Saturday, 28 December 2019

Best of 2019

2019 has been characterised by a precarious balance of full-time work, freelance work, conferences and attempts at academic writing. My primary output has been through the Fourdrinier, a new art writing site focused on work on paper, for which I have interviewed and written about artists including Jade Montserrat, Jenny Steele and Hondartza Fraga.

On Monday 15 April (it was made particularly memorable by the fact that later that day, in Paris, Notre Dame was to burn down), I was cycling to work in perfect conditions – sunny, windless and traffic-free due to the Easter holidays. Speeding along a straight section of the A6 on the borders of Lonsight and Ardwick, I realised my feet were racing around the pedals and I was going far too fast for the gear I was in. I tried to change gear, misbalanced, fell off and hit the road hard on my shoulder, breaking my collarbone. This put a stop to cycling for an interminable three months and, whilst I’ve now made a full recovery (unfortunately the recovery of Notre Dame looks far less certain), it sent me a message to try to slow down and take life at a bit less of a frantic pace. In spite of this, this is what I did manage to see/enjoy in 2019:

Travel

I spent two weeks in India this winter, which was an immersive sensory experience: there were so many sights, smells, sounds and colours to take in everywhere. I loved how colourful it was, particularly the clothing. In the UK I am used to standing out a lot with my colourful clothing. In India, it was the norm for people to wear bright yellows and greens and hot pinks.

One of the really big surprises was how green the cities were – there was such a variety of flowers and trees. In New Delhi, even the roundabouts were landscaped, and everywhere you looked were carefully tended pot plants. There was great variety in birds and animals: I was really excited by seeing ibises and eagles and bats, and colourful butterflies.
I really liked the street culture, and how alive the cities felt – the streets were used by people selling food, chai and clothes and offering services such as shoe shining and barbering. They felt like public spaces – families gathered in the parks and gardens, even after dark, picnicking or playing cricket. Everyone was really curious about visitors – people wanted to have selfies taken, to talk to you and find out where you were from and what you thought of India, and to shake your hand.
It was a vegetarian’s paradise: I loved eating idli, paratha, channa, uttapam, poha and bonda for breakfast every day, and trying regional dishes and variations on dosas and thalis and pani puri.
I enjoyed cosmopolitan New Delhi, especially the extraordinary eighteenth century Jantar Mantar observatory, and Mumbai, with its high concentration of luxurious art deco blocks, built on land reclaimed from the Arabian sea. However, visiting Chandigarh, the new capital city planned and designed for the Punjab post-partition by Le Corbusier (reached by a spacious train, with a lavish at-seat breakfast service consisting of multiple food courses and rounds of tea), was undoubtedly the highlight.
I loved exploring road inspector's Nek Chand's fantastical, magical rock garden – busy with families, selfie-taking couples and smartly-dressed, excitable parties of schoolchildren – and the grid-planned city's housing districts for government workers (enviable cycling infrastructure was designed into the city, and the bicycle appeared to be the dominant mode of transport, unlike car-choked Delhi), designed by Le Corbusier's cousin Pierre Jeanneret and the British couple Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, just as much as Le Corbusier's grandiose, awe-inspiring Capitol complex.
Whilst Gujarati city Ahmedabad is a World Heritage Site due to its high concentration of historic mosques, most of the city appeared to be a construction site: everywhere buildings were being knocked down and replaced with hotels and high-rise apartment blocks, leaving clouds of building dust. In spite of this, Le Corbusier's Millowners' Association was a real highlight of India. Formerly a centre of calico production, known as the 'Manchester of East', the Millowners' Association once overlooked the river to a view of hundreds of factory chimneys. Built as a networking space, and to show off new innovations in manufacturing, with its dramatic interplays of light and shadow, and fluidity between inside and outside spaces, this felt the closest I have ever felt to being inside a sculpture. Two houses built by Le Corbusier for mill-owning families felt like green oases as the city expanded around them.
In the summer I spoke at a conference in Porto, a sprawling city split across a river like Manchester-Salford or Newcastle-Gateshead. Full of old, hilly, cobbled streets to get lost in, a surprising amount of dereliction and facades with nothing behind, as well as the famous tiles which act like a ‘raincoat’ for the city, it was also strikingly rich in art deco buildings and details, from housing and cinemas to garages. The Worst Tours, a three-hour tour delivered by an architect turned tourguide (who had been forced into tourism by the financial crash and ongoing austerity), was a great introduction. Our guide spoke about the way in which Porto has developed over time and the politics of space and regeneration. A highlight was the architecture of Álvaro Siza, including the co-operative SAAL Bouça Housing designed after the Portuguese revolution.
Closer to home, Doncaster was bustling and lively but had a tough edge.
Loughborough was a pleasant industrial market town dominated by a huge post-war university campus (since expanded) – and a 1923 carillon on the skyline, which also serves as a war memorial. A collection of campus artworks contrasted with the sportiness of the students, and the high concentration of sports pitches.
Uppermill, on the edges of Oldham, with its swishly done-up Weavers Factory, had a spectacular landscape and views over Greater Manchester, but felt otherwise claustrophobically twee and bourgeois.
Walks

Waterlogged fields made for a muddy walk from Marple Bridge, on the outskirts of Stockport, to Mellor, on the edge of the Peak District. Tall terraces backed onto a loudly rushing river at pretty hamlet Mill Brow, and the ancient hill-top church of St Thomas, next to the site of an archaeological dig and a reconstructed roundhouse, contrasted with the views over the tower blocks of Stockport and Manchester’s modern-day glass high-rises.
At Upnor in Kent, the River Medway left a muddy beach of oyster shells, pottery, bricks and glass, with chalet communities on the banks. An estuarine fort and rows of houseboats made for a picturesque walk towards Sheerness bridge in the distance.
Swims

Sandford Park Lido, a long pool surrounded by lawns in the extremely posh Cotswolds town of Cheltenham, was heaving on one of the hottest days of the year. The pool has consistently well-used since the 1930s and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. It’s adapted well to the times, though, serving vegan burgers and ice cream.
Cirencester’s Victorian Open Air Swimming Pool, by contrast, was far less busy and more relaxed. Run by volunteers, and featuring a book and swimwear swap, it had a community feel and was heated to the perfect temperature. Down a lane alongside a half-dried up river, and overlooked by a castle surrounded by medieval streets, this has got to be one of the most scenic settings for a swim in Britain.
I was extremely disappointed to find Álvaro Siza’s Tidal pools of Leça da Palmeira, on the coast outside Porto, shut for refurbishment, as big waves crashed over the rocks of Porto’s cold, windy, misty beaches. Luckily, another sixties pool by Siza, the tranquil Piscina da Quinta da Conceição, provided a more sheltered spot, set in parkland with grassed sun terraces and polished wood changing rooms.

Art

Penny Woolcock’s film-based exhibition ‘Fantastic Cities’ at Modern Art Oxford brought together a plurality of viewpoints exploring how our experiences of cities and how we behave in them are affected by identities such as gender, class and race.

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s ‘Genetic Automata’ at Arts Catalyst in London was an engaging film installation challenging our ideas of race, heritage and identity through a collage of popular cultural imagery (from videogames and emojis to Darwin’s taxidermy collection), with an alternative music soundtrack.
‘But what if we tried?’ at Touchstones in Rochdale was an illuminating experiment to display as much of the town’s 1,500-strong art collection at once as possible (there’s only space to show about 300 pieces), exploring the curatorial and logistical processes behind the scenes of programming a gallery, the legacies and ongoing acquisitions which shape collections, politics of funding and ownership, and the challenges and responsibilities of conservation and care.
‘Still I Rise (Act 2)’ at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill was an immersive and all-encompassing survey of feminism and culture which ranged across activism, representation, sexuality, urbanism, spirituality, new models for living, working and organising and much, much more.
The Festival of Making and ‘Art in Manufacturing’ programme brought together art, science and industry in Blackburn. Dan Edwards' series of street signs ‘We Can Do More’, displayed around the town, were reminders and prompts to act, subverting a workers’ instruction manual and street signage. Amy Pennington’s ‘Return to Sender’ project, working with an envelope factory, asked local people to send responses to questions about their working practices, and Daksha Patel’s ‘Connecting Yarn’, looked at the UK and worldwide destinations of yarn dyed in Blackburn. The highlight, though, was Liz Wilson’s repetitive, hypnotic video and sound installation ‘The Optical Mechanical’, which gradually built up an ensemble of found sounds and images resembling minimalist classical music.
Nika Neelova’s ‘EVER’ took place across the former brewery offices of the Tetley in Leeds, reimagining the building’s gallery spaces through a series of sculptural interventions exploring and subverting the materiality of its interiors.
Laurie Anderson’s virtual reality experience ‘To the Moon’, at the Royal Exchange in Manchester was a rare opportunity to fly and explore space in the body of an astronaut. Her dreamy yet subtly political installation suggested that stars are the one thing man can’t harvest or destroy.
Frances Disley’s participatory solo show ‘The Cucumber Fell in the Sand’ at Humber Street Gallery in Hull asked us to slow down and focus on our experience, whilst thinking about approaches to care and growing, and how we look after ourselves and others.

'Instituting Care', Jade Montserrat’s huge wall drawings and installation/reading room/library at the Bluecoat in Liverpool (which then toured to Humber Street) explored ideas of education and care, both through institutions and alternative models and ways of thinking.
There was lots to look at and think about in ‘Future Cities’ at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, but the highlight was Laurence Lek’s time- and city-travelling video work Pyramid Schemes, which explored architecture as sign, symbol, fantasy and spectacle, and its cultural and physical meanings and impact.
I was excited to visit Radar at Loughborough University, whose research-led visual arts programme I have long admired. 'This Was Just What I Saw' was the result of a collaboration between Human Geography lecturer Dr Sarah Mills and artist Katarina Hruskova, inspired by the art teaching methods of Marion Richardson, an interwar educationalist associated with child art, who worked to develop children’s powers of self-expression and ‘inner eye’ using the power of memory, description and observation. Mills and Hruskova worked with Richardson’s archive, and children in present-day Midlands schools, to reanimate and reimagine Richardson’s methods.
The British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent explored the legacy and heritage of clay in the area, and its international connections, pushing the boundaries of what ceramics are and the form they take, raising issues round authenticity, copies and their relation to the original. Highlights included Terms & Conditions at Airspace and Victoria Lindo and William Brookes’ pots at Spode Works, where a tragic story lurked beneath the beauty of ornately worked surfaces.
Elizabeth Price’s ‘A Long Memory’ at the Whitworth in Manchester was full of bizarre and bewildering juxtapositions and references to memory, culture, language, technology and change: in her films, it’s not always clear what’s real and what’s fiction. The highlight was At the House of Mr X, an increasingly surreal tour around a modernist house which offered an alternative perspective on value, lingering on seemingly banal details about the materials of the house, its decor and contents.
‘Banner Culture’ at Brierfield Mill, part of the British Textiles Biennial, brought together the most banners I’ve ever seen in one place: the variety of media and techniques used, and political causes and makers, from professionals to collaborative and community-based projects, was astonishing.

Amalia Pica’s solo show ‘Private & Confidential’ at the New Art Gallery in Walsall subverted bureaucratic motifs of officialdom and attempted to find joy in the paper trails of institutional correspondence she had to navigate when going through the process of obtaining British citizenship.
I found Katie Paterson’s transmissions across time, space and distance, and explorations of our planet and others, at Turner Contemporary in Margate, whimsical but quite engrossing.
Also at the Turner Contemporary, Lawrence Abu Hamdan's films were the highlight of this year's (extremely serious) Turner Prize. The standout was After SFX, an alternative dictionary of sounds with connotations of torture, compiled through interviews with former inmates of Syria's Sednyaya Prison, which showed how our sensory perceptions rely on our prior knowledge and experiences to explain and make sense of the indescribable.

Film

‘The Favourite’ had absolutely fantastic performances from all three leads and made you wonder who was manipulating whom.
It was a great year for British film: Carol Morley’s ‘Out of Blue’ was a modern-day noir and detective story set in New Orleans. Featuring an astonishing performance from Patricia Clarkson, and playing with masks and appearances, you didn’t know what to believe and it made you question the extent to which you can ever really know someone.

Both humorous and sad, ‘Bait’ looked and sounded beautiful. Though sometimes straying close to parody and stereotype, the tension rose perfectly in this tale of conflict between locals of a Cornish fishing village and second home-owners.

‘Ray and Liz’ was a social realist drama with a surrealist, dreamy twinge, like Terence Davies meets Andrea Arnold. Flitting backwards and forwards in time between a terrace and tower block, it was a portrait of Richard Billingham’s childhood – and of neglect – as much as of his parents.

‘The Souvenir’, Joanna Hogg’s Jarmonesque story about the lives of Sloaney upper classes was her best film yet, and one whose characters – including fantastic mother-daughter performers by Tilda Swinton and Honor Byrne Swinton – and their stories stayed in your mind long afterwards.

Elsewhere, Claire Denis’ first English-language film, the melancholy ‘High Life’, featured a confusingly twisted and often disturbing sci-fi plot and a characteristically atmospheric score by Stuart A Staples.

‘Capernaum’ was a tender, heartbreaking Lebanese film exploring ideas of family, care, nurture, choice and responsibility, and based on the premise of a boy (who was old before his time) suing his family for being born and for child neglect.

‘The Chambermaid’ explored frustrated ambition, claustrophobia, class, exploitation and stoicism, all within the confines of a luxury hotel in Mexico City.

‘Book Smart’ was improbable but hilarious. ‘Woman At War’ was a subtly funny, surreal Icelandic comedy in which the landscape and the weather was ultimately the star.

‘Pain and Glory’ was muted by Almodóvar's standards, and surprisingly moving, telling a story of creative inspiration, ageing and loss.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ was beautifully shot with a lush score and contemplative voiceover. Combining the personal with the institutional, a love story was intertwined with the sound and colour of a sultry New York summer.

I enjoyed 'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood' and 'The Irishman' for their soundtracks and period styling as much as for their plots (and Brad Pitt and Leonardo di Caprio's on screen chemistry in 'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood').

‘Bridges of Time’ brought together new and historic documentary film showing everyday life in the Baltic states behind the Iron Curtain, from children dancing, singing and at school, to seal-hunting, fishing and forestry, to the uniformity of Soviet apartment blocks, surveyed from above. Dating from the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s, elderly film-makers and their subjects were brought together with extremely moving results.

‘Island of Hungry Ghosts’ had a strong sense of place, exploring the migration of crabs and humans on Australia's Christmas Island.

‘Being Frank’, the Frank Sidebottom documentary, was both hilarious and tragic. It told a very personal story – encompassing the dual personas of Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey – and presented a picture of thwarted ambition and unbridled creativity across music, comedy, art and even computer programming.
‘Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records’ was not just the story of Trojan records but an exploration of migration, identity, cultures, relationships and social change.
‘Stories from the She Punks’ discussed how and why women got into bands and learned to play, arguing that it gave often shy young women a voice, something to say and the means to say it.

TV

‘Black Mirror’ continued its preoccupation with technology. The British-set episodes were the highlights: Striking Vipers, which explored the implications of pornography and the boundaries between the real and the virtual worlds and Smithereens, with its screen-mediated lives, couldn't have been more topical.

Jeremy’s Deller’s documentary ‘Everybody in the Place’ provided a social, material, political, cultural and musical history of rave culture – and the 1980s. Presented in the form of a sixth form history lesson, it mercifully avoided the usual staid talking heads.

Michael Apted’s ‘Up’ series made a welcome return to the TV. Now aged 63, the participants’ relationship with Apted had become as central as the initial themes of class and work. The programme was given an added poignancy through the participants’ experiences of ageing and loss, and a topicality through attitudes to Brexit.

Theatre
‘Tao of Glass’ was an incredibly funny and moving one-man monologue from Phelim McDermott offering a deeply personal reflection on art, creativity and inspiration. McDermott took us on a journey from his teenage years in Blackley, north Manchester, listening to Philip Glass records and dreaming of being on stage at the Royal Exchange to moving to New York and producing Philip Glass operas. Visually and musically gorgeous, combining paper, music and puppetry, 'Tao of Glass' felt genuinely international and collaborative. When Philip Glass himself appeared on stage at the end, hugging McDermott and holding hands, I wasn’t the only audience member moved to tears.

Books

‘From Rzycki, Michael Galeta, a 20th century life’ was an extremely moving tribute by Robert Galeta to his late father. It pieced together and tried to make sense of his life, firstly as a teenager taken from his family and village in Poland (now in the Ukraine) to a forced labour camp in Germany during the war, and passing through a series of camps in France and Italy, before settling and making a life in Bradford – from where Galeta and his father took journeys together and re-eencountered traces of the people and places his father had formerly known.

‘Present Tense’, published by Liverpool culture site the Double Negative, reflected on the legacy of the city as Capita of Culture, a decade on. One of the highlights was a Liverpool sculpture walk by Denise Courcoux, which made me want to go and hunt some of the sculptures down.
Finally, although Essex and its architecture and culture has been a place of renewed interest in recent years, thanks in large part to the efforts of Focal Point Gallery's Radical Essex programme, Gillian Darley's return to her home county for 'Excellent Essex' shed some light on some of the county's still lesser-known histories and figures.
Music

The most beautiful record of the year was Jessica Pratt’s aptly named 'Quiet Signs'. At times Tropicalia-esque, her guitar and voice were augmented by piano and flute, bringing to mind Hope Sandoval, 'Pink Moon'-era Nick Drake and even Erik Satie.

Mark Stewart’s distinctive voice rang out like a timely warning call on Jah Wobble’s A Very British Coup, also featuring Andrew Weatherall, Keith Levene and Richard Dudanski.

Kate Tempest’s Firesmoke was downbeat and vulnerable, but personal and ultimately affirmative electronica.

My discovery of the year was the Afrobeat/gospel/jazz of 'Where the Future Holds' by Chicago’s Black Monument Ensemble, the highlight being the catchy and urgent Sounds like Now.

David Berman made a welcome return with Purple Mountains’ droll country, particularly on the contradictorily upbeat All My Happiness Has Gone, before his untimely death.

Another welcome return was No Rock: Save in Roll, a new single in Cornershop’s classic style.

Elsewhere, Trash Kit went all jammy on Horizon, Pozi’s Engaged was nursery rhyme-esque grunge with a raw, simple violin line and Dogs by All Girls Arson Club had the ramshackle charm of Tallulah Gosh and alt-folk.

Gigs

It was too busy to actually see Jessica Pratt during her gig at Manchester’s hippest new venue, Yes, but the minimal set up of her band – just her, a guitar and a Korg keyboardist, with an encore performed solo – allowed her voice and otherworldly melodies to shine through. The audience was rapt, appreciative and appeared to be intimately acquainted with her work.

Sauna Youth and Trash Kit played short but sweet 35-mintue sets at the White Hotel in Salford. At Yes, Trask Kit side project Sacred Paws expanded with a bassist and second guitarist, but it was best when it was just the two of them playing fast punk.
At the Bridgewater Hall, Mark Elder explained and contextualised the Hallé Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony with a knowledge and enthusiasm that made you want to learn more.
The richness and dour beauty of Bill Callahan’s songs shone through at the Albert Hall in Manchester, during a stripped down set featuring a bowed and plucked double bass, bowed and plucked.
Jazz trio GoGo Penguin performed a live, post-rock-style soundtrack to 'Koyaanisqatsi' at the Royal Northern College of Music, keeping pace with the intensity of the film and its frenetic visuals.

The most fun gig of the year was the Broadcast-esque weird-pop of Stealing Sheep at Yes. Their psychedelic a capella, three-piece vocal harmonies and co-ordinated dance moves culminated in an inflatable sheep in the crowd. Wearing matching body-tight, glittery dresses, and sparkling faces and hair, they appeared to be delighted to be there. Dancier and more bassy live, they even incorporated a cover of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.
Finally, it was good to back on stage, performing with experimental poetry project Chelsea from Essex at Band on the Wall's free jazz showcase.

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