Art Tate Liverpool saved my life.
In my memory my first visit to Tate Liverpool, and you’ll have to forgive me but it was twenty-five years ago, I was thirteen and most of anything which happened back then is submerged in a love of Transformers and Kylie Minogue, but in my memory, I visited on its first weekend of opening. I remember it being very busy, I remember that much.
I remember laughing a lot. Boldly, Tate Liverpool’s opening exhibition was Surrealism In The Tate Gallery Collection, which as a statement of intent ranks with Lady Gaga turning up for an awards ceremony dressed in raw beef. My thirteen year old self, submerged in a love of Transformers and Kylie Minogue, thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
One of the pieces on display was Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree, a glass of water on a shelf above head height. Which was hilarious then and still is because as I now know, for reasons which later became apparent to me, the whole field of “conceptual art” is about challenging the viewer’s beliefs in the construct of the art world and themselves.
Did I innately understand that? No. What was hilarious then was that an artist was able to put the glass of water on the shelf, put it on that wall, have a card which says “An Oak Tree”, other stuff, and people would turn up to see it. Even as I type that, I can’t quite believe it despite now thinking it’s one of the greatest pieces of art ever ushered into reality, even if it must be a bugger for the technicians to keep clean.
How I got from one reason for finding An Oak Tree hilarious to the other reason I find An Oak Tree hilarious, is the reason Tate Liverpool, amongst other things, because there had to be a qualifier, because everything has a qualifier, saved my life. Perhaps this something which happens to everyone. Perhaps all of this is just part of growing up. Perhaps I’m just trying to find something to write.
What I do remember is never being very good at school. Apart from the bullying, apart from that, I wasn’t an especially academic kid and easily distracted, by Transformers and Kylie Minogue, and not easily able to retain information. All of this is still true. I’m not an especially academic adult really, still easily distracted by Doctor Who and the Spotify, and barely able to retain information.
But for the purposes of this story, let’s assume that in fact, I was a different person, that the premise of Michael Apted’s 7 Up series doesn’t apply to me. At the age of thirteen, when Tate Liverpool opened, another strong memory I have is of my parents returned from parents evening and telling me that the head of year, who didn’t even teach me, had said that “Stuart won’t amount to much.”
Which wasn’t an especially nice thing to say, but you should also know that the school I went to, an old style grammar school despite being classified as a comprehensive, not fee paying but selective, was very much geared towards producing Oxbridge candidates, the rest of us, no matter how had we’d worked to get there, sometimes felt like the flotsam and jetsam of humanity.
Not that I was old enough to really understand the implications of those words. I was thirteen and “not amounting to much” at that point didn’t really have a context. What I do know is that mum and dad weren’t worried, this wasn’t some moment when they thought I’d need a private tutor or anything like that. I just wasn’t academic. Not everyone is academic.
Meanwhile, school continued. My grades, when I’m finally graded, which wasn’t something which happened then as often as it does now, are minimal. When I’m “setted”, I’m in the fourth set for French, fourth for Maths. I simply couldn’t learn. I remember working really, really hard sometimes, but not being able to retain anything. This now looks like something diagnosable but not then. It wasn't then.
But one of the constants was art class. I wasn’t very good at that either. I certainly couldn’t draw, unable to transfer the shapes of flowers or people into anything which looked like the shapes of flowers or people on the page. I’d eventually end up with a D at GCSE, having misguidedly decided to produce a landscape of roofs in the local area and with each individual slate and not having time to finish them all. In the twelve hours allotted.
Throughout that period the teacher took us on visits to Tate Liverpool. Glancing through the list of exhibitions, I’m now remembering greeting the work of Walter Sickert, Richard Long, Jasper Johns, Joseph Bueys, Francis Bacon and Alison Wilding, not whole shows but individual bold images, like Long’s massive stone installation in the gallery space which is now occupied by the shop and café.
None of it really made much of an impression. I still have my portfolio from the time, and amid the poorly realised scrawls based on Bacon’s paintings, are copies of comic art and a very strange three dimensional painting of the Beast's eyes from Disney's Beauty & The Beast. Goodness knows what the external markers thought of all that. No wonder they weren’t very sympathetic.
Luckily the school was relatively sympathetic. My plan had been to study English Literature, History and Art for A-Level. These were default selections. Without a facility with languages, and an abominable understanding of the sciences, no music to speak of, here I was. Some of the choice was also to do with keeping the same classes as school friends. For some reason.
In the event, I managed to write myself to B in English Language thanks to it being a hundred percent coursework but I wigged out on the History exam leaving D. I was allowed to stay on, but without History. Which left me in the small group of kids studying two A-Levels. In the event this turned out to be a good thing, sort of, but at the time, my university prospects looked precarious.
Sixth form starts and more of the same. Even without all the other subjects (of which there’d been six), I still couldn’t draw and still couldn’t retain information, something of a problem when faced with the mountain of English Literature piled up in front of me which included, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, Milton’s Paradise Lost IX & X, Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne’s metaphysical love poetry.
At which point the following things occurred. A couple of my English teachers took an interest. Still not sure why, but they really began to help with my work. Much of it, I now realise, was because I wasn’t just a precarious university candidate, I was a precarious candidate for continuing the school the following year. My grades needed to improve.
I’d be given extra practice assignments and somewhere in the middle of that I really began to enjoy the literature, even Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale despite facing it in old English. If there’s a source for my interest in Shakespeare, it’s here and especially Measure for Measure and reading around the subject, borrowing ancient literary criticism from the Central Library.
The grades for those essays improved to the point that I went from an F to a B not that it helped much in the end because once again, with just exams as the source of the final mark and my inability to do exams I rewarded myself and them with an N which was just above a U or Ungraded. But despite that, even if I don’t have a qualification in English Literature, this explains the need to add a qualification to my opening statement.
Simultaneously, my art teacher stepped in and thanks to him, Tate Liverpool. In April 1992, we attended the Tate for Myth–Making: Abstract Expressionist Painting From The Us (Pollock, Rothko and the like) and Working With Nature: Traditional Thought In Contemporary Art From Korea (U-Fan Lee, Kang-So Lee, those sorts of people) and my life changed.
Well, let’s not over state this. There’s still a video from the period of me reading out a copy of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual to my uninterested friends, but somewhere between Pollock’s dribbles and Kang-So Lee’s large brush marks, I suddenly understood what abstract art was about, or at least why artists produce work which doesn’t especially “look like something”.
The curator of the exhibitions, Lewis Biggs was cunning. Artists working on different sides of the political divide working in similar ways, in which the gesture and the implications of making that gesture, often after many hours of meditative thought, were just as important as what the piece would ultimately look like. These were all records of a performance.
My mind was blown. I remember being oh so very excited by Working With Nature from the first visit, despite the sneary attitude of my classmates and so much so my art teacher received permission for me to visit the exhibition on my own during school hours, which of course I could do because I wasn’t studying History and I duly went and simply sat in front of those works for hours just looking.
What was I looking at? Chang Sup-Chung worked in a substance called "tak", a pulped paper, which he spread across the paper in an subconscious state, wherever his hands took him. Tschang-Yeol Kim painted realistic water droplets on a bare canvas. U-Fan Lee produced long brush strokes in parallel across a canvas using the contents of a single brush full of paint.
That I can remember all of that from memory is a miracle, but also an indication of the effect this had on me. I can still smell the "tak", which was one of the few smells across the years which has been able to blot out the odour of Tate’s varnished flooring. Written down none of this sounds as exciting as it does in reality, but art is so often like that, which is why there are so few really good arts journalists.
The teacher also introduced me to collage, no need to draw now, and I spent pretty much the next year producing collages. Endless rectangles, pasting strips of paper to plastic sheeting from news headlines to photographs from women’s magazines to paper towels, left over work, dozens and dozens. I still have them somewhere. Some of them are interesting. Most of them aren’t, but the point was I was being creative, doing something.
And all of that cutting and pasting gave me time to think. About the music in the room, always Bob Dylan or Neil Young, about the English Literature, about life, about art, about everything, and while I didn’t change overnight, I began to think about perhaps watching Shakespeare plays I wasn’t studying, visiting exhibitions outside of school time, trying other types of music than the output of Stock, Aitken and Waterman and quickly realising I could do them all at the same time.
As you can see my art teacher also had a hand in this, encouraging my interest. But if Tate Liverpool hadn’t decided to display those works at that moment and I hadn’t been as enthusiastic about it as I was, the same things might not have occurred. The teacher had also booked us into workshops at the Tate, dragged us around Pop Art exhibitions in London. But none of them had been this effective.
As part of the A-Level course work, I had to write about these exhibitions and somehow, and I can’t remember how this happened either, this included visiting the Tate to interview Lewis Biggs. I remember there being a lot of glass and light in the office and Lewis being very polite to this bag of nerves with his list of questions and wondering if every student in Liverpool was interviewing him about this and how he found the time.
My final exam piece tried to find a middle ground between the two exhibitions and the work I’d been doing. Across the many hours allotted, fifteen this time, I created layers and layers of collage, loads of different materials. The top layer was the North Korean flag and then in the last hour I ripped a hole in it and placed a cardboard recreation of the yin-yang sign evoking the themes of both Tate’s exhibitions. Ended up with a B grade.
Which with my D in general studies was enough to get me to the Information Studies course at Leeds Metropolitan University. It wasn’t my first choice and goodness me if I had to do all of this again, perhaps with a different university advisor, a teacher who I’d known before the interview, I would have done a foundation course in Art and all of that, but my precarious university place was no longer precarious.
Tate Liverpool saved my life, then. Sort of. After university, during which I worked at the Henry Moore Institute which is Leeds’s Tate, I suppose, and wrote up what was probably the loosest dissertation topic in the history of that Information Studies course about art censorship, I became a Tate member, in the year it happened to be closed, which did at least mean I got to see the rebuilding work at first hand.
There’s no real end to this story other than the person writing this now. There’s a dozen other examples of cultural awakenings since then involving films and music and theatre and Douglas Adams, but I still believe that all of it can be traced back to the moment when I entered Working With Nature with its abstract images of a kind I’d never seen before and I began thinking and I haven’t stopped thinking since.