Art & Development, Community, Travelogue

Great Northern Art

AKA, “My Art Highlights from Birmingham, Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Manchester and Leeds.”

Grey clouds in Birmingham, UK

Grey clouds in Birmingham, UK

The Chinese Arts Centre offers a travel stipend for Breathe artists-in-residence to conduct research within the U.K. Earlier, I attended the Fly Eric symposium in Barrow, and the Global Modernities symposium in London. This past weekend, I, along with the good-humored traveler N.M., sought out contemporary art in Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds. The skies were grey and misting, and clocks would not cooperate with us, but we pushed onwards and we were rewarded with some gems among these Northern industrial cities.

Birmingham & Stoke-on-Trent

I’ve heard that just as cars represent freedom to Americans, the rails are a symbol of escape for the British. I can see why: On the train to Birmingham, I found a quiet car, opened a good book, and felt that my modest expectations—passing scenery and a period of uninterrupted time to think—were all fulfilled. I was flooded with a sense of contentment.

Since I visited Annette Messenger’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, I’ve been thinking about her premise that one cannot talk about happiness without clichés. It’s a maxim I find both truthful and discouraging, so unexpected contentment, in its minor way, is somewhat miraculous.

Simon and Tom Bloor's exhibition at Eastside Projects

Simon and Tom Bloor's exhibition at Eastside Projects

Contemporary art can require a sense of adventure—sometimes quite literally. On the quest for it, you will find yourself on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks in strange cities, seeking out alternative art spaces with little to no signage, and having faith that the artwork will be cutting edge and worth the effort. Such was the case with Eastside Projects. Nestled between junkyards and auto shops, this artist-led gallery is a spacious, high-ceilinged warehouse showing top-notch contemporary projects. It’s keen on conceptualism and new media (it features a semi-permanent Lawrence Weiner text work and a large video screening room, and the office is housed in an absurdly impractical structure made by artists). The current exhibit, Simon and Tom Bloor’s “As Long As It Takes,” is visually attractive, conceptually rigorous, and cunningly specific to Birmingham. The twins present new sculptures, watercolors, drawings, a billboard and a limited edition print around the history of local modernist public sculptures. The shapes of the geometric models are strangely familiar—one recalls the structure in San Francisco’s Justin Herman Plaza. Like Aaron Curry, the Bloors use spray paint to defile Modernist purity. But a series of hand-painted watercolors, reproducing satirical newspaper cartoons complete with halftone dots, makes clear that the process of appropriation transforms the originals. Here’s what I mean: “high” modernist sculptures were parodied in a “low” editorial art from, which the Bloors re-made as “high” conceptual art. Brilliant! I really enjoyed the show, as well as Eastside Projects’ founder’s eclectic publications, including a series responding to R. Buckminster Fuller’s 40 Strategic Questions.

Armando Andrade Tudela. Untitled (Rattan 4), 2009, Rattan, metal, wood, Installation view, Ikon Gallery, 2009, Photo: Stuart Whipps
Armando Andrade Tudela. Untitled (Rattan 4), 2009, Rattan, metal, wood, Installation view, Ikon Gallery, 2009, Photo: Stuart Whipps.
Source: IKON Gallery.

In the sunny side of town, IKON Gallery is an ICA in a converted cathedral, and it had the rare distinction (for this part of the U.K., anyway) of showing projects by three international artists. I was most impressed with the work of Armando Andrade Tudela, a Peruvian video/sculpture/installation artist. I really liked his installation involving only a sheet of survival-blanket mylar pinned to the wall by an industrial sheet of glass. It created two overlaid reflections: the glass offered a barely perceptible, but undistorted, reflection; the mylar, a picture of a fractured self. It made me think of Dan Graham’s use of sheet glass as a metonym for corporate power. This wasn’t Tudela’s expressed intention, but I noticed that other works, including walls skinned with pegboard, and woven works that were equal parts baskets and paintings, played with moiré patterns and perceptions too.

Also at the IKON, Manthia Diawara presented “Maison Tropicale,” a documentary video airing the perspectives of the former owners of Modernist prototype homes, which were later purchased by Ângela Ferreira for an exhibition at the Venice Biennale and re-sold at much higher prices. I found the story captivating, though the art and post-colonial politics were a mess, underscoring that there are no easy solutions, but an excess of guilt to go around.


Richard T. Walker's   it’s hard to find you because i can’t quite see what you mean to me.  2009

Richard T. Walker's it’s hard to find you because i can’t quite see what you mean to me. 2009

Just before my residency, I was so busy I missed “Trying to Cope with Things that Aren’t Human (Part One)” at David Cunningham Projects in San Francisco. Luckily, the curator, Ian Brown, is based in this part of England, and brought the exhibition to Stoke-on-Trent’s airspace gallery. Richard T. Walker’s slide show of waving “hi” and “bye” to the sun is endearing. In the back room, two identical glass spheres are topped with polar caps that are revealed inside as icebergs.


Markus Hansen's Other People's Feelings, Courtesy of
Markus Hansen’s Other People’s Feelings. Source:

“Until it Hurts”, a four-person exhibition at Open Eye Gallery, is organized around the mutability of identity, a theme in photography that can seem exhausted or obvious. Thankfully, two particular works in the show are precise and effective. Josh Weinstein’s video, “Cross Examination” (2005), is a quirky, feel-good documentary of strangers on the streets of New York hazarding guesses about the artist based on his, how do you say, humble appearance. The responses are weird, wonderful, presumptive and sometimes rude, but the artist maintains a disarming smile throughout. The effect is that viewers learn very little about the artist (except, maybe, that he’s enormously self-composed, and his art is rather generous), and a lot about the assumptions of others. Markus Hansen‘s “Other People’s Feelings” (2000-5) sequences pairs self-portraits with headshots of others as a video. In each self-portrait, the artist mimics the other people. It’s enchanting to compare and contrast Hansen’s feat of emoting, acting and photographing.

David Osbaldeston's Your Answer is Mine, 2006. Source:
David Osbaldeston’s Your Answer is Mine, 2006. Source:

In 4×4 at the Bluecoat, David Osbaldeston presents a text-based billboard in mixed media, combining intaglio with digital reproduction, 19th century letterpress style with 21st century hand-done graphic design, and critical theory with vaguely subjective pie charts. The billboard’s lack of color, but richness of grey, is startling. Its paradoxes engage.

N.M. and I also stopped at the Tate Liverpool (Melanie Smith’s painting/video/installation in the DLA Piper show is still fantastic, as are William Blake’s bookplates) and the International Slavery Museum, which takes a frank look at how English slave traders and industrialists participated in and profited from slavery in the American South like cotton and sugar. (A U.S. National Slavery Museum, long overdue, is being constructed in Fredricksberg, VA, by the way.)


“Small world.”

I am always surprised—though I shouldn’t be —when I come across references to the San Francisco Bay Area here in Manchester. For example, by chance, I read a book in Birmingham in which the narrator attends a lecture at CCA. And the traveling exhibition on Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, is now at URBIS, just a few blocks from the Chinese Arts Centre. I met Emory in Oakland years ago. I never would have put “Emory Douglas” and “Manchester” together. Luckily, someone at URBIS did. The quality of the exhibition is phenomenal, and Mancs should take note.

The whole exhibition—art, graphics, displays, historical context, and multiple voices and personalities—makes for a vibrant, thorough, interactive experience. I was happy to see lots of visitors taking their time absorbing the show, which in turns inspires shock, rage, pride, admiration, outrage, grief, and gratitude.

At Cornerhouse, I watched 24 Hour Party People, a movie about the early nineties Madchester music scene. I loved every minute of it. It’s the story of Tony Wilson—impresario, BBC personality and music promoter. He is portrayed with searing wit, a touch of madness, egomania, and an unflappably stiff upper lip. When he breaks the “fourth wall” of the film, it doesn’t make you feel like he’s over-explaining the narrative, but somehow helps to speed it up; aware, as brilliance is, of the fleeting nature of good times.


Perhaps my art tolerance was starting to flag, but Leeds bore the brunt of a more intensely critical eye. Asta Gröting’s exhibition at Henry Moore Institute was pretty good, even if I felt mostly pushed away by the hermetic sculptures, which varied wildly from spooky kinetic hemispheres around office chairs, to brass “potatoes” in chiseled angles, to an oversized clod of earth with no discernible referent, to a silicon cast of intercourse, to a Mona Hatoum-like beaded cage. I couldn’t sew it all together; the works seemed completely discrete in form, content, concerns. The only thing I could make sense of is the fact that Gröting was a student of Joseph Beuys; this may be stereotypical, but I find some meaning in the fact of her German-ness, as I’ve felt similarly—locked out of deadly-serious Art with a sense of mirthless laughter—about Martin Kippenberger’s work too.

Keith Arnatt, from Self-Burial in 9 photographs, courtesy
Keith Arnatt, from Self-Burial in 9 photographs. Source:

Upstairs, the work of Keith Arnatt, an early adopter of American Minimalism, Conceptualism and Performance Art in Britain, is represented with a modest selection of black-and-white photographs, a text work, and a series of color sketches of geometric sculptures. I liked the photograph documenting a cubic hole in the earth lined with mirrors. Very simple stuff that any art student today might come up with, but at the time it was on the pulse of a movement, or two. I also liked “Self-Burial in 9 Stages,” a series of photographs documenting, well, the artist burying himself standing up, until only a patch of wavy hair is visible in the newly-turned earth. It really resonated with my recent thoughts about the dissolution of self in installations like Gregor Schneider’s Kinderzimmer (see Claire Bishop’s Installation Art, Tate, 2005), or the dissolution of the artist as in Josh Weinstein’s video at Open Eye Gallery, or the implicit denial in Chu Yun’s work (see Philip Tinari’s profile in the March Artforum, or this year’s Venice Biennale, whichever is handier). Incidentally, the trooper N.M. had a complimentary experience, engaging the drawings and passing more quickly over the photographs. Admittedly, given the chronological distance, the photos lack urgency, and while I’m usually not bothered by a gallery’s white-cube-ness, the presence of earthworks by way of only photos made the gallery seem especially sterile.

At the Leeds Art Gallery, I was intrigued by Shahin Afrassiabi’s installation, “Jalousie Gelocht, Als Blend Schultz” (2003), which is comprised of mundane objects like a television with nothing in particular onscreen, a roll of wallpaper, a table, a lamp, a funny blue geometric painting, etc. It was memorable because the TV emitted a brief, cheerful instrumental song. The pleasure was surprising, because I find that many installation artists create theatrical tableaux that rely too heavily on a “reading” of pathos to be meaningful.

I also enjoyed Angela Bulloch’s cubic sculpture, “Extra Time 8:5,” which was reminiscent of both Minimalism and sort of also a TV set. Furthering this mimesis is the fact that the single-pixel screen changed colors according to a BBC program.

Art & Development, Travelogue


Albert Docks, Liverpool

Albert Docks, Liverpool

An all-day art trip to Liverpool today, guided by the indefatigable Breathe Residency co-ordinator, David Hancock. I’ve got a ridiculously high tolerance for gallery-going, but even I was starting to wane compared to David’s vim. Yesterday’s snow had melted and frozen again, leaving patches of slippy ice on the footpath (slippery ice on the sidewalk), but the rain stayed away, so we covered a lot of ground.

In America, it’s easy to be unaware that Liverpool was the 2008 European Capital of Culture, and now I can see how the city deserved the recognition. It’s a compact city compared to Manchester, and I found it quite scenic. Both cities are historic, but Manchester’s not especially picturesque, and while its recent development has lent a sense of energy, it’s sort of a tony, American, consumerist vibe. In contrast, my sense was that Liverpool culture was a little underground, more woven in with historic architecture, and that there’s quality arts and culture site here.

FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology)
An institute for contemporary art dedicated to new/digital media.
I was intrigued by the website, and the actual place lived up to my expectations. It’s a cool building on a quiet little street lined with a few pubs and architecture/design studios. The galleries are nice, and the installations are meticulous. There were three shows on — one primarily found-sound installation, one essentially an art music video featuring beautiful video of industrial sites, and one kinetic/live data feed type of thing. All were high quality, impressive installations. I’m looking forward to going back to see more great shows, and maybe knocking back a cocktail before visiting their cinema.

Random observation: These UK ICAs sure know how to incorporate both cafes and cool lounge/bars into their buildings nicely. Maybe because the national museums are free, but it seems more common to find galleries to be cool, well-utilized hang-out spaces over here.

Open Eye Gallery
A non-profit gallery focusing on photography. A nice gallery of modest scale, featuring a great show by David Goldblatt. The exhibition pairs photographs shot in South Africa, contrasting framed, grainy, apartheid-era B/Ws with large, unframed, contemporary color prints. The premise could easily be problematic, but the quality of the work, and the way the show is organized, made a delicate, artful statement.

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. My American sensibilities find these century-and-a-half-old neo-classical buildings fantastically impressive; I wonder if they become run-of-the-mill for Britons?

Walker Art Gallery
Yet another free, civic-run general art gallery. The collection is fine, inclusive of decorative arts and old paintings.

A typical table setting before (left) and after (right) the start of the Industrial Revolution. Walker Art Gallery.

A typical table setting before (left) and after (right) the start of the Industrial Revolution. Walker Art Gallery.

I’m finding the Industrial Revolution-era glass and ceramics to be really interesting, since it speaks to Chinoserie and the rise of the middle class. You really get a sense of how quickly the Industrial Revolution changed things. Plus, so many famous factories were here — Wedgewood, producers of delftware, pressed glass, etc. I’m better appreciating the over-the-top sensibilities of commemorative bowls, teapots, mugs and trays.

A beautiful pair of tongs for sugar lumps.

A beautiful pair of tongs for sugar lumps.

One contemporary project took my breath away: Jyll Bradley‘s The Botanic Garden, a series of photographic lightboxes shot around the cities’ botanical sites, including labs, libraries, and greenhouses. I love the stunningly dissonant photograph of two night guards. In the background, foliage and the domed conservatory walls loom grandly, but the guards’ station, littered with oversized containers of Nescafe and milk, couldn’t be more mundane. The photos were amazing: densely detailed, rich colors, and printed or mounted on some sort of matte substrate whose tooth reminded me of quality paper.

The Bluecoat
This fantastic ICA wasn’t on my radar before, but it sure is now. It’s a really beautiful, contemporary venue set in an old brick school with a recently-expanded galleries, along with in-house studios for artists and creatives. Brilliant.

Next Up: Liverpool Art Now is a regional survey that comes to some predictable conclusions, like jokey work by young artists, naughty messages on nice hankies, moody paintings, and poppy wall-drawing, but there are some nice turns as well. Here’s what sparked my imagination:
Stephen Forge‘s routed melamine pieces tickle the divide between formal and mimetic.
David Jacques’ fictional, documentary-style video and embroidered and painted banners.
James Loftus’ Tesseract Panopticon Camera, a six-sided pinhole camera that made six-part, cross-like prints.
Imogen Stidworthy’s Topography of a Voice, intaglio prints of 3D audio renderings.
Alison Jones’ Portrait of the Artist by Proxy is an intriguing audio track of non-artists having a hard time describing a face. The more speakers stumbled over their words, the more it seemed to validate artists’ visual skills.

Liverpool Art Now" catalogue

Spread from the Next Up: Liverpool Art Now\

Tate Liverpool
Two exhibits. First, works by William Blake — a really nice treat. And, a DLA Piper series showcasing selections of 20th century figurative and abstract art from the collections. It sounded boooorrrrring, like a bunch of surrealist paintings, cubist paintings and AbEx at any old museum of modern art, but it wasn’t too bad. There were even a few surprises from Op Art and Arte Povera.

Julio Le Parc's Continuous Mobile, Continuous Painting

Julio Le Parc's Continuous Mobile, Continuous Painting

This Julio Le Parc was somehow resonant — it’s an obvious result from the era when artists did anything and everything to get off the wall, but I still like it.

Peter Halley’s The Place struck me in a way Christopher Wool‘s work first impressed me — as a painting that follows in a tradition, but slightly off, tongue-in-cheek. At first glance it looks like your basic grid abstraction, with some wonky, sort of tacky textures, but the neon colors suggest pop culture, and the form itself is a bit like a computer chip. This undermines the purism of abstraction, which doesn’t do much for me in theory, but is pretty entertaining in practice.

There were many strong contributions from contemporary women artists too:
Sarah LucasBeyond the Pleasure Principle junk installation on sex and death included raw light bulbs and a coffin of corrugated cardboard.
Mona Hatoum‘s Home is an installation where metal kitchen gadgets buzzed with a live current (or so the illusion suggested).
Melanie Smith’s Six Steps to Abstraction was a collection of Bridget-Riley-esque paintings stacked abjectedly against the wall, with hanging piles of colored string, and videos shot in Mexico, including one where a bossy customer tries to get a street vendor to re-upholster a cushion in modern art way. The concept seems like something you’d see in any art school grad show, but Smith pulled off a cool, museum-worthy iteration.

Liverpool John Moores University
Finally, I attended a lecture by Garry Charnock, who spearheaded a campaign to make Ashton Hayes, his hometown, the first carbon neutral village in England. Though the campaign is grassroots and has only been going for a few years, they’ve made remarkable process, reducing their energy consumption, attracting a lot of press and empowering the local community. Charnock’s got a background in engineering and journalism, so he tells a convincing story, but his success as a community organizer is the most inspiring.
Visit the project website or watch the video on YouTube.