North West Arts

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.

“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

sculpture park The Wood for the Trees muf architecture art grizedale forest

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, May 2013

In the dark exhibition space I am stood thinking about how almost every object in this room projects a sort of human personality. Mark Leckey, the artist-curator, has described the selection of works he has made for this show as being like a ‘network of objects’; a kind of 3D Google image search but without revealing the search terms. Another visitor wanders in, “wow” he says to a pink gargoyle-esque Louise Bourgeois sculpture covered in tumourous offaly drippings and missing a head; he beckons over the gallery attendant “what do you think this is made of? Resin? It looks like blancmange.”

The Universal Addressibility of Dumb Things feels like Leckey’s attempt to draw together many strings. The selection of objects pivots on his own audio visual work; he reproduces the green walls of his 2011 Serpentine Gallery show, Felix the cat from his 2008 Turner Prizeshow makes an appearance, and in a sense what we see is an assemblage but made with objects and artworks
instead of footage – his usual medium. Bluecoat curator Sara-Jayne Parsons says that Mark Leckey is an ‘artists’ artist’, he has also been called a ‘pop cultural anthropologist’. He describes himself as an autodidact, which may help to explain his intuitive curatorial approach.

The resulting exhibition is charming and playful; the interpretation is minimal, which gives visitors a chance to establish a relationship with an object on their own terms. One can enjoy a Coptic jar, mummified cat or one of Roger Hiorns’ beautiful crystal-coved engines, without having or gaining any knowledge. Each section does have a distinct yet surreptitious theme; taking visitors on a journey from humanoids to machines. The only slightly disappointing part of the exhibition is the gallery upstairs where three films are shown on a (perfectly nice) periscopic screen. The room is too minimal to be an appropriate climax.

The decision on how much personality to project through curatorial practise seems easier for artists; Leckey seems very present here. This is one of a series of Hayward Touringexhibitions curated by Turner-prize winners and nominees (in the past they have worked with Mark Wallinger and Tacita Dean, next they are working with Jeremy Deller). It is Leckey’s most significant curatorial project to date; however, in a sense everything he does is curated, from his films themselves to his Youtube channel. The show opens up a refreshing dialogue about the role of assemblage, curators and artists in contemporary art; his catalogue is very much an artists’ book.

A nice touch at Bluecoat is the talks, which are being given by locally-based contemporary artists. This is an exhibition that artists will enjoy but not at the expense of alienating other visitors. Leckey said upon winning the Turner prize in 2008 that he wanted to exhibit more in Briton and make an impact on contemporary British culture; with this exhibition he has done a bit of both. It is not the first time de-contextualised museum objects and artworks have been shown together, but Leckey delivers it with such a generosity of spirit as to make this exhibition a must-see.

First published on the corridor8 website, April 2013

There is a bright winter sun on my face as I approach the Albert Dock on a February afternoon.  Tate Liverpool, which stands on the banks of the river Mersey, was the first Tate gallery outside of London when it opened in 1988.  Having this international brand within its midst is a vital part of the Liverpool art ecology and expectations for its exhibitions are high.  The shows are often thematic, although they have had monographic exhibitions here; generally the usual western canonical art suspects. What Tate Liverpool does with its new show Glam! The Performance of Style, is quite different; it is attempting to reposition the popular music style of the 1970s ~ glam ~ as an art movement.

Alight the lift on the 4th floor and enter gallery to the left. At first it feels like you might have taken a wrong turn and instead of a contemporary art gallery, you have entered a museum.  Borrowing a different kind of display methodology isn’t a good or bad thing; in fact it seems appropriate for an exhibition dealing with homage, artifice and appropriation. Tate coyly describes this presentation of books, posters, ephemera and stage costume as a ‘glamscape’ – in keeping with contemporary art’s recent obsession with the ‘scape’ suffix. But before it can get down to the business of assessing the era critically, the exhibition needs to introduce us to the style.

Glam rock developed simultaneously in the UK and the US before being exported all over the world by musicians such as David Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed.  It was characterised by flamboyancy, explorations of gender and identity, glitter, flared trousers, hedonism, drama, glamour ~ the word abbreviated to christen the style ~ and an interdisciplinary approach.  Glam was a medium to explore the points where music, art and life crossed over, diverged and blurred.  The performance art of the ‘Nice Style Pose Band’ helps us to understand this idea; they look like a musical group but they are in fact just a group of art students appropriating the haircuts, costumes and props of glam without the music. From here we can see how Tate is able include artists Gilbert & George in the exhibition; if ‘glam’ is essentially concerned with ‘performance’ as the exhibition strap line suggests, maybe the term can describe ‘living sculptures?’

The exhibition is so vast and visually rich it is easy to be distracted from the critical discourse.  Many video and audio tracks play at once, with a familiar song occasionally breaking the surface of the noise.  In front of your eyes cherries, lipsticks, afros and leopard-print crash and clash into each other.  Tate could easily have included work by contemporary visual artists, such as Grayson Perry or Mark Titchner who it could be said are influenced by glam, but it deliberately doesn’t do this. The exhibition applies its microscope only to work produced in the 1970s, leaving it to the viewer to consider glam’s legacy. For me this includes reassessing the music I listened to as a teenager in the 1990s (such as Marilyn Manson and Rachel Stamp) and seeing the face of glam, thick with makeup, staring straight back.

In its attempt to reframe glam as an artistic ‘ism,’ the exhibition could have made more of the parallels with ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’, the British ‘anti-modern’ art movement. The leaders of the 19th-century group were the drug-taking, bohemian ‘rock stars’ of their day who ~ like the champions of glam ~ looked to the past and the future for references instead of dealing with the ‘now’.  In spite of this rejection of the present, both glam and Pre-Raphaelitism need to be considered in their historical context.  Tate explains that in 1973 the UK plunged into recession, glam providing a distraction from unemployment and hardship, while in the US, men used alternative lifestyles to help them escape the draft into the US army who were fighting a war in Vietnam. Like any art movement, glam is inextricably linked to time, place and social change. In David Parkinson’s photograph ‘Mr Freedom Seaside Shoot’ 1971 we can see a wide generation gap developing between young people and their parents.  Nearby, photographer Martin Parr turns his documentary lens on music fans who have customised their clothing with hearts and photographs of their idols; the images look humorous to the modern eye, but demonstrate the intensity of feeling that glam inspired.

It is possible to skim across the surface of this show, drinking in nostalgic sips and not taking it terribly seriously. But as I travel onwards through this story, I begin to feel troubled by the gender equality or lack of.  The boys seem to be having fun, but the women artists ~ including Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke ~ seem to be dealing sadly with the burden of their own existence.  Too many of the women in this exhibition are not cultural producers at all, they are visual material; breasts on display, appearing as geishas, prostitutes or adorned with a red phallus in the photograph ‘Polka Dot Pin Up’ 1972-3 by Karl Stoecker.  Margaret Harrison, is a lone voice critiquing the pornification of the female form: she makes her sexy ladies ridiculous, by having them straddle over-sized bananas and lemons.

Tate have commissioned many prominent writers  including Michael Bracewell, Mike Kelley and the curator of the exhibition, Darren Pih, to help convince us that visual artworks including Richard Hamilton’s skilled painting ‘Soft Pink Landscape’ 1971-2, Jack Goldstein’s electrifying film ‘The Jump’ 1978 and Jack Smith’s complex photographs belong within the critical framework of glam.  But as I stand in ‘Celebration?’ 1972-2000, Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation, with specs of light from a disco ball lapping at my feet like water, I think: there is so much style in this exhibition; can there possibly be any substance?  Whether or not you leave the gallery wholeheartedly convinced that glam is an art movement, the exhibition certainly helps to promote the idea that art history and history are essentially one and the same.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

“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 January 2013

If this exhibition was to come up with a definition of drawing – which it deliberately hasn’t done – it would explain that drawing, unlike painting, isn’t intrinsically linked to a medium. Instead, drawing is a deliberate attempt to represent something. This ‘thing’ does not need to exist (although it can do or have done) it can be imagined or remembered, or it could be an idea or a concept, but the drawing after the thing always remains, as traces.

This exhibition is Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change at Tate Liverpool, curated by Gavin Delahunty, its Head of Exhibitions and Displays, and by Katherine Stout, curator of British contemporary art at Tate Britain. Both have extraordinary credentials in the field of drawing: Gavin was curator at Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art (mima) and Katherine co-founded the Drawing Room, in London in 2001. With this just one of a number of recent blockbuster shows on promoting drawing. The question is: is drawing having a moment or is this the beginning of a permanent change in status for works on paper?

Downstairs my viewing experience begins in a darkened room accompanied by the fuzzy hum of a projector. This is a display running alongside the main exhibition; a new commission by Matt Saunders called Century Rolls. To create his images, Saunders shines light through paintings or other barriers onto photosensitive paper. The result is the first of many examples of drawing embedding itself in modern art making processes. Besides his photographs, Saunders creates animations; which, in spite of their monochrome palette reminded me of fauvist art – a branch of Impressionism characterised by bold colour and blocky brush strokes.

Upstairs for the headline show, the fauvists make another appearance, represented by Paul Klee. Almost straight away his drawings make me think about music, and all that mark-making can communicate. The marks on the paper are almost making sounds in my brain. Klee is part of a selection of four artists (along with Paul Cezanne, Richard Hamilton and Lee Bontecou) whose work is shown together. The quirk of this exhibition is that the interpretation hinges on these groupings, rather than picking out themes. Gavin describes the timeline of the exhibition as leaping “back to the future,” as it links pieces with theoretical and visual sympathies rather than in any way acknowledging their chronological order.

The exhibition tries to trip up its visitors with sculpture, new media and even little bits of paint. The piece that blows open the debate about what drawing is, is Henry Moore’s Recumbent Figure. It isn’t a very large example of Moore’s work in stone, but it is nevertheless monumental. It is possible that the sculptures are here as a curatorial device to ‘lift’ the show; as well as or instead of because they really are drawings. However, Gavin explains that they have put sculpture in, “second place,” and by placing it alongside unexpected comparative pieces given it new meanings. Moore is part of a “sexually charged” selection of works including pornographic images by Cornelia Parker, feminist art by Hannah Wilke and intimate pen and ink drawings by Andy Warhol.

Tracing the Century also uses some unexpected language to give a sense that the drawings can hold their own: ‘robust’, ‘aggressive’, ‘urgent’, ‘confident’, ‘weaponry.’ But what the show doesn’t do is turn its back on or undervalue the fragile and ephemeral qualities of works on paper. The intensity of the emotional response by the curators is no more apparent than when Gavin describes how seeing one of the pieces emerging from its crate “moved” him. And the process of Julie Mehretu drawings he describes with awe and wonder: “the artist is trying to capture something cerebral about existing and breathing in and out, and she’s tried to capture that with graphite, on paper.”

Both curators were really excited to show me the work of Sir William Orpen. An image of his work was used to market the exhibition, and the ideas and strands of the exhibition all seem to come from or go back to his oeuvre. Only recently acquired by Tate, “although they have been known about art-historically for a long time,” says Katherine. The drawings were produced to aid the study of medicine at the end of the 19th century, which demonstrates “that art might be made for one purpose and now we see it in a different way… and yet,” Katherine enthuses, “they look incredibly contemporary.”

Tracing the Century demonstrates a legacy of the recent Tate Liverpool exhibition, Turner Monet Twombly. That show took the same risks in showing historic, modern and contemporary art together (something Katherine says is: “quite hard to do… but there is a curatorial and public appetite for it”) to tell a new sort of art historical story that has little to do with style  or ‘ism.’ In that show abstraction and figuration (as in Tracing the Century) was under the microscope and both shows demonstrate how lines of inquiry are passed from generation to generation.

This exhibition has given Gavin the chance to revisit the “phenomenal collection of drawings” at mima. His former employer holds a world class collection of American post-war drawings, some of which will become part of Tracing the Century when the show tours there after its showing in Liverpool. This will potentially create “new relationships” between exhibits as well as offering something new for audiences who have already seen the show at Tate.

Tracing the Century has created a meditative space; where visitors can learn that drawing can be durational and powerful, as well as ephemeral and emotional. After seeing this exhibition it is hard to think of visual art without drawing as a backbone. Perhaps the traditional low regard for works on paper is the reason that there are still plenty of new ways to interpret drawings, by artists but also by arts organisations through their exhibitions and curatorial emphasis. It remains to be seen whether drawing will take up its place at the heart of art discourse, but the story of drawing is evidently ongoing.

First published on on 23 November 2012

Dangerous Games is a powerful new video artwork by Marina Abramovic, and is a complete departure from the 1970s feminist, bodily work for which she is known. This new film was produced in Laos, Southeast Asia, and shows a group of youngsters dressed as soldiers pretending to kill each other; attacking each other as they sleep, shooting each other in the back with toy guns and filling up a bathtub with their tiny corpses. A reworking of the Lord of the Flies storyline with a cinematic debt to Bugsy Malone and Battle Royale, it addresses the very contemporary issue of child participation in war.

I am excited and want to talk about this new film as I am a huge admirer of Abramovic’s work. However, what is interesting about the art experience here is that I am not in the gallery; I am sat at home watching A Dangerous Game in my pyjamas on my laptop. Her film has been produced as part of Channel 4’s Random Acts short form video strand, which broadcasts 3-minute films late at night, and then makes them available on their website. Including artist films, performance, poetry and music, Channel 4 have partnered with creative hubs to find cutting edge practitioners.

Last week I attended the day of Random Acts Artist Interventions into Broadcast at FACT. The objective of the day was to promote and analyse Random Acts’ partnership with FACT (which has involved the commissioning of 25 new artist films for the strand) and put this work into the context of artists’ relationship with TV going back to the 1970s. Alongside performance art matriarch Abramovic, FACT and Random Acts have produced films by Mark Titchner and Richard Billingham, amongst others; prompting work that spins the artists off into new directions.

Random Acts’ predecessor ‘3 minute wonder’ in many ways anticipated You Tube and the resurgence of interest in short form film. The difference is that Channel 4’s short film strands “are not what viewers have ordered” and interrupt the TV experience by unexpectedly filling a slot usually occupied by a commercial, says Tabitha Jackson, Commissioning Editor for Arts at Channel 4. The idea of being able to broadcast directly into people’s homes excites artists, even (or especially) at a time when the format is evolving and viewers can ‘curate’ their own viewing schedules. The viewing potential of TV, compared to galleries, is huge – with upper figures of millions rather than 10s of thousands – and TV has a down to earth sensibility that galleries find it hard to compete with.

The story of artists’ interventions begins (for the purposes of this day) with Ant Farm, a group of former architecture students who in the early 1970s went on a road trip across the US in a camper van they had retro fitted as a recording studio. Blurring the lines between art and journalism, they would stop off at universities to screen their films along the way. Founder Chip Lord says that the group were reacting against the “optimism of the 1950s” which had come crashing down around young people as they were drafted for the war in Vietnam (an interesting connection to Abramovic’s film). The group were using new technologies and “the gesture of the spectacle” to give themselves a voice and an identity; in a way that perhaps the concurrent hippie counter-culture were trying to do with drugs and music.

Although the 1970s was still relatively early days for television, it had already become a symbol and a medium of capitalism. The hidden messages within the medium is a conversation that is still taking place both within art and the media; just last week I read an article on the Guardian website about how TV is not actually bad for children. In a similar vein, when Director of FACT Mike Stubbs said at this event that the distinctions between high and low culture no longer exist in our “post-capitalist world”, I was (as a regular viewer of dubious-quality TV show The Only Way Is Essex) relieved, if not wholly convinced. It seems that if it were that simple, there would not be a new generation of video artists taking the murky grey area between ‘high art’ and popular culture as their starting point – more about them in just a minute.

The next era in the chronology of artists and tv was the 1980s and the first wave of MTV, this part of the story represented by Judith Barry. Barry began her career as an artist filmmaker creating “bumpers” or “wraparounds”, 15 seconds of film punctuating music videos, where the only brief was to incorporate the MTV logo. Very relevant to the Random Acts initiative, Barry says that she has been motivated throughout her career by the desire to make “better popular culture”. Interestingly, she went from the gallery to TV and back again. At that time galleries were struggling with the logistics, and Barry described how even at the MoMA “videos were shown in basements and in corridors on the way to the toilets”; video was having a moment but it was still struggling to shake off its low cultural roots.

Lucky PDF brought the story of artists and TV up to date. My earlier mention of TOWIE was not totally flippant, as for one of Lucky PDF’s films, they invited TOWIE ‘actress’ Chloe Simms to an opening at the ICA and filmed her responding to the works on display. This was a critique of the ritual of the art opening, but also a test of the audience watching the film; could we divine which was Chloe and which was her TV persona? It also meant that the art work became part of mainstream culture. One member of the group, James Early, said that Lucky PDF use “What the fuck?” as a starting point and work backwards; their other aim he simply sums up as “blurring those boundaries” of art and TV.

The idea of parameters as the catalyst for creativity and experimentation permeated the day. There are two aspects to this. Firstly, without conventions it is hard for artists to intervene and disrupt: TV is steeped in ritual and collective experience and this makes it fertile ground for artists to investigate. Secondly, sometimes it happens that a defined framework can actually provide a focus for artists’ output and encourage exciting new work. The Random Acts platform is one example of this; by enforcing the 3-minute limitation it maintains a piquancy, where other arts programming or websites showing short film content can seem a bit floppy.

The idea of the ‘trusted guide’ is another theme of the day. This can be a curator, blogger or collector; a publication, an arts venue, website or brand. In fact, any person or organisation that filters the online world or the art world – or both – to reliably signpost us to great new cutting edge content. Random Acts may not use the expression directly, but they seem to aspire to trusted guide status.  They generate new arts content and introduce users to new practitioners and ideas, but ultimately want to be a first point of call for accessing the arts. FACT, too, is a filter of new media arts content for Liverpool and beyond via a number of strands of activity. The joining up of two guides can be a powerful entity indeed (see the History of The World series, broadcast on Radio 4 and fronted by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum).

The day concluded with a panel discussion entitled The Future, and a video artwork by FACT resident artist Jeremy Bailey called The Future of Television. Bailey’s short film appeared like a live skype call, but portioned up on the plains of his face were TV channels, allowing him to ‘share’ his likes, dislikes and interests with others in augmented reality. I am not sure when he was predicting that this new mode of viewing would happen, but I don’t think I’m ready for it. The panel stuck a little bit closer to now, with all in agreement that although TV is evolving, it still plays a big role in society, therefore artists will want to get involved. Panellist Jacqui Davies, who produced the 25 artist films FACT and Random Acts commissioned, pointed out that “good art is asking questions rather than telling a truth”. Art doesn’t always have as strong a message as Dangerous Games, but it is fundamentally about communication, and TV remains one of the best tools out there.

First published on on 5 November 2012

Coffee. Drawing board. Paper. Pencil. Subject. This should be the perfect situation for creativity but I am struggling for inspiration. Around me, other artists are producing absolutely beautiful images with no more exciting media than I have. I look up and there are some walking Mondrian paintings performing a sort of dance. It doesn’t really matter that I am drawing nothing more exciting than the person who happens to be sat opposite me. The most important thing is that there are loads of people here making drawings, making a mess, listening to music and having a lovely time.

As the biennial draws to a close, the events and marketing starts to shift focus from what is happening now to the, as yet, nonexistent legacy. Those of you who attended the event Changing the World From Here on Friday evening, will already have a good idea of the Biennial’s immediate plans and their hopes for the future. The Biennial will I am sure be pleased to know that the last weeks of my festival experience have been characterised by positivity and pure enjoyment. Although I haven’t managed to see every exhibition (fortunately not all of the exhibitions are closing this weekend: Paul Rooney at Victoria Gallery is one I haven’t caught yet, but it is on until 22 December) I am glad that I focussed my energies on attending three events in the last week, all of which were inspiring and surprising.

The first was Drawing Sessions 2, in Camp and Furnace, co-led by the Drawing Paper, the Royal Standard and the Biennial, and heavily promoted by Tate Liverpool as it links to their new show. The duo behind the Drawing Paper were shortlisted for the Liverpool Art Prize for producing their free quarterly newspaper-format publication showcasing contemporary drawing. Although I am still sad that there hasn’t been a venue to step in and offer the sort of ambitious installations that were the speciality of A Foundation, new Greenland Street residents Camp and Furnace have succeeded in creating a multi-purpose space where a diverse mix of people feel at home. Drawing Sessions worked very well in that context; a little bit wacky, intense, immersive and family friendly.

The next event was an ‘experts meeting’ at Homebaked Anfield, my first visit to the bakery since the summer (the Anfield Home Tours have been fully booked for weeks). While the DIY aesthetic remains, it has moved on since the last time I was there and there is now a hygienic environment where volunteers can start producing some food. Maybe it was because this event occurred during an emotional week for me, but this talk made me feel as though my heart was filled with energy (in a way I hadn’t experienced since Lynn Hershmann presented her film Woman Art Revolution at LJMU Art Academy in the run up to Liverpool Biennial 2010). Sally Tallant was the chair, and the two guests were Jeanne van Heeswijk and Katrin Bohm. The idea was to reveal a bit about how artists working the field of participation (as these two are) come to work in that way, and how their projects start.

The skill of the participatory artist seems to be in generating and galvanising strong emotions. Their work also takes time; it’s intense and requires fierce belief in the power of art to generate change. Artists working on participatory projects ~ such as Homebaked ~ tend to have a background in architecture, or work closely with architects who understand the importance of housing, however appreciate that housing alone won’t change people’s lives. Katrin was an architect, but her practice now is so open it defies definition; she ideally works from an open brief (“someone says to you that they want to do a project, but they don’t know what”) and her intention is always to break down traditional roles. Some of what the artists were saying could be interpreted as cheesy or naïve but personally I found it inspiring to listen to artists with such a utopian agenda, who are actively doing something to make the world better.

Sally describes these artists as “a pollutant” or an “irritant”, which sounds negative, but the now Director of Liverpool Biennial has a history of supporting this kind of practise, and worked with Katrin in her previous incarnation as Head of Public Programme at the Serpentine, London. These networks and long term associations are vital to artists working in this way. Jeanne has been in Liverpool for over two years, which demonstrates that change doesn’t happen overnight and is also a testament to her personal belief in this project. After the talk finished, a camera crew started to set up to film Jay Raynor judging a bake off. As the critical debate segued into a light-hearted One Show feature, the bakery demonstrated the versatility that will ensure its longevity: and that when food and community are your trade you can actually be all things to all people.

Sighting by Elizabeth Magill.jpg

From participation to a much more traditional form of art: I was one of the sizeable crowd last Tuesday that wanted to find out more about the painting Sighting by Elizabeth Magill (pictured), on display in the John Moores Painting Prize exhibition. The prize is one of the key strands of the Biennial, which ensures that every two years British painting is examined and placed within the context of international contemporary art. Being shortlisted for the prize isn’t Elizabeth’s first association with the city; in 1994 she was the artist in residence at Tate Liverpool, sponsored by Momart. This gave her an opportunity to step out of the “London bubble”; a comment that resonates with the ethos of the John Moores Painting Prize, which was deliberately established in a regional city. It was only at the end of the week that I discovered the rapt audience at Elizabeth’s talk shared their appreciation with the majority of visitors to the Walker Art Gallery, who had voted for her to win the visitor’s choice prize.

Hearing the audience gasp in wonder at Elizabeth’s work (even as images in a PowerPoint) is convincing evidence that painting still affects people deeply. Elizabeth revealed that she lives with her paintings for four years, layering and reworking until “they don’t annoy [her] anymore”. Her paintings seem to speak to the soul of the viewer: conjuring up memories of any lonely natural beauty spot seen in childhood or the recent past. She cannot explain what makes her paintings “work” but she describes them as simply a way to build an exterior space to explore interior ideas. For such an accomplished artist, she has a very democratic view of art production, in particular drawing, about which she says: “I draw as I am waking up… anybody can draw… only comparisons with other artists can stop you”. A sentiment definitely shared by the co-hosts of the Drawings Sessions.

It is the end of the festival and so Liverpool is back to business as usual. There are new exhibitions opening, many of which look really great. Tracing the Century at Tate is worth a visit (read my review here) and there is a new show opening at Open Eye in a couple of weeks ~ A Lecture Upon a Shadow ~ which looks intriguing. The cultural richness of the city, the reason that the Biennial was established here, is still apparent as the sea of the festival recedes, leaving a legacy through long-term projects such as Homebaked. New endeavours are setting up, new links are being made, artists are preparing to adapt and fight to continue what they are doing, and life goes on.

First published on the Liverpool Daily Post Arts Blog November 25 2012