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.
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.
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).
Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
my favourite piece of writing on architecture this year, by the Guardian's Rowan Moore.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.