Friday, 7 July 2017

Review: Available Light, Manchester International Festival


Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, to convey the absurdity of arbitrarily juxtaposing two very different forms of creative expression. Available Light is not quite dancing about architecture, but it shows what can happen when an architect, a composer and a choreographer collaborate outside of their unusual comfort zones.

In Available Light Frank Gehry’s sparse, architectural stage design sets the scene for Lucinda Childs’ choreography and John Adams’ modern classical score. Dominated by a huge chainlink fence and raised platform, the setting brings to mind several places familiar from American pop culture: the sidewalk, the bleachers of a sports event, or a seaside pier, sitting atop exposed, crisscrossed supports. Though simple, it plays a key part in the performance, bathed with stark light and silhouetting the stage.
It’s hard not to think of bathers when viewing Childs’ lithe dancers, in their skimpy, figure-hugging costumes; their regimented movements recall synchronised swimmers or the discipline of early morning communal exercisers. At times, they stand still, resembling Anthony Gormley’s rows of figures looking out to sea at Crosby beach. At other times they swarm, reminiscent of a flock of birds. One of the best moments comes after a brief caesura suggesting nightfall; the dancers are lit as if by moonlight, drawing the eye to follow their flitting shadows rather than the movements themselves.

John Adams’ effervescent, multilayered soundtrack steals the show. It swells and ebbs, sometimes muffled and distant as if emerging from underwater and at other times crowded with bright bursts and silvery toots. It suggests found sounds collaged from technology, work and nature, from radio broadcasts and typing to trilling telephones to the creaking of gates, the rumble of industry, the passage of boats, the murmuring of owls and the whining of the wind.
Like much of the best American art of the twentieth century (it was originally performed in 1983), Available Light takes its inspiration from life. It sounds and looks like the city. Though small in numbers, Childs’ performers suggest a crowd, incorporating everyday movements such as stretches, twirls and kicks. The dancers move towards each other and pass by, around and through, yet never meet, appearing to follow some unspoken but long-established rules of the street. 

Available Light is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 8 July. To book visit http://mif.co.uk/mif17-events/available-light.

Review: Last and First Men, Manchester International Festival

Deep in the former Yugloslavia are a series of strange, silent monuments known as spomeniks. Out of scale to their surroundings, many are remote, hidden and accessible only on foot. Commemorating long-forgotten battles and scenes of atrocity, they’ve been brought back into view for glossy, coffee table consumption by photographer Jan Kempenaers, who invites us to revel in their strangeness and unfamiliarity in picture book form as part of the aestheticisation of modern ruins. 

Unlike many monuments, these huge concrete sculptures are not representational, and are deliberately devoid of any religious associations. Instead, they as act as viewing points for the landscape, framing the sun, clouds and stars, or tower over it, remote and untouchable, arms outstretched as if about to take flight. Distanced from politics, memory and culture, this leaves room for imagination, as Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson demonstrates in Last and First Men, which revisits the spomeniks to construct new stories, narratives and associations. Taking its title from Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 sci-fi book, Jóhannsson uses the last two chapters as the basis for a dystopian tale that explores what it means to be human, how we communicate through physical and cultural distances, and the rise and fall of civilisations.

Last and First Men is primarily a film work, using black and white 16mm film to document the spomeniks and their relation to earth, landscape, light and sky. Often, our view is partial, abstracted and deliberately disoriented – close-up the sculptures could just as easily be fossils, ancient rock forms, rock carvings or primitive totems. There’s something of Paul Nash about the way Jóhannsson presents them; suggesting organic forms such as wood, seeds and bones, they take on the anthropomorphic qualities of surrealism.

Jóhannsson is well-known for his work scoring films and his soundtrack, performed by the BBC Philharmonic, is a minimal and slow-moving exploration of the landscape on screen. It roves not just through space but through time, suggesting ageing, loss and decay. The familiar textures and instrumentation of the orchestra lend themselves to this grandiose tale told on a vast scale. Jóhannsson's score is at once heroic, romantic and fragile, conjuring the drama of entering into a battle – against the passage of time, against the inevitable entropy of the universe – that’s already lost.

Taken by themselves, the visuals have a formality that reads like a slideshow or set of textbook illustrations, freed from their captions, but it’s Tilda Swinton’s calm, authoritative narration that binds Last and First Men together. Swinton imbues it with the air of a nature documentary or anthropological report, but Jóhannsson’s orchestral soundtrack restores a sense of humanity, communality and emotion to these man-made monoliths in a way that's rooted in the enveloping, escapist fantasy of the sci-fi genre.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Review: What If Women Ruled the World?, Manchester International Festival


Premiering in the week that North Korea claimed a successful intercontinental missile test, and the columnist Owen Jones sparked a social media row by suggesting the British people should present large-scale public resistance if the President of the United States visited the UK, What If Women Ruled the World? feels scarily prescient and necessary for an art performance.

Rather than a hackneyed invitation to smash the patriarchy – although the need to replace established hierarchies is, unsurprisingly, a recurrent theme – What If Women Ruled the World? uses a creative platform to imagine a situation in which humanity is forced to start anew, and to learn the lessons of the past (and the present).

Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s commission for Manchester International Festival takes the ambiguous end point of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Dr Strangelove as its starting point, positing a female-led world in which women outnumber men ten to one and asking what would happen next if the slate was wiped clean and we could start again – with women in charge.

To start with, the piece has an air of amateur dramatics about it – think stick-on-moustaches, exaggerated accents, women in drag and ‘survival kits’ containing lipstick and nylons alongside sustenance and weapons – but the piece convincingly navigates between fact and storytelling, entertainment and debate, information and polemic. It’s both historically grounded and contemporary, incorporating possibly the first literary reference to ‘covfefe’, to knowing audience laughter.
What If Women Ruled the World? comes into its own when the five actors in the war room are brought together with five women who are real-life international experts in their fields, ranging from economics and development to archaeology and feminism. The women discuss major and recognisable challenges facing the world outside – from climate change, the threat of nuclear war, pandemics and the depletion of natural resources to ongoing conflict and systemised violence against women. Behind them the Doomsday Clock ticks away, offering archival glimpses into natural and manmade disasters, with both personal and global impacts, as a rapidly deteriorating post-bomb landscape is alluded to, building a very real sense of urgency.

What If Women Ruled the World? is an invitation to imagine things done differently, and to ask questions of our actions and priorities as individuals, as city dwellers, and as British, European and global citizens. It starts with a lighthearted premise, exploring serious issues with personality and humour, but it’s a simplistic title for a piece that suggests not just overthrowing the patriarchy, but our entire economic, social and political systems and fundamentally rethinking the way we relate to each other and to the planet. At a time when socialist ideas such as equitable taxation and economic redistribution are apparently back in vogue, much of the discussion captures the zeitgeist, but ultimately, it serves as a warning about bigger dangers such as the power of individuals and the cult of personality. It poses not just the titular question, but asks who should be allowed a seat at the table of power, whose knowledge and expertise we take on board, and what measures we need to take to ensure those voices are heard.

What If Women Ruled the World? is at Mayfield, Manchester, until Saturday 8 July as part of Manchester International Festival. To book visit http://mif.co.uk/mif17-events/what-if-women-ruled-the-world.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

An education in art: The University of Salford Art Collection

Darren Nixon, The Intern (2016)
Mixed media
Courtesy the artist, photograph courtesy Museum Photography North West

Fifty years ago, the newly inaugurated University of Salford – previously a mechanics institute and technical college – started an art collection for the benefit of its students, staff and the public. This followed a national trend towards the establishment of art collections with educational aims. In the post-war period many local authorities became patrons of art, alongside education committees and sometimes schools. Teacher training colleges also started collections, as did some universities, including the University of Warwick, founded in 1965, whose collection is still on display around the campus today, and which still actively acquires work. These collections were part investment and part expression of prestige and modernity at a time when not just physical but social, cultural and educational experiences were changing.

The precedent for collecting contemporary art for educational purposes lay partly in the ideas of influential educationalists like Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, who sought to create beauty in educational environments – and believed in the potential for the places by which people were surrounded everyday to be visually and aesthetically educational. In the 1930s Morris commissioned renowned architects such as Walter Gropius to design school buildings, and after the Second World War he worked with the planners of new towns. He also advocated displaying works of art in educational buildings, believing that they would act as a ‘silent teacher’.

Although aspects of these ideas are laudable, including taking art out of the museum to be encountered and experienced as part of everyday life, today the University of Salford Art Collection is challenging ideas about what form a collection should take, who it’s for – and where and how it should be displayed. Although there are a number of items from the collection around campus in communal spaces, and the New Adelphi Building hosts changing exhibitions, this isn’t the main focus of the collection. “Buildings change and offices move, but the collection is for public benefit,” explains Art Curator Lindsay Taylor. For this reason, she explains, “we don’t just put it on the walls but carefully consider what stories we want to tell or what themes we want to identify when installing work across the campus”.

As part of the University of Salford’s 50th anniversary celebrations a new exhibition at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, What’s in Store?, displays highlights from the collection, showing how the collection has evolved and what has influenced collecting themes over time. It also offers an insight into how the notion of collecting for educational purposes has changed over the decades.

The exhibition references the collection’s historical context, containing paintings by twentieth century northern artists such as LS Lowry and Adolphe Valette. Lindsay explains that print-making was also historically important, including prints from the Manchester Print Workshop, which was based at the university in the 1970s. The collection also acquired international work from early on and includes the archive of South African painter Albert Adams, paint brushes and all; changing works by Adams are now hung in a room dedicated to his work in the university’s Old Fire Station building.

Lindsay, who joined the collection in 2013 after many years of working at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, admits that “there is historically a lack of documentation and knowledge about the collection”. She explains: “There are some works that we don’t know who they are by and we don’t know if they’ve been shown before. There has always been an interest in collecting contemporary art – however sadly documentation procedures and collections care were not as important as they should have been!” Eventually, one of Lindsay’s aims is to build the archive material in the collection in order to enable its story to be told better, and to work with other collections such as the University Archive and Special Collections, Salford Museum and Art Gallery, and the nearby Working Class Movement Library.

Today, Lindsay’s priority is commissioning new work for the collection, particularly in digital media, and by Chinese and northern artists, often working in partnership with other galleries and studios in the area. At the Harris, Lindsay had assumed that established artists working in new media were in collections, but found that this often wasn’t the case. She explains that the aim is to “take a risk and help artists make new work they wouldn’t do otherwise” and, by collecting work by artists at different stages of their careers, show that “there is a story to tell”. Co-commissioning has been a way to raise the profile of the collection and the university: work has been loaned to galleries across the north, shown at festivals and exhibited internationally.

One of the most fruitful relationships has been with the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, which has thirty years of expertise but no collection. Lindsay explains: “We live in the Chinese century but no-one else is really collecting Chinese art in a significant way.” When displayed alongside one another pieces from the collection can show “surprising connections between artists”. For example, both Cao Fei’s 2013 work ‘Haze and Fog’, which examines the new middle- and working-classes in China, and Lowry’s paintings of workers in the UK in the early to mid-twentieth century, are engulfed in smog and pollution. Contemporary art is important, says Lindsay, because it “addresses the issues of the day and represents the time we’re in: ideas about what’s ‘contemporary’ change”.

Another collecting theme is ‘About the Digital’ because, as Lindsay says, we live in the digital age. This does not necessarily mean work created digitally: Jai Redman’s painting ‘The Lovers’, on show in the exhibition, concerns communications, showing “invisible threads and networks”. Other work in What’s in Store? includes the trailer for the young Scottish artist Rachel Maclean’s film ‘It’s What’s Inside That Counts’, first shown as part of an exhibition at Home in Manchester in 2016, as well as composite aerial images by Mishka Henner using digital technology.


Mishka Henner, Wasson Oil and Gas Field, Yoakum County, Texas (2013-2014)
Archival pigment print mounted to aluminium
Courtesy the artist and Carroll/Fletcher gallery

Another focus is acquiring work by artists based in the immediate area, such as Maurice Carlin and Rachel Goodyear, both of whom have a long association with Islington Mill in Salford. “It’s really important to work with artists living and working in the region,” Lindsay explains. “There are some great artists here and they deserve to be at the next level. Artists can trial things here; we can be a stepping stone to them achieving the national or international recognition they deserve. I feel it is important to understand that all the different aspects of the ecology are needed.”

For Assistant Curator Steph Fletcher one of the highlights of the collection is Manchester artist Darren Nixon’s ‘The Awkward Ambassador’, which came about through a partnership with Mark Devereux Projects. This comprises a series of unstable-looking wooden sculptural constructions responding to the collection that have been “purposefully installed into the collection, fit into the store and hide among the other works”.


Darren Nixon, The Awkward Ambassador (2016) 
Mixed media 
Courtesy the artist, photograph courtesy Arthur Siuksta

Perhaps most significantly for a collection with educational value at its heart the University of Salford Art Collection is committed to supporting students’ practice as artists through schemes such as the Graduate Scholarship Programme, where a small number of graduates are given studio space and opportunities such as mentoring for a year in return for giving work to the collection. Another initiative involves commissioning students to make formal portraits of the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. Students also have the chance to have their work shown to a professional standard in the Old Fire Station, which houses the offices of the Vice-Chancellor.


Claudia Alonso, Jackie Kay (2015) 
Digital photograph 
Courtesy the artist

Lindsay aims to ask “what can make Salford different?” and create “real world links” with the city’s studio spaces such as Islington Mill, Artwork Atelier and Hotbed Press, as well as the International 3 gallery. She explains: “We really want to develop an ongoing relationship with students. It’s really important to demonstrate to students that you can live and work here without going to London or Berlin. It’s about changing how you think as an artist.”

Salford Museum and Art Gallery itself has a “really good and relatively unknown collection of modern British art”, says Lindsay, and an aspiration to show more contemporary art. Lindsay hopes that the show will enable the collection to “feel more valued and understood” as it’s “public and for everyone to enjoy”.

At a time when both Salford and Manchester are undergoing extensive redevelopment, including the relocation of long-established studio group Rogue from Manchester city centre due to property speculation, Lindsay says she is interested in Salford “as it’s not Manchester, but can complement Manchester”. She explains: “There are a number of artists relocating to Salford and it has the potential to be such an exciting time. I want to bring together the good things happening here: there is potential to make a difference.”

What’s In Store? is at Salford Museum and Art Gallery from Saturday 20 May-Sunday 19 November and will be accompanied by a series of talks and events. For more information visit http://artcollection.salford.ac.uk.

Monday, 2 January 2017

The Turnpike, Leigh: A New(/Old) Contemporary Art Gallery for Greater Manchester

In 1971, the mill and mining town of Leigh, Lancashire, located astride the Leeds-Liverpool canal between the two great metropolises of Manchester and Liverpool, hosted an exhibition of modern sculptures by Henry Moore. The likes of Moore’s abstract forms, in materials such as bronze and marble, had never been seen in the town before. Moore’s was the inaugural show at the Turnpike Gallery, in a striking and architecturally innovative modernist building that combined an open-plan library space on ground level with a purpose-built gallery on the upper floor. Like many civic buildings of the time, it incorporated a specially commissioned mural: a large, abstract concrete relief by the industrial designer William Mitchell, in his signature style, mounted on the front of the building. “You can see aspiration in it, bravery and forward-thinking at a hard time for the town,” explains Arts Manager Helen Stalker. “People are astonished when they find out there is a mural on the front by the same artist who designed the doors for Liverpool Catholic Cathedral."
The Turnpike encapsulates the ethos of the post-war period. The two and a half decades that followed the end of the Second World War have been characterised in popular discourse as an era of optimism, when initiatives were put in place to develop the welfare state, expand and modernise the education system, rebuild British towns and cities, and bring art and culture to a wider section of the population. Despite continuing hardships and financial difficulties faced by local and national government after the war, new cultural venues were developed regionally and nationally, and the arts were foregrounded in plans for a better, more democratic and more equal Britain. Many large-scale sculptures were placed in public spaces such as parks, schools and housing estates – including work by Henry Moore, celebrated as perhaps the most important sculptor of the twentieth century. Yorkshire born and bred, Moore was the son of a coal miner and shared these post-war aspirations not just to beautify everyday environments, but to bring art of an exceptional quality to ‘the people’.

The Turnpike caught the tail end of this wave of optimism and renewal. In Leigh and the surrounding area at that time, the last of the pits were closing down – leading Arts Manager Helen Stalker to wonder how such a bold cultural gesture was received. Nonetheless, from Moore’s opening exhibition in 1971 the Turnpike sustained that calibre right up until its last exhibition, by abstract painter Gillian Ayres, in 2013.

In 2013, as part of nationwide programmes of cuts, Wigan Borough Council pulled all funding for the Turnpike and made all staff redundant, moving away from local authority control towards relying on local art groups. This story is not unique to Wigan, but continues to be repeated all over the country. Many of the institutions of the welfare state, established in the post-war years, have been dismantled in the succeeding decades, and replaced by either profit-making private sector bodies or volunteers, a process that has accelerated in recent years. Culture, it seems, is a particularly easy target.

Faced with a lack of money, the Turnpike gallery was run on “tea and coffee sales”. Helen Stalker, then Fine Art Curator at Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, who lives down the road in Lowton, had been a regular visitor to exhibitions at the Turnpike and observed what happened to it over the next couple of years. “It went through lots of manifestations about what it would become”, explains Helen. “It became full of pictures of Johnny Depp and numerous African sunsets!”

After thinking “I’d love to get my hands on it,” Helen got her chance early in 2016, when she applied for a two-year post as Arts Manager, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Helen joined the Turnpike in March 2016 after ten years at the Whitworth and five years at Tate Liverpool. Before that, she worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “It’s an incredible learning curve,” admits Helen. “I’ve come from a well-funded bubble of a fantastic, feminist, forward-thinking organisation but I’m getting a better understanding of the real world climate of arts venues. It’s been a missed opportunity for a fly-on-the-wall documentary!”
The scale of the challenge became apparent within days of Helen starting her new job. The problems were partly financial, partly physical and partly infrastructural – but also to do with attitudes. “The gallery is as it was in 1971,” explains Helen. “It’s a very precious space but it’s been neglected, misunderstood and not considered so we have to fight for it. Lots of people are sniffy and snigger about it – it’s a lump of concrete in the middle of the beautiful town hall and parish church. It needs a wash. It is full of moths and smells funny when you walk in – it’s not been looked after in the ways it should have been. It’s not moved with the times – for example the ceiling cracks when there are gigs.” Nonetheless, she sees great potential: “The bare bones are there and it’s gorgeous when you look up at the concrete ceilings. We need to refocus people’s eyes on it. The Turnpike is a great space and a great venue and I want to bring that level of quality back.”

Currently, the Turnpike is in transition. The gallery itself is closed to the public, but walk up the stairs and you’re greeted by 1970s screenprints by Ron Kitaj and Patrick Caulfield. Helen has got these prints out of storage from the Wigan and Leigh art collection, formerly based at Drumcroon in Wigan, an art education centre which closed due to cuts in 2011 and has now been demolished.

In January a new independent organisation takes over the Turnpike, with a new board of trustees from across the arts, business and marketing. “We are aiming to be more ambitious, to have more outreach and to bring a creative environment back in,” explains Helen. “It needs real impact and serious change. I’d like a creative hub with the community at the heart, which is both shaped by the town and shapes the town, a coming together and connection point which is cross-collaborative, where people can be inspired by each other.”
Initially Helen is developing a three-year exploratory programme. Operating in such straitened circumstances it will, of necessity, be enabled by strategic alliances – including partnerships with the Jerwood Foundation, Liverpool Biennial and Impressions Gallery in Bradford – as well as by nurturing friendships with local organisations and institutions.

In January (14 January-12 March), the Turnpike will be the only northern venue for the Jerwood Drawing Prize, an annual touring show that challenges and expands expectations and understandings of what it means to draw. Helen sees it as an opportunity to hold a celebration, talk to audiences, engage schools and host drawing workshops. Instead of a holding a private view for dignitaries, Helen is keen that schools will be the first to see the exhibition, and children will take part in a “Jerwood within a Jerwood”, making their own decisions about the winners.

In June, the Turnpike will be one of several North West galleries (others include Touchstones, Rochdale and Bury Art Museum) to select work and build a programme from the 2016 Liverpool Biennial as part of its “really exciting” strategic touring fund, which has been established to develop audiences. The idea is that rather than being “parachuted in”, the selected artist comes and engages with the town, for example by working with local teens.

Helen has chosen to show the video work Dream English Kid by Mark Leckey, who grew up in Ellesmere Port, Merseyside “peering into the city”. Incorporating footage of a Joy Division gig he attended as a young man, the film – like his rave and Northern Soul tribute, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore – explores individual and collective experiences and memory. For the Turnpike incarnation of the work, Helen hopes to draw on the Leigh Rock Festival of 1979, which was organised by Tony Wilson and Bill Drummond due to its location in between Manchester and Liverpool, and played host to bands including Joy Division, OMD and the Teardrop Explodes. “Bus strikes meant only about 200 people went, but it’s achieved mythical status,” explains Helen.

In November the Turnpike will show new and existing work by Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, including their 2014 installation Song for Coal, originally shown at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and drawing on the material fabric of Leigh by using coal taken from the area in new works. Manchester artist Mary Griffiths will also reference the heritage of the town, from mining and industry to engineering, at an exhibition in 2018.

Another plan for 2017 is for an open call photography competition responding to, reinventing and offering a new vision of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, corresponding with its eightieth anniversary “People are still quite bitter about it around here,” explains Helen. “They want to shake off the book’s legacy.”
The changing exhibitions will be complemented by a multi-purpose studio space, and the Turnpike’s flat roof will be put to use as a Shrangi-La-themed terrace, in reference to Leigh-born James Hilton, who coined the term in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Eventually the roof could even be extended upwards into a theatre, as originally planned when the building was designed.

The Turnpike’s new programme is part of a bigger ambition to develop a cultural strategy and voice for Wigan. “There is an uneven playing field in the area; access to culture is really low down on the priority list,” explains Helen. “Wigan is a huge borough but it’s not got the riches of Manchester. It’s got next to nothing for its size. The local authority in Manchester understands that the arts play a vital role in the city, but Wigan has a wobbly infrastructure for the arts with nothing underneath it.”
Helen is mindful of challenges in Leigh, such as underinvestment, above-average rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, self-harm and mental health problems, and low numbers of school-ready five-year-olds. Another issue is isolation and disengagement that goes far beyond the arts. “There are pockets where people of all ages don’t leave their estate,” Helen explains. “They shop there, they go to school there, all their family are there – it’s about coaxing them out.” The reinvention of the Turnpike, therefore, is “not just about having a nice art gallery in town”, but about systematic changes.

One core part of the gallery’s target audience will be schools; there are three schools in walking distance of the Turnpike. “Regional and local artists have told me that the place made them artists when they were children; we need to develop a culturally aware generation with a voice and raise aspirations for young people,” explains Helen. “We need to bring art and culture of an exceptional standard to them so they understand what it is and that they’re entitled to it – why shouldn’t they have it on their doorstep? People been infantilised and not empowered enough. I want to get people to demand better quality, to open up opportunities.”

To support this, Helen is taking part in the Cultural Educational Leadership programme, a new scheme from Curious Minds with support from the Arts Council. She is being trained as a school governor in order to establish how schools work and what they need to address, from understanding how to reduce the attainment gap, to seeking solutions to the awkward transition between primary and secondary school. As well as running enrichment days and advocating for the arts and education, Helens hopes to extend the school day by offering access to the arts after school.

Despite some scepticism about the demand for contemporary art in the town – Leigh and Wigan are “flashing bright red on the Arts Council map of lack of engagement,” says Helen – she sees the sell-out success of the Z-arts production Sponge at the Turnpike, where 70 per cent of families who attended had never been to the theatre before, as proof “that there is a huge hunger for it, and not just for watercolour landscapes!”
Helen hopes the Turnpike will be a catalyst for taking art out into the town, into its empty buildings and shops. Meanwhile, the town hall has received money from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop a heritage centre and another cultural venue will be opening nearby. Castlefield’s Gallery's New Art Spaces supports local artists and this year’s Wigan Arts Festival, founded in 2015 as “a provocation and a way of taking control”, will be expanded into the Wigan and Leigh Arts Festival. “There’s some agitation about the town, and art and culture are the catalyst,” says Helen. “Once we’ve got over the barriers at the Turnpike we can really have some fun with it!”

With the reopening of the Turnpike Gallery in 2017, the people of Wigan, Leigh and Greater Manchester will gain a new place to encounter challenging and exciting contemporary art, in one of the region’s architectural hidden gems: here’s to the building’s next 46 years.

To keep up-to-date with news and exhibitions, visit www.theturnpike.org.uk, and follow the Turnpike on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TurnpikeGallery and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/turnpikeleigh.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Best of 2016

Art

Two of my art highlights of the year came early in 2016. After years of planning to visit, I was finally enticed over to Nottingham Contemporary for Monuments Should Not Be Trusted, a wide-ranging exhibition of art and artefacts from Tito’s Yugoslavia. From dark, Joy Division-esque music videos to punk to dreamy electronica, the exhibition encompassed consumerism, critique, feminism and subcultures. Among the most absurd and surprising were the eccentrically decorated youth batons, as well as the array of bizarre gifts presented to Tito, custom-made to reflect the work of different professions and groups of society. Other highlights included the films of Karpo Godina, particularly the playfully soundtracked Healthy People for Fun.
Another early highlight was a display of large-scale, colourful post-war textiles by Tibor Reich, a Hungarian artist who settled in Britain, at the Whitworth Art Gallery. I went expecting to see textiles, but the exhibition was far more than that: Reich designed his own family home, and incorporated lots of architectural drawings into his fabric patterns. I also loved some of his functional ceramics, such as ashtrays, jugs and salt and pepper shakers, given character and humour by the incorporation of quirky caricatures.

The most compelling exhibition of the year – and the highlight of Home’s programming thus far – was Rachel Maclean’s Wot u :-) About. The central film brings to mind mindfulness and meditation gurus, depicting selfies and desperate grasping for public approval. It’s grotesque and uncomfortable viewing but also topical, contemporary and very much of the now. Elsewhere in the exhibition, the grotesque world she creates steps out from her film in the form of sculpture and installation.

Another unexpected highlight was Vogue 100 at Manchester Art Gallery, which celebrated 100 years of British Vogue by showing cover designs, drawings and illustrations from the Vogue archive, from the magazine’s early years to the classic work of photographers like Cecil Beaton to the present day. Vogue 100 vastly surpassed my expectations: it didn’t just document changing fashions and ideas of beauty but cultural, political, literary, artistic and social change. The exhibition showed portraits of the personalities of the day, from Snowdon’s royals to Thatcher to an impossibly young-looking Posh and Becks to Kate Middleton, as well as the assimilation of movements such as punk into fashion. Highlights included William Klein’s fantastical set designs at Jodrell Bank; Norman Parkinson’s portrait of Jerry Hall astride a giant statue in Armenia in 1976; Lee Miller’s land girls in their Harrods ‘austerity trousers’ (eight vouchers each) and documentation of war damage; Alexander McQueen with a smoking skull, going behind the scenes to offer a portrait of the makers of the fashion; the film-maker John Schlesinger in the studio of David Hockney; Frank Horvat’s aristocratic-looking woman in a tailored wool dress and jacket standing surrounded by children in an alleyway in the wool city of Bradford; and the grunge aesthetic of Stella Tennant’s eyeliner, nose ring and messy crop.

At Liverpool Biennial, the highlight was HFT The Gardener, Suzanne Treister’s beautiful, intricate, colourful quasi-botanical series of drawings at Liverpool John Moores University. Constructing a narrative world involving an amateur botanist/outsider artist, Treister transformed our perceptions of FTSE 100 companies by introducing psychedelic possibilities. The other highlight of Liverpool Biennial was Mark Leckey's video work Dream English Kid at Camp and Furnace, intertwining personal, natural and cultural biography and memory. Also worth seeing were Krzysztof Wodiczko's street installations and interventions at FACT, and Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni's sunset in extreme slow-motion at Open Eye.

At Henry Moore Institute in Leeds I enjoyed A Lesson In Sculpture With John Latham, a show exploring ideas around work, monuments, value and social and natural environments, which displayed Latham’s ‘skoob’ sculptures alongside work by Mary Kelly and strange environmental constructions by Yves Klein bringing to mind the experimental living environments of Buckminster Fuller.

The Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at Leeds University gave an interesting insight into Mitzi Cunliffe, the American-born designer of the Bafta mask and creator of many public artworks in Manchester and the North of England. Cunliffe came across as a stylish and glamorous figure, designing her own dress and accessories for the unveiling of the Man-made Fibres sculpture at Leeds University. Another highlight was seeing the door handles and knockers she created for the Festival of Britain.

Out There: Our Post-war Public Art, at Somerset House, was a comprehensive and well-researched survey of public sculpture in Britain, coinciding with Historic England’s listing of key pieces of public art at the start of 2016. As well as the historical context and aspirations surrounding the commissioning of public art, the exhibition gave an insight into the processes of creating public art, with a number of drawings and maquettes on display.

At Hebden Bridge Arts Festival I stumbled across Simon Ford’s Apocalypse Haywain in an abandoned bowls club in the woods. Apocalypse Haywain brought together a collection of charity shop-purchased and subsequently flood-damaged editions of Constable’s famous painting, each slightly varying from the original in colour, quality and scale. Shown collectively, they raised questions around landscape and human and cultural impact, change/transience, value, preservation and collecting.

Barnaby Festival showed me plenty of places in Macclesfield I would have never visited otherwise, from churches to parks. Bedwyr Williams’ video commission was a fantastical tale set in the town, and I enjoyed climbing the steep, ramshackle stairs of the Print Room to see Hondartza Fraga’s delicate drawings of nearby Jodrell Bank, but the highlight was Liliane Lijn’s Moonmeme in Savage Tower, a cyclical exploration of femininity.

I enjoyed the international range of photos, plans, drawings and videos relating to play on display at The Playground Project at the Baltic, Gateshead, exploring the history of playgrounds and their links with new developments in art, architecture and pedagogy.

A late highlight was John Akomfrah’s split-screen video installation Vertigo Sea at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, which brought together art film, documentary and period drama with nature observation to explore the multiplicity of time, life stories and histories. Using archival film and new footage – including striking aerial views – Akomfrah passes through the seasons to depict nature inland and outlying, through close-up shots of birds and butterflies, as well as showing the ways in which man has used the landscape, past and present, through activities such as work and hunting. The film is both beautiful and horrific, politicised through the inclusion of slavery and migration – Akomfrah uses footage of Vietnamese boat people – and topical: time is subverted by the inclusion of constantly ticking clocks. It can’t help but make you contemplate the horrors that are done to humans by humans – and think about bigger human impacts such as climate change.

2016 was a bittersweet year for the Manchester art scene, as gentrification got real – out goes the ramshackle artists' colony of Rogue Studios, in comes the neon pink-on-chipboard branding of the property developer circling round one of the few remaining undeveloped city centre mills. The end of an era has been marked by artists coming together to respond to the uncertainty of the situation, celebrate the creativity that's been incubated there, and to forge new and overdue collaborations with the small-scale textile producers who also just about cling on – one of the highlights was Sam Meech’s Unique Editions, which created knitted portraiture of the workers at Unique Knitwear, as well as limited edition scarves and jumpers.
Elsewhere in Greater Manchester I enjoyed Castlefield Gallery’s programme, particularly Christian Falsnaes' First, which required the visitors to the gallery to create the artwork, in front of a camera, prompted by a series of requests and questions: it was up to you how much of yourself you put on show. Manchester Left Writers' Launch Pad show, themed around the Northern Powerhouse, was a real challenge but a rewarding experience and an opportunity to try something new and different ways of working and collaborating, including creative writing and performance. The programme at the Holden Gallery also got stronger and stronger in 2016, culminating in From Slow to Stop Stop, a well-chosen collection of photos of videos exploring mobility (or lack of).
I enjoyed Factory at Mirabel and Joe Fletcher Orr’s self-referential show at the International 3, as well as Hannah Leighton Boyce’s installation exploring the sounds of industry at Touchstones in Rochdale, and a screening of Jennet Thomas’s controversial, grotesque and farcical depiction of Thatcher in the Unspeakable Freedom Device at International Anthony Burgess Foundation, organised by the Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books.
I was really impressed by the Bankley Studios open in Levenshulme, particularly Patricia Azevedo and Clare Charnley’s film-work and-and which depicted pairs of hands, challenged to collaborate in a series of seemingly simple everyday activities usually performed with ease by one person. I particularly enjoyed the Manchester School of Art Degree show in 2016, including the drawn installations of Siân Leyson. The textiles section made me want to fill my future home with colourful textiles, and the Mancunian Way magazine, exploring life and history in Manchester, including an issue dedicated to Bradford Colliery, was a thing of beauty.

Film

Room was one of the first films I saw in 2016, and I immediately decided it should win all of the Oscars. The film’s storytelling and performances were exceptionally powerful, making me feel the whole repertoire of human emotions – fear, anger, disgust, sadness, disbelief and despair, but also somehow hope and even a bit of joy.

Room set the standard, but 2016 continued in the same calibre. Icelandic fable Rams, with its portrayal of obstinate and isolated brothers, was another powerful depiction of human relationships, throwing into question individual decisions and moral judgements.

Another tale of obstinacy, deception and betrayal I enjoyed was Australian film The Daughter, with its complication of the already fraught period of growing up and parent-child relationships. Likewise, I thought Julieta was classic Almodóvar, a sophisticated and lingering tale of wrong steps taken and the consequences of decisions made years in the past. Mustang was an eye-opener, combining teenage spirit, sisterly solidarity and tragedy in a patriarchal Turkish family with nascent friendship and desire for freedom.

I, Daniel Blake also had emotional resonance, depicting the futility and pointlessness of the administration of the benefits system, but also the ways in which people pull together for support. In addition to its immediate emotional impact, it’s a reminder that Daniel’s story is just one out of countless private tragedies that take place behind the headlines.

Nostalgia for the Light, by Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, was one of my favourite films of recent years, but I thought its follow-up, The Pearl Button, was even better. The Pearl Button focuses on the Patagonian archipelago and the indigenous tribes who lived alongside the water. It lulls the viewer into a false sense of security with beautiful natural footage, before introducing the oppression that befell them, then following on by discussing Pinochet’s dictatorship and the plight of the desaparecidos and their families. The film is powerful, moving and emotionally charged, and also has space and stars running through it, in reference to Chile’s astronomy programme. Embrace of the Serpent similarly benefited from the spectacular scenery of its Latin American setting, intertwining the history of the people of the Amazon with the story of one man, the explorer and scholar Theo von Martius.

Fire At Sea brought together individual and collective storytelling to explore the impact of the ongoing refugee crisis on the remote Italian island of Lampedusa, focusing on friendship, family, childhood and growing up, as well as the plight of those attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

I absolutely loved Greek film Chevalier’s tense and absurd exploration of masculinity, set around a luxury boat and involving bizarre and pointless tests of one-upmanship. The scene where the underdog character dons a feather boa and unexpectedly breaks into Minnie Riperton’s Loving You in pitch-perfect falsetto was my favourite moment of any film this year. The Coen Brothers’ latest film, Hail, Caesar!, featuring a guest appearance from Herbert Marcuse in a modernist-loving communist secret circle, was also very camp and silly, and made me laugh more than any other film this year.

My favourite animated film was April and the Extraordinary World, a dystopian tale of a girl scientist and her talking cat stuck in a world suspended in the steam age.

I saw lots of documentaries in 2016 but particularly enjoyed In the Company of Joan, a documentary about the theatre director Joan Littlewood shown at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. The film used interviews and talking heads to give a sense of Littlewood’s strong personality, and her links and friendships with figures ranging from the singer Ewan MacColl in the 1930s to young actors. The film explored Littlewood’s Marxist/communist political convictions, and her mission to take theatre out to the people by touring theatres in working-class industrial areas before setting up a permanent theatre in Stratford in the east end if London. One of the best things about the film was the wide range of activity it conveyed: Littlewood’s impact went far beyond theatre to include involvement in bombsites, fun palaces and avant-garde bubble cities.

Another documentary I enjoyed was Huw Wahl's Action Space, which focused on a 1970s collective who set up travelling inflatable play sculptures, believing in the power of art to educate, inspire and change the world.

I enjoyed Nick Jordan and Jacob Cartwright’s Last Acre, a short documentary about the alternative lifestyles of people living on the edge of the world in Barrow-in-Furness. I also enjoyed Clara Casian’s Bird Song – Stories from Pripyat, which revisited the scene of the nuclear disaster with new interviews and vintage film, plus an evocative and understated score from Dutch Uncles’ Robin Richards.

When We Were B-Boys succeeded in depicting not just the early 1980s breakdancing scene in Nottingham but friendship, resourcefulness, eccentricity and family ties – both by birth and those based around shared culture and community.

Television

If more television was like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror I might watch far more of it. Like Rachel MacClean’s show at Home, Black Mirror is excruciatingly of the present-day; much of it is set in a future which could conceivably be just around the corner, creating a sense of unease and horror that stays with you.

Featuring six episodes, from the touching San Junipero to the pastel-hued suburbia of Nosedive, that could have each been a feature film in its own right, the series touched on big ethical questions and topics such as war, otherness, social inclusion/exclusion and punishment and retribution. The relatability of much of the narrative and its characters meant the twists were genuinely surprising.

Theatre

Beyond Caring at Home was one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. Set in our precarious times, it brought to life the topical issues of zero hour, low-paid contracts and lack of workers’ rights. The small cast were completely convincing in their portrayals of power, desperation and frustration, and small moments of friendship and madness.

I took my dad to see Sunny Afternoon at Manchester Opera House as his fathers’ day present. The musical tells the story of the Kinks, telling tales of fraught family relationships and love stories yet portraying them as simple boys made good. Sometimes sweet and often hilarious, it’s a cautionary tale about the perils of fame.

Cycle rides
I’d long wanted to explore the Middlewood Way, an old railway line running through the green Cheshire countryside that is now a cycle route, having been past it on the train line between Manchester and the Peak District. I took the opportunity to cycle to Macclesfield along the Middlewood Way, getting on it in High Lane, where the outer reaches of Stockport meet the countryside. Although the trail itself is flat, it gives views of the surrounding hills, and quaint villages such as Bollington, as well as local landmark White Nancy in the distance. I cycled back along the Macclesfield Canal, a slightly more windy and muddy route, taking in aqueducts, boats, geese, goslings and ducklings, and offering views of another local folly, the Cage at Lyme Park.
Another old railway line, the Lymm line, gave a welcome traffic-free section of cycling to another Cheshire market town, Northwich, and its famous boat lift. The journey was full of thatched cottages and one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever seen, Great Budworth, complete with sloping cobbled streets, a well, village churches, leaning houses, a library in a phone box and even a scarecrow competition featuring Tim Peaks in straw form!
Trips and walks

I visited some more British cities for the first time in 2016, including Nottingham, which feels and looks very much like a city of the north. A visit to Nottingham wouldn’t have been complete without a trip to Beeston to see Owen Jones’ vast, modernist Boots factory, but I also enjoyed walking around the city, from the tree-lined sweeping private streets of the Park, a centrally located community of mansions, to Nottingham University’s lakeside campus. I also went inside a Rough Trade record shop for the first time in several years, and found it to be a very different beast to the Rough Trades I visited as a teenager – far from the cramped, underground Rough Trade in Covent Garden, with layers of competing stickers on every surface, Rough Trade nowadays looks more like a lifestyle emporium, selling not just records but coffee, beer, books, DVDs and clothes, and even containing a novelty selfie booth.

Lincoln also felt like a city of the north, both in its geographical distance/isolation from the rest of the country, and in its cultural distance: it felt like stepping back in time several decades. Lincoln cathedral, with its Duncan Grant murals, is wondrous, and it’s pretty around the aptly-named Steep Hill area. However, my favourite thing about Lincoln is Imperial Teas, a purveyor of exotic and unusual loose leaf tea (I took home coconut tea, black tea blended with big flakes of coconut). It wasn’t cheap, but was worth it: Imperial Teas is the only tea shop I’ve been to that rivals my favourite place to buy loose leaf tea, J Atkinson in Lancaster.
Harlow new town was big, vast, traffic-filled and sprawling, like a more run-down, less glamorous and more spread out version of Coventry that was not kind to the pedestrian visitor. I was one of several visitors clutching a map of the public sculptures of Harlow, and saw a large number of sculptures in the centre, the highlight of which was William Mitchell’s Water Gardens fountains. Such was the scale of the town that I didn’t make it to any of the residential estates. I did, however, visit the outskirts of Harlow for architect Frederick Gibberd’s magical, enchanting, riverside garden. Soon after my visit the Twentieth Century Society ran a tour of Harlow by bike, which makes a lot more sense than attempting to see everything on foot.
Model village Silver End, a little island of modernism deep in the Essex countryside, was worth an afternoon’s wander around its estates of flat-rooved, Crittal-windowed houses. The bigger houses had seen much better days. Similarly, Bataville was planned uniformity for workers in Tilbury, a subtle hierarchy apparent in the semi-detached managers’ houses.

I continued my trips to the new campus universities of the 1960s by visiting the famous ziggurats of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, a landscaped campus that comes complete with its own broad and is full of sculptures.

I finally visited Hungarian architect Ernő Goldfinger’s modernist home at 2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Featuring the Goldfingers’ impressive collection of mid-twentieth century artworks (my favourites being Max Ernst’s painted pebbles), it was well worth the wait for a glamorous glimpse of artistic life in 1930s suburban Hampstead, as well giving an idea of Goldfinger’s interests and practice. Unusually for National Trust properties, the experience was surprisingly intimate and his house, which included a nursery and wooden toys, actually felt like a family home.

In complete contrast, I was absolutely fascinated by the Haven plotlands museum, based in the sole remaining plotlands house at Laindon, near Basildon. Intended as temporary holiday dwellings, whole communities and generations decamped from East London to Laindon in the war and lived for decades on small plots of land, growing fruit and vegetables, keeping chickens out the back and cycling to the train station for work. Eventually, the residents were moved out to the new town of Basildon in the late-1970s. The area was retained as a nature reserve, and the houses were allowed to return to nature. A 76-ear-old volunteer who was born and raised in a plotlands house gave a tour, and pointed out details such as the rag walls and rag rugs.

I loved exploring another old railway line in Lancaster, lined with wild raspberries and cherries, and seeing the river curve round dramatically at Crook O’Lune. Nearby is Halton, with its eco-friendly riverside co-housing development, and a mill co-operatively run as a creative space.
The long trek over to Ashington by train, bus and foot was rewarded by seeing the pitmen painters collection at Woodhorn, documenting everyday life, work and leisure in the north east.

I spent some time in 2016 exploring more of the British coastline, from Ravenglass and Grange-over-Sands up in the North West to Newbiggen-by-the-sea in the North East to the estuarine seasides of Southend-on-Sea and Canvey Island, which felt like part of London, with its sea walls with murals depicting natural life in the Thames estuary, as well as local legends Dr Feelgood.
I’d always thought Kent, and in particular Folkestone, was flat, but a walk up the Folkestone Downs made me realise how wrong I was. It took me years and years to get round to visiting, but now it’s one of my favourite places in Folkestone. Also in Kent, I enjoyed walking off into the marshes at Faversham creek.

Hastings is one of the few places on the south coast I could ever imagine living, and its appeal was increased by my discovery of a wooded, cliff-top country park. I spent a very satisfying two hours rambling to the suburban, nondescript village of Fairlight, past reservoirs and with a detour scrambling down a hillside for a brief for a onto a rocky, secluded, nudist beach.
However, my new favourite bit of coastline is between Seawick, Lee-over-Sands and Colne Point on the Essex coast. This open, marshy space is criss-crossed by creeks and accessed by small lanes from the village of St Osyth. It will appeal to anyone for whom Dungeness is too built-up, accessible and touristy. Home to yet another nudist beach, the sea creates large, oozing banks of muddy clay, and the beach is littered with bricks and broken up bits of old buildings. It floods regularly: one of the most recently built dwellings is a cork-covered space pod on stilts, which inspired my favourite piece of writing on architecture this year, by the Guardian's Rowan Moore.

Swims

Swimming in Southend felt like swimming in the Thames, with the traffic of the river going past. Another swim with a spectacular view was at Dovercourt, with its two antique lighthouses, overlooking the huge container boats and cranes of Harwich.

Also in Essex I swam in the muddy, seaweedy sea at Brightlingsea and next to the piped pop music and gaudy rides of the pier at Clacton, underneath an abandoned museum to pirate radio.

In the quiet Kent hop town of Faversham the lido seemed to be the busiest place, with its fake rapids and impromptu diving contest.

The sandy, shallow waters of Pickmere were a welcome break on the cycle ride to Northwich, but down the road I stumbled across my new favourite lido, the elegant, cold pool in the middle of wooded Marbury Park.

Indoors, I visited the shabby, eccentric, wiggle-shaped pool in the basement of Sunlight House, with its mural giving the impression of being on a retro cruiseliner, and pools in old mills/warehouses in Sackville Street and Broadstone Mill, Reddish.

Records

My favourite song of the year was Up to Anything by the Goon Sax, jangly indie-pop that I could just listen to over and over again all day.

Every time I heard Charles Bradley’s world-weary You Think I Don’t Know (But I Do) it made me stop and wonder where I’d heard it before – which I think is the idea. This sounds familiar both in its classic soul sound and the experiences behind it.

David Bowie kept on reinventing himself until the end: I kept hearing Blackstar on the radio and thinking it was by Scott Walker. With its stately, muted, strange, restrained vocal over ethereal, beating, synthy electronica, Blackstar also brings to mind Kid A, Radiohead’s foray into dance-pop.

Hope Sandoval, one of the greatest rock voices of the 1990s, teamed up with one of this decade’s most distinctive voices, Kurt Vile, for Let Me Get There. Sandoval’s smooth, sultry, sexy, frail otherworldliness is placed next to the rough and rasping, down to earth, countrified tones of Kurt Vile, and it works – like all good collaborations, each enhances the other. The swirling organ, tremolo guitar and woozy chord changes of the Warm Inventions makes Let Me Get There feel a little like an updated version of the romantic languor of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon which is, coincidentally, one of my favourite songs of all-time.

I also enjoyed the day-glo powerchord pop of Taco Cat’s I Hate the Weekend, a bratty sentiment I can definitely agree with, Scott and Charlene’s Wedding’s raw, rickety, straightforward, catchy, feel-good punk, and the bouncy, bleepy electronic fun of Go Ahead by Pillow Person.

Requiem by extraordinary Swedish six-piece psych-folk band Goat is a full-on, multi-layered collage of tribal drums, polyrhythms, field recordings, hand claps, reverb, nursery rhyme-esque melodies, flutes and twisty, spindly, bagpipe-esque guitar solos. It’s a complicated, messy noise, but it’s pop. One of the highlights is Union of Sun and Moon, with its chanting and deliberately untuneful (and thus life-affirming) recorder duet.

Whyte Horse’ Pop Or Not is sassy, full-bodied retro-pop in the vein of Broadcast. Highlights are Promise I Do and the French-language La Couleur Originelle.

I enjoyed the portentous, theatrical, flamboyant marching post-punk pop of Tim Presley’s the Wink – and one of its quieter moments, the Big Star-eque Morris.

Gigs

Meilyr Jones played the part of the pop star at Sounds From the Other City in Salford, hiding in and out of the nooks and crannies of beautiful St Philip’s Church.

Electric 50, an eclectic 50th anniversary tribute to Bob Dylan going electric at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, with highlights including Thick Richard, Vampire Dub and Vocal Harum, was a special birthday treat.

Manchester band Pins covered the Bunker in Salford in tinfoil and played Velvet Underground covers in a cage in a tribute to Warhol’s Factory: there was an illicit, underground and very arty feel about it.

Sitting on a tree stump in Range Road Community Garden in Whalley Range on a late spring/early summer’s night, eating home-made chilli, was a perfect venue for the avant-garde folk and country of Joshua Burkett, Crystalline Roses, John Collin and the Gamecock.

On the other hand, the Albert Hall always oversells its gigs, resulting in a venue that is horribly, stressfully crowded. Goat just about made it bearable, with two gold-caped singers jumping around like animals and tall feathered headdresses. With Grace Slick-esque singing, and the use of percussion such as agogo bells, they stay just the right side of prog.

Books

JD Taylor’s travelogue Island Story, an epic journey surveying the country and its inhabitants and trying to understand its political and cultural inclinations, made me want to set out on my bike (read my review for Manchester review of books here).

Nick Dunn’s Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City, captured the distinct pleasures of urban walking in poetry and prose, rendering the familiar places of Greater Manchester remarkable and the ordinary extraordinary (read my interview with Nick here).

Owen Hatherley’s Ministry of Nostalgia brings together a series of critiques of the ways in which the aesthetics of the post-war period – or a certain nostalgia for it – influences twenty first century culture at a time of austerity. Hatherley shows how history is written to suit our own narratives, portraying Britishness as a powerful composite of imagery and symbols.

I expect I’m similar to many people in that hearing the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy for the first time as a teenager was an arresting, transformative moment that changed what I knew and felt about pop music. Paula Mejia’s Psychocandy is the latest in supremely nerdy series 33 and 1/3, in which writers take on seminal albums in academic detail. Mejia’s in-depth analysis of Psychocandy convincingly sets the scene for the album in the Reid brothers’ home town, bleak Scottish new town East Kilbride, eight miles outside Glasgow yet seemingly of another world, at the same time as drawing out the links between their wall of noise and pop precedents such as the Ronettes. It’s also interesting to read an American’s take on post-war reconstruction and rebuilding, and the political and economic context of Thatcherism and miners’ strikes.

Artist Tirzah Garwood’s autobiography Long Live Great Bardfield, republished by Persephone Books in 2016 more than 60 years after her death with a new introduction by her daughter Anne Ullmann and illustrated with photographs and etchings, is a weighty and satisfying read. Born in 1908 and brought up in an upper-middle-class family in genteel Eastbourne, it’s a glimpse into a different time, when middle-class women’s main role was to marry well. Often snobbish in her descriptions of those she meets, and strange and apparently naïve in some of the ways she looked at the world – for example, Garwood was keen to have children in order to stop the monthly inconveniences of menstruation – at other times Garwood writes about sex and relationships with a surprising frankness, even going as far as to liken the birth of her third child to orgasm. She also writes honestly and maturely about her husband, Eric Ravilious’ love affairs. The book is made poignant not just by Ravilious’ loss in a plane over Iceland in 1942, but by Garwood’s documentation of operations for recurrent breast cancer, from which she eventually died at the age of 43, leaving behind three young children. Though Garwood writes little about her practice as an artist in her own right – she was too busy being a wife, mother and lover – her autobiography places her at the heart of an artistic circle that included the Great Bardfield group of artists in Essex, as well as the friendship group based around Peggy Angus’ country cottage the Furlongs in East Sussex.

I also enjoyed Modern Futures, which brings together personal and creative engagements with modernist architecture and Jonathan Hoskins’ Own De Beauvoir!, a semi-fictional account of gentrification, protest, regeneration, creativity and untold histories in one small area of North East London (read my review for Manchester review of books here).

Radio

I enjoyed Bob Dickinson’s bewildering Three-sided Football on BBC 4, exploring the game’s Situationist roots as well as the teams that still play it today.

Katie Puckrik’s Power Pop on Radio 6 Music played lots of shiny, radio-friendly power-pop hits, playing some of my favourites at the same time as introducing me to lots of previously unknown bands.