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.