work as a “quest to trace my own ancestral history… It incorporates new photos, found photos, found items and writing,” and “explores the story of Hong Kong of the last 100 years and the Asian Diaspora.”

With its new-found assertiveness, LOOK/13 seems to be galvanising an already extant passion for photography within the city – as well as a belief that there is still value to be had in the gallery encounter. As Stenram summarises: “The fact that I have made an effort to physically travel to a gallery space makes me take the time to consider the work more carefully, spend time with it and have a bodily interaction with the photograph as an object.” In so doing, who knows: you might even find out who you are.

First published in The Skinny North West, May issue

The Royal Standard, Liverpool, specialises in bringing to the city contemporary artists who might be described as ’emerging’. Currently, this means exhibiting White Teeth in the Planetarium, a new body of work by Glasgow-based James McLardy that is inspired by Liverpool – specifically, it represents ‘Liverpool’s Queensway and Kingsway ventilation buildings in conversation’. The show’s title, McLardy reveals when we speak, is a reference to the writing of Robert Smithson and to the experience of “a journey through a space that is trying to suspend disbelief.”

McLardy is an artist with a skill for surface and shape – pretty handy in his work as a sculptor. His works are all finished differently; curious hands itch to skim their various surfaces. They are given ‘personalities’, with layers of bright cyan paint overlaid with an aging tarnish of copper leaf, or covered with wax and then brutally finished with a hot iron. They possess a secret shining pool of oil, or they appear as if straight from the factory in their black plastic smoothness.

His forms are loaded with contrasts: municipal and domestic, inside and outside, male and female, monolithic and twiddly. Reminding us of some of the 1930s structures that have helped to define Liverpool’s character, they draw our attention to buildings where functionality and Art Deco’s highly decorative styling align.

Negative space and the things left out play as important a role in this exhibition as what is present.  The risk in an artist investigating modernism is that they can tend to get lumped into the bracket of postmodernism – and that by referring to dated styles, their work can appear dated also. McLardy, however, makes well-worn references seem unfamiliar, and delivers his playful analysis of art history and public spaces with so much style I would forgive him anything.

First published on The Skinny, May 2013

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The Wood for the Trees, muf architecture/art, courtesy Grizedale Sculpture

In our new sculpture park series, we discover the UK’s largest haul of site-specific sculpture – in a forest in the Lakes.

When you think of Land Art, you might think of Robert Smithson’s epic earthworks hidden away in the desert of Utah. Or you might think of Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping coastlines and monuments in tarpaulin. Or maybe, a bit closer to home, you might think of Antony Gormley’s high-profile urban interventions. Land Art doesn’t tend to be associated with intimacy, government departments, mountain bike trails, forest management or sudden showers of hail stones on an otherwise mild afternoon. But this is exactly what you encounter atGrizedale Forest, the home of two arts organisations and a permanent collection of around 60 sculptures.

The relationship between Grizedale Forest and the visual arts is as fascinating as it is complex. The Grizedale Society began commissioning sculptures in 1977, when its remit covered visual arts and also running a theatre. Many of the sculptors involved in the early days, such as David Nash and Richard Harris, have gone on to become household names. Since 1999, however, care of the artwork has been the responsibility of the Forestry Commission (operating under the title Grizedale Sculpture), while an international arts programme continues under the auspices of Grizedale Arts, a separate organisation based nearby. But the collection of sculptures isn’t static: Grizedale Sculpture still works with artists and has just launched an ambitious new commissioning programme, Art Roots.

The forest is also the subject of Edwina Fitzpatrick’s practice-based doctoral research, co-supervised by Glasgow University and Grizedale Sculpture. The artist tells me that her research takes the form of artworks or experiments, to explore the notion of mutability, change and “the landscape as a cultural archive”. She is also developing the archive held by Grizedale Sculpture; plugging holes by interviewing artists and producing the most basic of documents – a database of all of the artworks that have and do exist in the forest. Fitzpatrick describes Grizedale as having “many guises… it is many things all in one place, a strange mixture,” and definitely a place that’s ripe for both artistic inspiration and further research.

To see all the art could take days; you start in the centre of the forest and follow a network of trails to find it

When I meet Hayley Skipper, the Arts Development Officer for the Forestry Commission, she is keen to point out that “this is not Yorkshire Sculpture Park”. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just that the two couldn’t be more different. The experience of visiting Grizedale works best as one element of another activity: walking, cycling, a tree-top adventure weekend, a getaway from the city. To see all of the sculptures could take up to five days, and visitors access the forest, unusually, from the centre, where a network of trails lead to and around the artworks. Sculptures appear suddenly through the trees, either confrontationally like Robert Bryce Muir’s mythical “Mea Culpa” or shyly like Colin Rose’s “Ting”.

Skipper takes me to Carron Crag, the highest point in the forest. Despite it being early March, snow sparkles on the ground, and the climate here seems to be a law unto itself. At the peak we can see the extent of the forested area and how its valley location keeps it hidden from Windermere, Hawkshead and other nearby towns. We can see, too, a visual map of forest management: different tree types and ages being harvested and planted. On the ground, a monkey puzzle tree, holly bush or spruce occasionally appear due to test planting and self-seeding; these natural anomalies feel like sculptural objects in their own right.

Descending the mountain again, Skipper shows me the outcome of a 2011 commission by muf architecture/art (above). The simplicity of “The Wood for the Trees” – a fallen tree hovering between a car park and a thoroughfare – belies Muff’s research and engagement with the place. Clues as to the extent of this research appear in the sound work nearby, a combination of bird song and voices of the people of Grizedale Forest. It forms an intimate portrait of the delicate balance of people, industry, plant and animal life that has developed here.

It is no wonder that artists are keen to work within this ecology; the forest as a context for artworks is both beautiful and politically charged.  England’s total wooded area makes up around 10% of its land mass, one of the lowest percentages in Europe. Despite costing around 90p per household per year to manage, for two years the present government dithered over a decision to sell them off. A huge public outcry forced the government to reconsider; it is this context that Skipper believes will be addressed by future artists when using the forest as subject matter and site for their work.

Skipper already knows who some of those future artists will be thanks to Art Roots, a partnership between the Arts Council and the Forestry Commission that has seen Skipper and her team work with artists Tania Kovats, Laura Ford, Keith Wilson and others. Edwina Fitzpatrick says that artists coming to Grizedale “are attracted to working within nature in a romantic sense, but all end up having to confront the idea of forest management and the artificiality of the landscape. They realise that nature is a construct.” What she means is that everything at Grizedale is constructed, from dry stone walls to a forest established to shore up the area’s poor, shallow soil. The sculptures are simply another layer of construction, although they, like the forest, change and succumb to the elements over time.

The magic of Grizedale Forest is its ability to appeal to everyone, from super-fit mountain bikers to art lovers. It is day trip-able from Liverpool or Manchester, and surprisingly accessible from Leeds, Newcastle or London. One note of caution, though: having approached from both north and south, signage is less visible from the north – perhaps this is because us townies leaving the M6 at junction 36 need extra help. My advice? Take your time. You may well take a wrong turn, yet getting lost here can be a pleasure.

First published on creativetourist.com, May 2013