‘There will be no miracles here." -- Nathan Coley

Art I’d been quite excited that the Turner Prize exhibition would be berthed in Liverpool this year, having spent years watching critics walking around on various television art shows commenting cynically about the London iteration. In previous years I’ve been quite passionate about the artists who’ve been involved with Rachel Whiteread and Anthony Gormley at the top of the list for apparently finding a niche and yet still managing to be innovative and surprising and usefully spiritual, doing exactly what you’d hope an artist would do which is the bend the thing they’re interested in to a range of space and shapes and concerns. If Facebook had been around when Whiteread’s House was in existence I would have certainly created the group designed to stop its demolition.

Unfortunately, and it’s worth saying this up front – this year’s show is a bit disenchanting. Much of this has to do with it's size, or lack of it. On the one occasion I’ve seen an earlier Turner Prize show in London, it’s filled many rooms and you could see the spread of the artist’s career that this is supposed to be commemorating. In Liverpool, the whole thing is jammed into but one half of the top floor, the other half being an information area and a temporary caf√©. It’s horrifyingly anti-climactic. It just feels as though there should be more of it, that it could have been spread between the floors for example, meaning that some of the hiccups (which I’ll come to later) would not be magnified to such a degree.

Taking then, each artist in turn. I should warn you that there will be ‘spoilers’ in that I’m going to describe what’s there so if you’re intending to go I would skip the next four paragraphs because much of the fun is in what surprises there actually are. There is, I expect, a whole discussion to be had about what constitutes a spoiler in relation to an art exhibition – is it giving away the surprise ending of some video art or giving more information than you should about a painting and does it really matter? I suppose with this area of the visual arts its first impressions that count and sometimes someone else’s comments and bleed into your own initial reaction so your opinion is tainted. I didn’t read any of the pre-show reviews that I think was the best thing I could have done.

Mike Nelson is influenced by amongst other things science fiction, film and history and that’s certainly evident in his Amnesiac Shrine which attempts to plunge the visitor into a world of confusion and deja-vu. An attendant points you towards a small, long white room on the floor of which is a pile of charred and broken wooden branches with shreds of red plastic rising from it pretending to be flames. It’s not exactly an awe-inspiring start to the show since it give the impression of being an idea that’s better than the execution. In the next room you’re greeted by four square rooms without doors standing corner to corner each with a small hole in the wall at eye level.

A peak inside reveals a whole new world, a desert stretching into infinity illuminated by a droplet of light. This is much better, more exciting, like seeing into another much simpler world. Look to closely and you can see how its accomplished but that doesn’t stifle the magic. Walk past these rooms through a doorway and you’re back where you started with the logs, which is odd because you’ve walked in a straight line. It’s very confusing but ties the whole piece together with the visitor having to deal with the kind of infinity that is usually discovered by humans when they’re being tested by aliens in tv shows …

Mark Wallinger’s Sleeper is certainly the most entertaining piece and will probably win by that virtue alone. You’ve probably seen the photos – the artist spent ten nights at the modernist Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin dressed in an unconvincing bear suit and was filmed by a small crew as he walked around, dancing and interacting through a glass with passers-by and doing many of the things a real bear in captivity would do. The performance on show in the gallery is but one of these nights (which means that the artist must have rewatched them all so that he could pick the most interesting one which shows a real commitment) and there’s a lot of writing in the accompanying catalogue about ‘surveillance’ and how it represents Berlin’s national consciousness.

For the visitor though it’s a case of standing or sitting on a specially created (at a cost of £20,000) black marble floor (to reference the white marble in the video) watching the existential cousin of Bungle from the old kids tv show Rainbow trying to find something to do in a big open space; I imagine it’s a hit with children. I was reminded of Zidane, that ‘documentary’ from earlier in the year which followed a footballer around a pitch during a match and Asta Groting’s video piece Eis which featured a real bear sitting in the middle of an ice rink eating honey from a pail. It’s not clear whether the visitor is supposed to watch all of this or dip and out, but there was litter (well some crisp packets) on the floor whilst I was there, indicating that someone at some point that day had spent real time with the artificial bear.

Nathan Coley’s is probably the most offensive of the four exhibits partly because it seems to take up the most space even though it’s the least effective of the four but mostly because it just doesn’t seem very well thought out in terms of how visitors interact with the gallery space. There are a series of ‘paintings’ called Annihilated Confessions in which what looks like a photograph has been blotted out with black or white paint which might be about censorship. There’s a giant sign with the words ‘There will be no miracles here" picked out in lit bulbs which was apparently originally installed at Mount Stuart (huh) in the Isle of Bute which conjures for me The Wicker Man since it sounds like the kind of thing the druidic Christopher Lee would shout.

Then there’s the untitled threshold sculptures. These are nicely cut blocks of oak wood which have been affixed to the floor at the entrance and exit of Coley’s exhibit so that visitors, in stepping over them, will have a greater awareness of moving into a new space. I hear that they’ve become one of the defining elements of the exhibition and that’s no surprise since they’re health and safety nightmare. The Tate have had to sit a gallery attendant next to the entrance block who must spend the day telling every visitor not to trip over it which means that everyone who walks through is all to aware of its existence. This is exactly the kind of work that I spoke about recently, in which the artist’s conception has little connection with what can happen in a gallery space when the public are added and attendants who have to police it. Then, the exit version was easy to traverse because an ugly metal ramp has had to be installed over it for wheelchair access which seems to miss the point entirely.

The exhibition ends (yes, already) with Zarina Bhimji and I think this was probably my favourite. She’s been given two rooms, the first of which features a range of photographs of walls and roofs taken in India Zanzibar and East Africa showing spaces in which humans have had an impact but are now nowhere to be seen. Echo is a wall covered in graffiti and Shadows and Disturbances features a palace window riddled with bullet holes. The most striking is Illegal Sheep as guns of various sizes lean against a wall and you’re not quite sure if they’ve been readied for action or have gone beyond their usefulness.

The accompanying film, Waiting, is perhaps the work of the exhibition. Shot in a factory built to process sisal, the organic material used to make rope a sequence of shows shows the material in various states of production but crucially humanity is missing here too. Only now and then do we see shapes in the corner of shots or shadows but for the most part the sisal seems to be creating itself as it wafts through the factory halls gathering and flowing in the wind. It reminds me of the fascinating films which used to appear on Playschool demystifying the production of chocolate bars and the filling of milk bottles, but there’s also a meditative stillness to the piece as the patterns in the fabric ebb and flow across the screen – and because it was filmed on 35mm celluloid and then transferred to an HD projector you can see almost every strand.

And that is that. The ensuing information provides some of the history of the prize but this only succeeds in underlining how brilliant some of the earlier shows were. There a taxi in the room which is a fairly exciting discovery because you have to wonder how they got the vehicle in there (I imagine they opened the roof and hired a crane) which has been modified and the back seat replaced with a screen recreating a range of real journey’s revealing the opinions of people as the taxi driver explains to them that the Turner is coming to Liverpool. Most are suitably impressed. It’s a pity they haven’t tracked those people down and filmed their reaction to this ensuing exhibition – it would be interesting to see whether their excited opinion is transferred to the actuality.

Ultimately, it's just all a bit underwhelming, generally the kind of work which stays with you for a few hours (or in this case long enough to write a review) but you don't feel as though you can look back on it too fondly. I’m sure the judging panel, which included the Director of Tate Liverpool, Christoph Grunenberg and one of my favourite columnists Miranda Sawyer made the right choices in relation to the artists – it’s just that this show does not really seem to represent their career at its best. I like my art to be awe inspiring either because of its ideas or because of the technique and there weren’t many moments when I thought I’d seen something truly innovative, something I’d want to keep with me. A friend has said she’s going to travel up to Liverpool for the exhibition and I was sorry to tell her to make sure that she had something else to look forward to when she got here, which is something I didn’t ever expect would be the case. Oh well.

Countdown to a Voodoo Child

TV Aah, midi files. In the days before mp3s they were about the only way to get a coherent tune out of your PC -- so long as you didn't mind it sounding like BA Robertson having a fit. Times have changed and the average sound card can now bat out decent renderings of most instruments, although the string sections still sound as off-kilter as they ever did.

Anyway, if you're in a retro mood, find here a pretty good rendering of the theme to The Sarah Jane Adventures amongst other things, a range of Doctor Who themes from throughout the years with k9 and Company predictably sounding better than the real thing and some of Murray Gold's incidental music. Also featuring I Can't Decide and other noodlings.

[All the original links broken :( ]

"These foolish games are tearing me apart." -- Jewel Kilcher, 'Foolish Games'

Music She's tried pop, now Jewel is going to get more than a little bit country:
"Singer/songwriter Jewel has a new label and a new genre to boot. The artist has signed a multi-album deal with newly launched Nashville-based independent Valory Music Company and will pursue success on the country charts."
Country is not my favourite genre, and indeed on her last album, Goodbye Alice in Wonderland, there were a couple of tracks which were bit too far in that direction for my taste, particularly the whiney 1,000 Miles Away which seemed to go ... on ... forever ... but obviously I've liked the singer's other work enough that I'll doggedly make the crossover with her and see what happens. After all, I was one of three people in the world who loved 0304.

"Shewin t'way to sum still grander place." -- Treddlehoyle, 'A Peep at t'Manchister Art Treasures Exhebishan'

Museums Art Odyssey: Day Two and on Tuesday I visited Manchester Art Gallery for their latest temporary exhibition, Art Treasures in Manchester: 150 years on. In 1857, the city paid host to a massive festival of the plastic arts, the biggest ever held in the UK, in a specially constructed building in Old Trafford.

There were over sixteen thousand exhibits, nearly a million and a half visitors including Queens and princes and consolidated and was a zeitgeisty moment in which visitors could see all what the art world looked like at the time. Then, bizarrely, it was quietly forgotten, with smaller displays at Crystal Palace becoming part of school curriculums at the expense of an event that was arguably far more important.

The exhibition opens with some history and a burst of civic pride as a range of statistics about the city is blasted at the visitor. Life expectancy in the city in 1857 was just 26 years, the lowest of anywhere in the country and the annual death rate was at thirty-one in every thousand. In the poorest areas, a hundred or more people shared what amounted to a toilet in those days, a hole in the ground. Families of up to twelve people gathered in a single room and only thirty-two percent of five to fourteen year olds where at school.

And yet, and yet, money was found and time was taken to produce this art exhibition which would be visited by the poor and rich alike as factories closed for the day and schools too – despite the context and the contents the aim was to make this folly accessible to all. Patron’s traveled from throughout the country and I would suspect that the show’s influence created ripples across the art world as artists had the opportunity to suddenly see a range of different movements together.

Then it’s straight into the main display, a selection of the original work, hung in one space for the first time in a hundred and fifty years. The exhibition space has been turned into a miniaturized version of that shed, the wallpaper recreating the patterns on the walls back then, a line drawing of the original filling one of the walls to try and offer some idea of the scale of the original show. The last time I visited the gallery was for the Kylie exhibition and it’s always surprising to see this space transform around the material on show.

Also replicated is the original exhibition’s biggest innovation – presenting the art in chronological order so that visitors could see the development of art and its techniques from the earliest medieval works through to the then present day. Before that time, as with a recent experiment at the Tate, the work was displayed thematically by subject – but the historical format caught on which is why most galleries follow that process to this day. Actually, I think both are valid but the thematic approach only really works in large collections where the visitor is able to contrast different visions of the nativity, for example.

About ten years ago, The Royal Academy was given over for some months to Art Treasures of England, which temporarily pilfered the very best of the UK’s regional collections placing them into its barn like space, producing a massive version of one of those small galleries; for those few months London had its own extra ‘traditional’ art gallery whose quality dwarfed the Tate and the National. I had hoped that in some smaller way, this exhibition would be the reverse, ‘classic’ works from the southern galleries brought up north once more.

For the most part it delivers; in the opening section there’s Gerard David’s Adoration of the Kings, Annibale Carracci's The Dead Christ Mourned and of course Michaelangelo’s The Madonna and Child with Saint John and Angels (or The Manchester Madonna as it was nicknamed during the Old Trafford show) from the National Gallery and looking further into the space reveals from the Tate, Landseer’s dopey dog painting Dignity and Impudence and Arthur Hughes’ sublime April Love (which was running first in the favourite painting poll being taken at the exit to the exhibition). The Queen’s private art collection is also represented – an epic canvas, The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West and a startling panoramic photograph of the Alps taken in the 1800s hundreds which is as good an illustration of what’s been lost through global warming as anything shown during Al Gore’s slideshow-cum-film An Inconvenient Truth.

But regional galleries are also necessarily in there and it’s a brilliant illustration of what I’ve discovered through my visits to local regional galleries – that for all the attention the nationals get in the press, local galleries also have some unsung work in their collections. Indeed, in places, if the information labels didn’t necessarily list the origin of the work it would be difficult to tell which of the work was from London. In some cases you wonder if an image would be quite as iconic if it was hidden away in a regional gallery. Certainly the medieval paintings from the Walker in Liverpool are as good as anything brought from the National (although to be fair their star works weren’t in the original Manchester exhibition).

There’s just something so wonderfully odd about seeing the world famous self portrait of Esteban Murillo from the National Gallery (the one in which he sits in a hoop and there’s not enough room for him to have legs) next to a fairly humble still life of flowers and fruit by Jan van Os from Warrington Art Galleries. The sympathetic image of Marie Antoinette and family awaiting their fate in EM Ward's The Royal Family of France in the Prison of the Temple is a marvel from the Harris Museum in Preston but the most surprising moment for me was seeing their Lytham Sandhills by Ansdell which I'd last walked past in Oldham. The exhibition world is a small world and I love seeing paintings I’ve seen before in new settings – it’s like greeting an old friend.

Another surprise was discovering that at Old Trafford, visitors did not see the work in a space that was silent but for their own chatter and footfalls. Charles Halle commanded an orchestra that would play two free concerts a day and the music would echo throughout the gallery, a mixture of light music and more challenging works. Listening posts here offer some idea of what might have been on offer. Amongst Manchester folk songs, you can hear a Trumpet Voluntary by Jermiah Clarke (which is often attributed to Purcell – it’s the one which you always here at the close of Royal Weddings) and a delicate piano piece, Strauss’s Pensez a moi. The legacy of the exhibition can also be seen here, since the popularity of these concerts would lead to the setting up of the Halle Orchestra which is still going strong in Manchester today.

If I left the exhibition slightly disappointed its because given the statistics provided throughout as to the scale of the original endeavour that only a fraction could be brought back together here. Of the 16,000 original exhibits, but a thousand are here and a large percentage of those are in the decorative arts. In addition, with the exceptions of the surroundings, little attempt has been made to recreate the way the paintings were hung back then, up and down the wall. Although the new vogue, painting then information lbael then painting then information label all parallel to our eye line does allow us to appreciate the work better it would have been fun to have given some idea of what the space would have felt like back then – the illustrations in the catalogue are startling as the work is crushed in together. Perhaps there were safety and insurance concerns, which is understandable (you can see art displayed somewhat in this way in the entrance hall to Birmingham Art Gallery).

But as an exhibition about an exhibition this is a startling, amusing and exciting display, constantly surprising and yes, a treasure.

"Both statements are accurate. They're also pretty meaningless, possibly misleading." -- Eric Haas, Alternet

Words Eric Haas of AlterNet investigates how companies are changing their Wikipedia entries to provide a more positive impression of themselves: "White washing is where someone replaces negative or neutral adjectives -- words or phrases -- with more positive synonyms. Here's an example of the conundrum that white washing creates for the idea that one can achieve truth through neutrality derived from facts. In May 2005, someone at a Wal-Mart IP address changed a sentence in the Wal-Mart entry about employee wages."

"No further action necessary." - ASA

Advertising During my rambling analysis of an Advertising Standards Council adjudication on Saturday, I noted that some of their decision was based on assumptions and hearsay when it came to working out who was watching television during the broadcast and whether it really would effect viewers.

Just to add an extra level of inconsistency, in this adjudication of a complaint during a broadcast of the trailer for the film Captivity on the same channel they have taken the time to look at the demographic figures and discovered that viewers watching would not necessarily be effected by the content and the complaint was not upheld.

I'm wondering now if each adjudication was written by a different staff member and some are more thorough than others or if it all depends on their personal perspective on the issue at hand.

"We are the facilitators of our own creative evolution." -- Bill Hicks

Comedy Glen Fisher at 3AM reviews an oddity -- a tribute act to a dead comedian: "The show, as a whole, was entertaining enough; a mix of straight out impersonations – a kind of Bill Hicks best-of, with goat-boy included - and speculative interpretation of how Hicks might have satirised the social and political failings of the modern day. Some of the more UK-centric jokes jarred with the authenticity of the impersonation (would Bill really have taken so much time pointing out how bland Coldplay are?) and lines about MySpace and Facebook just seemed below the threshold of his scorn."

Warriors of Kudlak (Part Two)



TV Appearances can be deceptive. One of my favourite television series is Gilmore Girls whose premise is that a teen mother has grown up and now has a teenage daughter who's become her best friend and they have to deal with dating and life in a small town in America. It sounds dreadful, the stuff of television movies with Jane Seymour which climax in a rush to a hospital for whatever reason. Except it’s written with all the wit of The West Wing and the screwball comedies of the 1940s (particularly the rapid fire dialogue), acted superbly and has an indie sensibility which constantly raises it about the premise – the scenes at the prep school the daughter attends are like seeing Alexander Payne’s film Election in slow motion.

Similarly, if you’d said that …

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Warriors of Kudlak: Part Two

… the second half of a story which features laser tag, pantomime villains and the alien child discovering girls would turn out to be one of the best bits of Doctor Who related storytelling ever, I really, really wouldn’t believe you and suspect you were trying to trick me somehow – perhaps there would be lights involved and a prodding stick with a large stuffed pointing rubber glove on the end of the kind they use of Facebook to give you a poke.

This could have been the same kind of runaround that we found in both of the previous stories and superficially it did mirror those climaxes in that it featured some kind of an assault on the villain’s lair in order to save whomever’s been captured this week. Except on this occasion there was an extra emotional kick because it was the kids first experience of what Sarah’s life was like amongst the stars and her apparent first trip off world in twenty years and being reminded once again of the old days. Both also had that vital look of awe which is often lost in the pace of drama these days, each moment first with the toy soldiers and then with the former companion and her mini-companion taking the time to underline that they’re in space, the convincing shot of Earth being its best digital rendering yet.

But then it becomes apparent that the whole story doesn’t just reference Iraq through Lance’s father’s death during a tour of duty there – the whole story is about the war. On the one hand, there’s Kudlak kept in a perpetual state of war by his digital commander engendering a sense of fear in an opponent whose in not position to really fight back (the standard Doctor Who two dimensional alien adversary who turns out to be really a two dimensional alien adversary who’s surely Koquillion from the 60s story The Rescue for the new age). On another the pulling of the kids to the space ship so that they can be transported to the theatre of war (which is revealed to not really exist either) on the basis that they’re good at playing the game version when it’s clearly different and could lead to the combatants treating the real thing as though they’re playing Medal Of Honor.

There’s also such a confidence to the production. Every great series as a moment when it becomes apparent that the programme makers have realised what they can accomplish and are entirely comfortable with what they’re doing. In old Doctor Who that was The Daleks (or The Mutants or whatever) and in new Doctor Who, that was Dalek I think and for SJA, it’s this episode. The performances are top notch-- even if one or two of the guests are a touch over the top – all of the regulars have become utterly comfortable with one another as though this is the twenty episode they’ve worked together let alone the sixth. Clyde and Luke and Sarah and Maria were excellent double acts, the former in particular graduating from the Geordi/Data analogy to Bones/Spock as the human making fun of the alien throughout but still showing loyalty and friendship when it came to the crunch.

It had an epic quality too. This may have been a disused gasworks doubling for the interior of an alien spaceship again (which is rapidly becoming nu-Who’s quarry clich√©) but it created a scale which I suspect isn’t often seen in shows in that slot on a Monday night. I’ve said it before but this show has a filmic quality which in some places mirrors or supersedes the mother series. Look at those gorgeous lateral tracking shots during the scenes amongst the crates where the kids all discovered one another and the use of a version of deep focus so that we could see action in both the fore and backgrounds of shots. Listening to the dvd commentaries for the classic 70s stories, the production teams from the time often note how much better the show would have looked if they’d been allowed to do the whole thing using single cameras and here is a show which is superficially similar in terms of its storytelling doing that and proving them right.

The series is currently averaging a million viewers in its current timeslot, which is apparently massive in comparison to what’s usually shown there. But that still means there are masses are people who enjoy the main series but are missing out on this even though in places its just as entertaining as that and in others even more so. Perhaps they’ve looked at that timeslot and decided that it is just for kids in which case they’re like the people I’ve spoken to who haven’t seen Gilmore Girls because they’ve seen the rather cheesing dvd box art or heard about the hokey premise. Perhaps they’ll catch up on dvd or if the BBC decide to give it a Sunday night repeat. For now though, it’s their loss. For now, the rest of us have a weekly half hour treat which is fun, exciting and makes you think and is amazingly y’know for kids.

Next Week: A brim full of Asher.

"Gonna take more than a shot to get this poison out of me." -- Bon Jovi, 'Bad Medicine'

Film Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko enjoys a far simpler structure to his earlier Fahrenheit 9/11 but is no less polemical. In expressing his disappointment at the health care system in the US which is based on a for profit insurance model, he simply contrasts situations in which the sick have died or become close to mortality because they’ve been refused vital cure with the health care systems in Canada, France, Cuba and the UK where treatment is ‘social-based’ and the primary concern is making the patient well. He’s pondering why a nation which convinces itself that it’s the best in the world would apparently treat its citizens with such contempt.

Despite being a film which has been made very specifically for a US audience – at times Moore uses pronouns which could only be intended for his fellow countrymen – it travels well because its essentially revealing to the rest of the world a range of issues which have been obscured to us because the country's foreign policy is more likely to be reported. There where gasps in the screening I attended when a man revealed that he had to choose which finger to have sewn back on and that volunteers workers at ground zero who’d become ill weren’t being treated as those who were on the government payroll. That people who thought they were insured where suddenly being denied the service they’d paid for because of a box they’d forgotten to tick on an application form.

The film has been criticised over here because of the rather rosy image it provides of the NHS as Moore underlines that people don’t have to pay at Hammersmith Hospital to get their broken limbs fixed or have a baby delivered. There’s nothing about waiting lists, or the postcode lottery, or trying to get an appointment to see a GP, about targets, the closing and consolidation of A&E departments and the strain that junior doctors are under. Tony Benn is a welcome inclusion to provide some history (and we get to see his front room, a shrine to the Labour movement) and he talks about how there would be a revolution if the government tried to privatize the NHS, a version of which seems to already be happening with businesses becoming involved in the building of hospitals.

But Moore rightly doesn’t want to muddy his argument by providing ammunition for people on his home turf who’d oppose his views; he’s simplifying the material so that the documentary doesn’t get bogged down with information (which is something similar works such as The Corporation certainly do) and he’s very specific about highlighting just those items which help his argument which is what a polemic is all about. In fact, the UK government should love Moore for this since it demonstrates that despite all of those things, at present the NHS is better than anything going on in the US – except they won’t because they’ve been fact finding about the system in the States for the past couple of years and wouldn’t want us to see what they’re contemplating.

In fact, if anything some of the non-US sections were enough for us to look on the likes of France and Canada and even Cuba with envious eyes, our gaelic cousins in particular, who much have five weeks holiday a year by law and can have up to ten and very generous health care provision to the point of providing a state-employed nanny who’ll do your laundry. If there’s a criticism to be made though, in that case Moore only looks at relatively well off ex-pats and natives of Paris, never venturing to the inner-cities and other parts of France where it is very different. He does though provide footage of protests in France, a place where that kind of thing is encouraged as a contrast to the some other places where it’s considered terrorism.

"The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue." -- Dorothy Parker

Life As a kind of hint, I've only just this half hour got in from Manchester so my report on Art Odyssey: Day Two will have to wait until I can get the critical gland into gear. It was very odd strolling about the city this close to Christmas with many of the lights up but not lit and the markets not yet in town, as though the buildings themselves are waiting for something to happen. I will be going back closer to the time I think just because it would be wrong not to. Then, ironically during a screening of Michael Moore's Sicko (review soon too) and as I was chewing my third stick of gum in about ten years, one of my fillings fell out. The same tooth as last year. Ironically, because it's the one thing we don't get free in the UK.

When skies are blue, you're beguiling, and when they're grey, you're still smiling' -- Gracie Fields, 'Sally'

Museums Having booked my birthday on Wednesday this week as a holiday from work, I’ve decided to turn these three days into a mini-holiday and more specifically an art odyssey. So today, I decided to travel out to Rochdale Art Gallery to carry on my tour of the art museums listed in Edward Morris’s book Public Art Collections in North-West England. The gallery opened at the turn of the last century and was paid for after a penny was added to local tax (based on an amendment to a bill for the acquisition of a local tram service).

Designed by Jesse Horsfield, it was originally an extension to the local library, although that’s now housed in a local shopping centre and the gallery and a museum fill the whole building, which has recently been renamed Touchstones, three gallery spaces on the top floor and the local history collection on the ground. The collection has been gathered from a range of bequests and gifts, from the likes of local manufacturers (Rochdale was a mill town) and includes work by Edward Stott, J.W. Waterhouse, Augustus John, Arthur Hacker and Giovanni di Paolo.

All of which I read in Edward’s book and was suitably excited by the time I reached the gallery which is situated on The Esplanades, about a mile away from the railway station and nearly opposite the Town Hall (more on which later). After making myself more comfortable (if you see what I mean) I returned to the reception desk to check that the permanent collection was on display, fearing a repeat of what happened at Stalybridge. I’d checked the website beforehand and everything seemed hunky-dory.

The attendant suddenly looked very apologetic and began to explain. They usually have the permanent collection on display, but they’re undergoing building work at the moment which means they’ve had to close the room which usually displays the permanent collection, and it just happened to coincide with their annual people’s exhibition so that’s what’s on display instead. This was turning into a repeat of what happened in Stalybridge.

‘Oh’ I said. Actually what I said something like ‘Ooooooah!’ but that looks silly when you try and put it on screen. I also did a silly skip on the spot too.
‘Sorry.’ He said, genuinely apologetically.
‘Oh well.’ I continued.

Just because, I brought out Edward’s book which I carry with me on these trips and showed him the entry on the gallery which he was very excited about seeing. I told him I was visiting for the day from Liverpool and well, did what I usually do in these situations which is talk, feeling like I needed to do something having traveled all of the way to the gallery even if it was to talk about what I’d missed. Then a very unusual thing happened.

He suggested that perhaps I could visit the gallery’s store room and see the paintings down there instead and began to check a staff sheet to see if there was anyone down there who could let us in. He said that they’d often make arrangements by appointment for people to see individual works and that since I’d traveled so far it seemed a shame if I wouldn’t be able to see anything. Inevitably there wasn’t anyone in but that didn’t stop him.

A woman walked through who looked like she could be one of the gallery’s curators and he asked if it would be ok to take me down. She asked some questions, I told her the story, talked about the book again I think, and after she reminded me it was a working space, I noted that I’d worked at The Walker Art Gallery which seemed to reassure her. All the while, I’m saying that I didn’t want to put anyone out and if I couldn’t it was fine, really.

After an initial accidental tour around the staff rooms I eventually waited in the People's Art 2007 whilst a key and supervision possibly was found and then it was down into the store. This is actually the third store I’ve visited. At Tate Liverpool it’s more of way-station, somewhere for the works to go after transit and before they appear in the white cube spaces. The Walker’s store (at least when I was there) was massive; and you could also see that the very best of the work was on the walls.

On this occasion I really felt like was being taken to somewhere special. I felt like I was in some kind of picture montage in a Stephen Poliakoff production, going on a journey through history. As I stepped carefully about the space, racks were pulled out for me to have a look at, a collage of images one on top of the other, really extraordinary and surprising paintings from artists I’d never heard of but each with their own brilliant quirks.

Three paintings of cardinals in various states of relaxation, one with his feet up smoking a cigar, his red cowl flowing about his shoulders. An Elizabethan woman, the colour of her face faded from history to match the lace of her shirt. An artist sitting defeated before a canvas, his painting materials thrown on a bed, a concerned friend standing in his doorway perhaps. A table filled with fruit and aluminium cups rendered vividly in pointillism.

I couldn't help but talk some more. I enthused, a lot, each new work leading to another gasp from the place where I was standing. There most reputed work is ‘A Special Pleader’ by Charles Burton Barber which has appeared on biscuit tins and greetings cards and depicts a little girl hiding in a corner and what must be her pet collie, in other words children and animals the two things I don’t usually love in paintings but this is stunning, the fur on the dogs back and the little girl’s face, brimming with fear.

Suitably humbled I thanked everyone and thanked them again. Then I visited the tourist information and museum shop and was surprised again. I asked the clerk what the local attractions where and she described the lake and the local museum to the co-operative movement (sadly closed today) and the town hall. She said it was a shame that I hadn’t visited on a Friday because they had tours and then said that if I was visiting she’d phone ahead and see if I could be shown the great hall at least which is something they could do for people who’d traveled such a long way.

I was going to visit the Town Hall anyway to see the portrait of Gracie Fields which is in the entrance hall. Gracie was born over a fish & chip shop in the town and would go on to have career in music hall and films and entertain the troops during World War Two. She’s best known for singing ‘Sally’ in the film Sally in Our Alley and not to see something connected with her would be like a tourist visiting Liverpool and ignoring the contribution Gerry Marsden made to the city (amongst a few others).

The portrait has Fields sitting in a pose not unlike Whistler’s mother. She looks still, calm and reflective. It does however look just slightly out of place in the Hall’s interior which looks for all the world like a medieval church and in fact like The John Rylands library in Manchester. It was created WH Crossland, who also built the Royal Holloway College in London and it does have that kind of feel, all cloisters and carvings and academia.

After paying my respects to Gracie I went to the reception and mentioned the phone call. The receptionist found an attendant who took me up the main hall and once again I was gasping. This massive space looks like the inspiration for the great hall at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films that is also a comparison which cheapens what this is. Stone walls give way to wooden carvings as you look into the sky, the walls painted white with gold patterning, the ceiling guarded by giant wooden angels, their wings almost filling the space above.

If that wasn’t impressive enough on one wall is a pipe organ and on the other a giant mural depicting the signing of the Magna Carta at what looks like an altar increasing the church feeling. It looks like its been influenced by The Last Supper, which Leonardo painted to continue into two dimensions the space of the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The historical theme is continued in the stained glass, reputed to be the best in Europe which shows the succession of English monarchs and lord protectors from 1066 onwards – which would be a wonderful way of teaching kids about the history of their country.

So all in all it’s been a really surprising day and what I loved was that after being greeted with shrugs at so many other of these galleries when I’ve asked about the collections I was greeted in Rochdale by staff who just seemed so pleased that someone would take the trouble to travel to see what they had to offer, saw that I really cared and did their best to make it accessible. I’ve promised to return to the gallery when the building work is complete, hopefully on a Friday so that I can take the Town Hall’s tour. It seemed like the very least I could do.

"The road to knowledge begins with the turn of the page." -- Anonymous

Humour I'm sure you've seen this already, but just in case -- it's a medieval helpdesk query -- which is so unnervingly accurate, they even get the nervous introductions at the beginning just right [via].