As a Brighton-based blogger, criticismism is underpaid when compared to millionaire video blogging neighbours like Zoella or PewDiePie. So I’ve been quite curious about the format, and keen to see if the moving selfie can work for art.
Well, the good news is that it can. As demonstrated ably by Anna Jaxe, whose Creoddity channel on YouTube contains posts with 10,000 or even 20,000 views. Her appreciative audience proves an appetite out there for demystifying the life of an artist, or hers at least.
I spoke with Jaxe via Skype from her London studio as she prepared for two forthcoming art fairs.
criticismism: You’ve showcased plenty of artists on your channel, do you feel you’ve got enough from it for yourself?
Anna Jaxe: I kind of took a bit of a break from making those videos. I hadn’t realised how much of my life it had taken up. And in that break I’ve started to really focus on my own work. And I think I needed that. But I thought, while I was doing the channel before, that if I was more of a success myself, it would probably mean more for other artists anyway in the future.
c: Do you still enjoy blogging?
AJ: Yeah, really. I’ve just started making videos again but it’s very much a side thing. I want to focus on what I’m actually making so, in a way, to show people what I’m doing. I think, to be honest, if I’d seen that when I was 20 or something it probably would have helped me to navigate around where to start being an artist, do you know what I mean? I think in doing this it might help others.
c: Did you study art?
AJ: Actually I did most of a degree and then I left in my 3rd year. But there was something about art education that I never really got on with, to be honest. I was never really 100 percent in with it. I can’t really put my finger on why.
c: The art school crit format sounds quite brutal…
AJ: That is quite intense, isn’t it. But that’s also the most useful part of it. Because you do get bogged down in your own head. That’s why, making work now, I ask for feedback. It’s too much in a bubble otherwise. But I think it would’ve helped me more to do an internship with an artist or a gallery. If the study was integrated with real life experience it might have helped me more
c: Just how much hard work is vlogging?
AJ: It takes over your life. I would say a couple days a week. You have to get an idea for a video and then prep the video and then make the video and edit it and then upload it and you have to also do comments online and then be really active on social media which takes up a lot of time. It’s really two days out of my week and if I wasn’t practically doing something I was thinking about it
c: Does art need a conversation around it, for example in the blogosphere?
AJ: That’s an interesting question. I think it’s the same in any creative industry, because I mean theatres have the same thing, don’t they? Music even. People write about those. I just think it’s just inspiring to read how other people think, regardless of whether it’s artwork or an album or a stage production.
c: No one ever got too intimidated by a record…
AJ: The whole idea why I’ve wanted to base all my art upon music… It’s because music is there to appeal to the masses, isn’t it? I mean I suppose there are music artists who don’t want to do that. But one song can reach all four corners of the earth and be interpreted in a million different ways. So a musician will build a song to be accessible to lots of different people. Recently people have stopped saying ‘he’ or ‘she’ in mainstream pop music, maybe for that reason, to appeal to more people regardless of sexuality or gender orientation. I think that’s what I like about music.
c: Can art be too accessible?
AJ: I don’t think so. I mean, the opposite, for me, of accessible art is the art that people use to better their status. I don’t think there is much good about that.
c: So why are people drawn to difficult art?
AJ: I think people buy for status. I mean I might be wrong. I’ve never sold a painting for a ridiculous amount of money. Those people are sometimes advised by other people. It’s a wise investment.
c: The art market is one thing, but does it govern the structure of the art world?
AJ: I think I would picture the art world as a hierarchy. But I’m not sure how, if you are on one level, you can change to go on the next level. I wouldn’t say it’s like a ladder; you can start at the bottom and go to the top. You can probably make a living from doing art fairs and stuff like that, but it doesn’t mean you can end up exhibiting at Frieze.
c: Would you rather sell a painting or show a painting?
AJ: Show a painting
c: But you’ve sold recently and met collectors…
AJ: Yeah,that’s really exciting. Generally I’m quite shy. I don’t enjoy meeting lots of new people. But I’ve found that, when I’ve got my art behind me, I really enjoy the process of meeting people. ‘Cos then they are really open and they just want to ask you questions. Most people have some kind of connection with a music instrument, for example. They can look at a trombone and say, ‘My cousin plays the trombone’. So, however loose it is, they have an instant connection with what’s there.
Anna Jaxe, aka Creoditty can be found IRL at two forthcoming fairs: Roy’s People Art Fair at Candid Arts Trust, between 14-17 September 2017; and #TRIBE17, the international fair organised by Chrom-Art at the Bargehouse in the OXO Tower; both events are in London.
Dűnya dinlemiyor is Turkish for The World Won’t Listen, which as you may know is a 1987 compilation album by The Smiths. At the time of release, the world was listening. The album was a chart hit.
And that was just in the UK. As this work by artist Phil Collins reveals, the sentiment and the message of the album reverberated all the way from Columbia to Indonesia via Turkey.
The Turkish installation of this epic project was filmed over several days in an Istanbul nightclub, to which fans of The Smiths were invited to sing along with a karaoke backing to the 18 track album.
Thanks to the efforts of these volunteers, 30 years on, the audience for this work will be able to listen more closely to an album which Morrissey appeared to predict the world would ignore.
He was loved him all the more for it. And his imitable persona has made the 2,000 mile journey from Manchester for this hour long film. A local, for example, performs with a back pocketful of flowers.
More interesting than the inevitable Moz impersonators, are the millennials who take part in this exercise with good cheer. There Is A Light That Never Goes is joyous, rather than maudlin.
In a similar vein, we have a hard rocking version of London and a version of Half A Person which is equally good for a giggle. It’s comedic to be a Turk singing about Euston station or the YWCA.
When it’s not being funny or being awkward, dűnya dinlemiyor is a moving reprisal of a collection of songs that take one back to the 1980s, via this highly circuitous cultural route.
The final track on the album, Rubber Ring, features a warning that until now was buried in time: “Don’t forget the songs that made you laugh and the songs that made you cry.”
The singer is a middle aged goth who gives her all to the final performance of this artwork. Either she can’t let go of the music of The Smiths, or she has moved on and felt the consequences.
This work can be seen in Now, Today, Tomorrow and Always at Towner, Eastbourne, until October 8 2017. The show is an Arts Council Collection National Partner Exhibition.
In hypnotherapy, an affect bridge is a way of linking feelings in the present with feelings in the past. But if an affect bridge were a bridge in real life what form would it take?
Mark Leckey has free associated a bog-standard graffiti strewn motorway crossing. It’s an icon we never knew existed, until we saw the six foot scale model bathed in sodium light here in Cubitt.
This is a bridge seen at speed from the back seat of an Austin Allegro. You are moving too fast to read all the writing on the sloping walls, although the banks invite you to get out and climb.
The show allows you to explore the mystery of the humble underpass: what it might mean for both Mark Leckey and any grown adult who drove past a similar vehicle.
In the gallery, though, it is a sculpture. The eye is led in two separate directions: through and across. It is a cruciform piece, so within the context of Western art, this is a kind of crucifixion.
The soundtrack is as jubilant as a second coming. Tribal drums underpin a page-long list of elements which the artist wishes to cast “OUT!”. Leckey recites them like manifesto points.
It was Kraftwerk who best captured the rhythmic qualities of a motorway. The rhythm in here is as infectious as the sickly golden light. There is a push-pull dynamic as strong as an individual’s past.
The flatly horizontal bridge begins to resemble an analyst’s couch. This is someone else’s session, a very public session, but this piece transcends the artist’s personal biography, while remaining sincere.
Affect Bridge Age Regression can be seen at Cubitt, London, until June 30 2017.
In recent times, most things have been considered an art. There is, for instance, the art of baking, the art of conversation, and, for sociopaths everywhere, the art of the deal.
But at J Hammond Projects in North London, one applied art form is proving to have enough legs to endure for the foreseeable future, and even outlive contemporary obsessions with artisanal crafts.
Painted onto the post of a metre square boxing rink are the three words that could unlock this show for you. Boxing is ‘The Noble Art”. Perhaps more noble, in terms of sacrifice, than art itself.
Next to the ring is a screen on which two crude hand puppets trade blows. The right hand stalks the left. The left guards its knuckled face. And the artist, to whom the hands belong, looks on.
Here, as elsewhere within the prison-like confines of this extensive installation, Christopher Gray is in the shadows. So this dogged contest between two puppets is something of a paranoid fantasy.
One hopes for autonomy in the choice of one’s enemies, but perhaps our creator has other ideas. In another film, in another arena, Gray looks on while an artist struggles to paint his muse.
All curves and pneumatic breasts, this is one sexualised model. Her painter on the other hand is tortured, grave, and as two-fisted as a twelfth round slugger. It ends very badly for him.
His scream echoes around the gloomy complex of tableaux, puppets and films. It brings us back to perhaps the core subject of the Dumas Complex, pain, hurt, suffering, call it what you will.
We have long expected artists to suffer. But Gray’s dimly lit structure feels like a torture chamber, cranking up the stakes to reveal that art and organised agony have plenty in common.
Does a ship replaced beam by beam remain the same vessel? Does a broom with 17 new heads and 14 new handles remain the same broom? Does a refabricated sculpture remain an original?
In 1993 it must have been a thing of joy: pristine wood skilfully curved into the shape of a dirigible. The laminate finish reflected the surrounding trees and the sky into which it might have floated.
Now it looks more Roswell rumour than classical bark. This tells us a little about the digital age which was only just beginning in ’93. Never Mind was put back together like a jet engine.
Stainlesss steel has been used for a full-scale replacement forged from notes and measurements. The legs are so polished that the Middelheim landmark really does now appear to float.
It still looks like it could travel; the unmanned voyage should be good for another 24 years. Will any of us be here in 24 years? Who cares, asks Never Mind. Just marvel at this precise workmanship.
Legally, at least, it is the same sculpture. Restored and recoated, say Middelheim Museum. A work in progress the catalogue and the app both seem to imply with the dates 1993-2017.
The art lies in the outline, the gradients, and the precise dimensions rather than the materials. If an object is a displacement and not a thing, that’s one response to the paradox above.
Never Mind can be seen at Middelheim Museum, Antwerp. Until 24 September it forms part of the Richard Deacon retrospective Some Time.
I once knew a live music review to open with the following line: “Blur used the minimum of props to the maximum of effect. Damon was lowered from the roof in a giant TV set.”
The author, who was a colleague on the student newspaper I wrote for, accosted me in the bar and read his immortal opening for me. He was proud as punch. I found it funny as hell.
Years later I want to paraphrase him and say: Chris Burden has also used the minimum of props to the maximum of effect…fifty steel beams were dropped from a crane into a pit of liquid concrete.
Because although Beam Drop is an epic, expensive, time-consuming and hazardous production, it is also in essence very simple. It is not far removed from dropping toothpicks into porridge.
Burden has gone to a whole lot of effort to monumentalise a pastime that a child might engage in. So Beam Drop is a grandiose response to the tired old sentiment, ‘My six year old could do that’.
Incidentally, there’s not a six year old on the planet who would not have enjoyed the performance of this piece. Your inner child should also respond to the outbreak of controlled violence.
I want to call Beam Drop harmless. But even eight years on, as the beams turn a plot of sculpture park lawn into a rusting pin cushion, the sight of this piece causes some visual disquiet.
The materials are industrial. The formation is random. The appearance is out of step with its natural surrounds. Created by a crane rather than a brush, on this scale, the piece appears to lack humanity.
But given the alternative use for steel girders (a corporate HQ in downtown Antwerp, say), we might decide that the wreckage here in Middelheim is an expression of rebellion and even redemption.
Beam Drop can be found at Middelheim Museum, Antwertp. Museum website is here.
If you play Grand Theft Auto you may be closer to understanding this piece than me. So far as I gather, both artists have had to play their way into all the footage which accompanies this film.
There’s not a stolen car in sight, mind you. The duo wear suits, rather than gang attire. They walk and run through lonely citycapes, some Romantic with a capital ‘r’, some apocalyptic with a small ‘a’.
Finding Fanon 2 grabs you from the opening set up as avatars for both artists fall to earth from a clear blue sky. They pedal limbs like upturned beetles, pick themselves up again like gods.
If this film were nothing more than a travelogue about virtual cities to be found in the GTA game franchise, it would already have a certain novel, uncanny appeal for non-gamers.
But there’s much more to it; the quest here is not to become a crime lord, but to get closer to an understanding of philosopher Frantz Fanon, who advocated armed resistance to power.
As a former resident of Martinique and a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front, Fanon was most interested in fighting back against colonial powers. Britain is no longer one of these.
So where might Fanon, who died in 1961, be found now? Nigel Farage might have said he would don khaki and pick up a rifle in order to fight for Brexit. But the UK left is using ballots rather than bullets.
The battlefield is the media, both mainstream and social. Dark money and big data are the dangers. So where indeed is Fanon today? He would doubtless be on a terror watchlist.
But the artists remain optimistic. “Perhaps he’s waiting here,” says the VO, as they stride through the ghost town, “behind the polygons, behind the texture maps, through the fields of algorithms”.
Fanon might be found in one of GTA’s beautiful sunsets. Achiampong and Blandy watch our fiery star sink below the horizon. If the sun has sunk on Fanon’s day, we know it will come again.
When it comes to the world of contemporary art, it can be difficult for a journalist to paint the people and the parties in their true colours. So perhaps it is unsurprising, given the suspension of disbelief required by the market and the legal protection afforded by fiction, that the most convincing picture of the art world has, in recent years, come from novelists rather than critics.
This piece considers two historical novels about the art world which capture life in New York, and in London, at the times when art in each of these cities was booming. The first considers NYC just as the 80s were taking off and is the work of poet and filmmaker Richard Dailey.
Dailey’s book, Unplugged Yellow, borrows its title from the painting of an artist called FleX, who destroys himself. His prodigious talent comes with prodigious appetite for drugs; and the author captures both the wealth and squalor of life on the cusp of artistic fame. Dailey’s narrator has a voice as attitudinal as a punk from CBGBs, and as poised as a model from Studio54.
And yet, Unplugged Yellow goes beyond the clichés surrounding either of those scenes. It delivers the excitement of great painting, by introducing a cast of living characters, rather than long dead local colour. (FleX is crazy about astrology, rather than the French symbolists feted at St Marks. He ends his days in the Mali desert rather than a cold water commune.) The book is at once plausible, and highly original.
Dailey made time, before a reading at KGB in New York, to talk via Skype about his book. My first question was about his whereabouts in 1979 and 1980, the years in which his fiction is set. “I was there,” he tells me. “I was not an artist. I was a poet and I worked with a number of artists, either writing for them, incorporating my poetry in their works and hanging out.”
He recalls a time when, “Basquiat was still sleeping in Thompson Square Park in a cardboard box”. This was New York before the money hit, when a duplex apartment could be found for just $300 a month, jobs were plentiful and the living was cheap. “It was a nice time,” recalls Dailey. “Everybody had this vague dream of making it, but nobody really had much sense of what that meant”.
FleX is inspired by a real life painter who committed suicide (“Nobody remembers him”) and Dailey notes the passing of a generation of artists and critics from his chosen milieu who’ve already been overlooked by the history books. It makes this historic novel more urgent. The amnesia can be part blamed on the injustices of capitalism and of the art market in particular.
“There’s an abstract quality to both money and art,” says the author. Without the faith in something called art, a painting is worthless, he suggests. And without custom and convention, even loo roll is worth more than pound sterling. “Either you believe or you don’t,” he says, unsurprised that the two investment vehicles get “confused and mixed up,” because, “of course, art is an investment”.
So Unplugged Yellow is perhaps more interested in money than artistic content. Dailey has said he intends it to be “a real meditation on the collector, and the role of the collector, and the psychology of the collector.” At the same time he notes it is a love story, which widens his audience. Civilians that most of us are, perhaps we can relate to the collector better than the artist.
I also learn that, having been there on the Lower East Side at the time in which his unfolding story is set, Dailey came under great pressure from publishers to write it differently. “They were like, just turn this into your memoir, turn it into a real memoir and give us some photographs please.” Lucky for us, the author was stubborn, and this gem of a book is the result.
In the same month Unplugged Yellow came to my attention, I read another, more or less nostalgic, historical art world novel. This was Randall by Jonathan Gibbs: the result of a doctorate from UEA, the first and perhaps best of the many universities who now offer courses in Creative Writing. Unlike Bailey, Gibbs was not quite ‘there’ in the milieu he describes. But like many who remember the 1990s on these shores, this journalist and novelist grew to be fascinated by the Young British Artists.
Let’s first state the obvious. Randall (or to give the book its alternative title, The Painted Grape) is about Damien Hirst. And never mind the fact that a character called Damien Hirst is killed off in a train crash near to the start of this rollicking novel. We meet the eponymous main character as a Jack the lad and we soon discover his genius for marketing that most spurious of commodities, contemporary art. More enjoyable still is the chance to spend time in with Randall and his court. No, Gibbs wasn’t there, but if neither were you, you’d think he could have been.
With impressive powers of imagination, the author ushers us into pubs, squats, country houses and, of course, galleries in the magnetic company of the eponymous Randall. But our narrator is no hipster, rather he is junior banker Vincent, who falls in with these young upcoming artists and becomes for them a talisman. While the narrative here is strong and the characters painted with warmth, Gibbs is also highly interested in what it means to look at art. Several memorable pages are devoted to a somewhat painful attempt, by this narrator, to commune with the Rothkos at the old Tate Museum.
“I’ve never really had any proper contacts in the art world,” Gibbs tells me via Skype from London. Instead he encountered the yBas as a young Shoreditch gallery goer in the 1990s, and shored up his impressions with research about the art market. So he excuses his lack of first hand experience with a laudable get out clause: “Because my narrator is an insider, but not an artist and not a critic, I felt that was my camouflage to pretend to get close to it all”
Writing about this movement in later life, Gibbs tells me, “I was a bit more critical about the art and I was a bit more cynical abut myself”. The result is a mixture of autobiography and wish fulfilment as Vincent lives the dream of any twenty-something in London at the time. For the first time in the UK, art was as hip as music and Randall is the story of a generation who relocated to the capital in the years leading up to Cool Britannia.
But Gibbs is not only interested in the way artists create and viewers gaze. Like Unplugged Yellow, Randall is a fierce attack on the market and the instant monetisation of fashionable art. “What was so clever about that whole scene,” Gibbs says of the yBas, “is that it made itself appeal to young urban professionals, while at the same time having an entirely different set of conversations with the dealers and the collectors and people like that. They got to have their cake and eat it”.
Since conceptual art went mainstream with the yBas, Randall is concerned with a quite different art form as compared with Unplugged Yellow. The painted grape on the title page refers to a legendary contest between ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them. Parrhasius painted an illusionistic curtain, which in turn fooled Zeuxis into thinking the work was concealed behind. When Gibbs tells me about Ekphrasis, this is surely what he means: art “as a rhetorical exercise” according to Wikipedia.
“That’s the whole thing about conceptual art,” he concludes. “It doesn’t take very much to imagine it. If I say ‘a shark in a tank’, your idea of that is going to be pretty close to the experience of being in the room and looking at it.”
To read either of these books has little in common with going to a gallery. Nor do the encounters with Randall or FleX bear strong comparison with a meeting with a real life artist in 2017. Art has become an alibi for writing a pair of vivid novels which are at once historical documents, critiques of capitalism, travelogues and love stories. They surely do for London and New York what Michel Houellebecq does for Paris in his celebrated art world novel, The Map and the Territory – and that won the Prix Goncourt.
Dailey tells me he’s read this book twice in French and that he is a great fan, but he cant resist a chance to gossip. “Did you see Houellbecq’s show?” he asks me, referring to his art exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in 2016. “Honestly, it was just awful! But you know, good for him. He’s a writer.”
There are two major subsets of the art world which have grown in visibility in recent years: ‘women in art’ and ‘contemporary crafts’. For reasons below, a venn diagram of their relation would be heavy on the overlap. Add another circle labelled ‘domestic production’ and you might find textiles in the central corral. Given that women-making-textile-based artwork is the subject of a current show, Turner Contemporary in Margate has hit a timely, thematic sweetspot.
If nothing else, textiles are the thread that binds together a group of artists whose previous point of comparison has been merely making art of any kind in a man’s world. Louise Bourgeois and Anni Albers both used textiles, as have Annette Messager and Susan Hiller. And then, as this show also demonstrates, there are the many many talented women who have been overlooked for making art that was just too homespun for contemporaeneous tastes.
Sidsel Paaske is a jewellery maker, for example, and never before shown in the UK. Working from an enamel kiln which she built in her kitchen, she got serious about beads, and the belief that one of her statement necklaces could have occult, protective powers. She collected materials from the natural world, both in her native Norway and from her travels all around the world. The results, be they made with bone, feathers, or even lizard skin, have a look that is at once primitive and sci-fi.
There is also something macabre about the sculpture of Christiane Löhr. The German artist made her Horse Hair Column on site after several visits to local stables in search of source material. The installation is breathtaking in a literal sense – you feel as if a sigh could tear it down. And yet it spans floor to ceiling becoming invisible as it goes. When you think of the bold statements of male minimalists, you realise that a whisper can be as powerful as a shout.
But this talk of whispers and of magic is liable to entangle this review in some of the stereotypes around women’s art, stereotypes which may be responsible for the way in which the art system has overlooked so many of the forty five artists on currently on show at Margate. “Excellence has no Sex,” as the post-minimalist Eva Hesse famously said. Her abject cheesecloth and masking tape sculptures sit around on their raised dias and, despite hinting at body forms, defy you to ascribe them a fixed gender.
Susan Hiller, meanwhile, has worked with canvas and likewise has no interest in being either cosy or pretty. In the 1970s the American-born artist made an attack on painting, by cutting up canvases to make sculptural blocks, or by stitching them back together to make grids. Too messy to be considered minimal, Hiller waded into the world of conceptual art where there is hardly any sex, and as little desire. Her painting blocks are among the driest works in the show.
There is more pain than pleasure in the work of Louise Bourgeois. HAND is an oversized red glove with coarse stitching that resembles the suture of a wound. The materials may be fabric and wool, but the presentation (within a vitrine on four steel legs) is as grave as a museum exhibit. The work has an uncanny power and, if you consider the hand in question to belong to any given artist, the evident dismemberment is a bleak comment on the power of the creator.
In 1930s Germany, for example, was no place to be an artist and when the Bauhaus school was shut down in 1933, Anni Albers went through her own symbolic castration. But a consoling thought about fascistic regimes is this: one of Albers tapestry designs from 1926 gave rise to a fresh piece of work in 1967 (by German artist) Gunta Stölzl and still has the power to seduce in a show in 2017. This particular example of women’s work long outlived several dictatorships, and may yet continue to thrive.
National Socialism spurred Hannah Ryggen to make a tapestry with an enduring sense of agony. ‘6. oktober 1942’ is a monumental piece which narrates with the execution of a theatre director the day after the dress rehearsal of his pollitically charged production of The Wild Duck by Ibsen. This is the first time this memorial has been seen outside of the UK, but you get the feeling that if Ryggen had had a Y chromosome, this cri de coeur could have been another Guernica.
“Oil paintings were initially poor man’s tapestries, so it has a long and distinguished history,” says Kiki Smith of this medium, as interviewed by show curator Karen Wright in the catalogue. But it is peace rather than war which Smith depicts in her soulful tapestry, Sky. A female nude reaches from the earth to the heavens as a sextet of doves flutter past and moths crawl towards the starlight. This image has the power of a pleasant dream to impart a good mood that stays with you for the visit.
Costume is another aspect of women, threads and making. Along with the jewellery here by Sidsel Paaske, we find a tapestry jacket by Arna Óttarsdóttir, a ballet costume by Sonia Delaunay and a tutu by Annette Messager. The latter is suspended from the ceiling and buffeted by a fan. So it spins and pirouettes in a way that Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Edgar Degas fails to. One is reminded of the oft quoted proviso of another celebrated feminist, and anarchist, Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” The 21st century has seen something of a revolution in attitudes to women in art, and this show partakes in it, and binds the visitor fast to its progressive agenda.
Entangled: Threads and Making can be seen at Turner Contemporary until May 7 2017.
At time of visit, the city of culture franchise was barely a month old and already the statistics were out in force. In the run up to 2017, Hull attracted £1 billion in terms of investment, with £100 million spent on cultural infrastructure. Job creation is up 12 percent since 2012. Those are just the measurables.
For each statistic there are countless moments in which locals encounter something new and feel better about the place they call home. Such experiences are largely invisible, but head to Victoria Square on any day of the week and you will see the culture-effect in effect. The audience for Hull 2017 can be found posing for photos with a 75-metre long fibre glass wind turbine blade.
Blade (2017) is an artwork by Nayan Kulkarni, which dissects the town centre at a height of some six or seven foot. With the shade of a white whale and the shape of a near-weightless wing, this piece cannot be ignored by even the most casual visitor. And, as a readymade B75 rotor blade, made here by the Humber Estuary, the installation sets the stage for renewable cultural energy.
Ferens Art Gallery is already seeing the audience figures go spinning round. Reopening after a £5.2 million refurbishment, 50,000 art lovers came through the doors in just two weeks. By comparison, January 2016, in its entirety, saw Ferens welcome just 10,000 to its dozen grandiose galleries. The new draw is a pair of contrasting exhibits: one which centres on an altarpiece from the early 14th century; the other which lines up five of Francis Bacon’s notorious screaming popes.
Neither showing would have been possible were it not for the refit, which has brought the humidity, heating, lighting and condensation up to acceptable standards. The altarpiece is an exquisite gold-ground panel painting by Pietro Lorenzetti which Ferens acquired for over £1 million. The gallery has put it on show together with loan works by Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio. Find yourself in this hallowed space and you are reminded that culture is a serious, non-mercantile business at heart.
Meanwhile, with his reputation for nihilism, the paintings by Bacon are also unlikely advertisements for economic regeneration. But this is a rare chance to see a number side by side, and a curatorial coup for a city of just a quarter of a million people. Whatever his views about cultural tourism, here is another serious artist. He threatened to destroy at least one of these portraits, and it was all his friends and patrons (Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury) could do to persuade him to save it.
In some ways he would be more at home in Humber Street Gallery alongside the scurrilous shows by Sarah Lucas and COUM Transmissions. This new contemporary space opened on February 3rd and converts an old fruit warehouse into a three storey visual arts hub that would be a fine addition to any of the UK’s larger cities. The designers have left the floors and fixtures in a rough and ready state, which befits the idea of culture as a commodity for import and export here on the dockside.
COUM were a performance art collective founded by Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti, who employed music, hallucinogens, participation, obscenity and street theatre to liven up Hull (and also further afield) in the late 1960s. COUM were so good at what they did that, on several occasions, police intervened, and a conservative MP stood up in Parliament to brand the group, “wreckers of civilisation”. So once pariahs, they are now famous locals. This is one of the most edgy shows you are likely to see in a publicly-funded art festival, so make the most of it.
In the ground floor space, walls are bright yellow for three sculptures by former yBa Lucas. The work was previously seen in the British Pavilion at Venice in 2013, so it’s a great opportunity for less travelled Brits to actually see it. Worth the wait, it is also worth the chance to compare and contrast with the show upstairs as it also features nudity and crude wit. Lucas has made plaster sculptures of women from the waist down, given the provocative poses upon unwanted pieces of furniture, and stuck unlit cigarettes into various orifices.
The bar at Humber Street Gallery also features a reclaimed and much loved local landmark. Dead Bod was a piece of graffiti which sprung up on a coal shed in the 1960s on the dockside. With the outline of an eponymous dead bird in paint over corrugated iron, it is not the prettiest example of early street art, but for several decades seafarers have relished the sight of it as they returned to the shore. When the coal shed was removed to make way for a Siemens factory, Dead Bod was much missed. So locals from all walks of life, will now have a familiar introduction to the often challenging waters of contemporary art.
Hull has also offered a show that unites lovers of contemporary and traditional art. At the University of Hull, Michelangelo was hung alongside Michael Landy, and visitors had the opportunity to get close to many of the great masters of classical and modern art, closer than paintings will usually allow. Lines of Thought was a show dedicated to drawing and, as drawing is an intimate medium, this wonderful exhibition offered instant familiarity with many greats who have never been shown in East Yorkshire before.
There is more to come. Before the end of 2017, Hull will host more public art and more exhibitions: these include Offshore, a major show about visual art and the sea, and, from September, the much talked-about Turner Prize. There will, of course, be many more visitors through these gallery doors, many more selfies next to monumental sculptures, and many more pounds rung through the tills of coffers of local hotels and restaurants. From the earliest of signs, the event is a success.
But let us offer some balance, in the words of poet Philip Larkin, who worked as a librarian at the University here for 30 years. In an early letter from his new home, he wrote: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Each day I sink a little further.” It’s a nice bon mot, but Hull 2017 should attract both visitors and settlers. If you come here and sink a little, it’s only because the city has depth.
Hull is UK City of Culture 2017. For full listings and event details please see the festival website.