Liverpool Biennial 2010: Nina Canell at Tate Liverpool

Art Currently a room at Tate Liverpool is dedicated to a group of installation pieces by Nina Canell inspired by the Neptune movement in Holst's The Planets or more specifically the spectacular and suitably otherworldly fade out at its conclusion. Listen:

The most suitable expression is On Thirst (Unequal Diameters) in which six many segmented glass tubes resembling a percussion instrument have been dangled from the ceiling containing samples of water from the River Mersey from various depths, from top to bottom.

There's sediment at the bottom of each of the segments which gives it a living quality and it's one of the rare occasions when a work at the Tate has reflected on its neighbouring expanse of water. Oh and of course there's the double meaning in relation to where the deity version of Neptune spends his hours.

Coincidentally, BBC Radio 4's Choice podcast this week also talks about the fade out, investigating its five hundred year history:
"How do you end a piece of music? For 500 years pieces always had a clear ending, often a climax with all the performers playing a rousing cadence which almost guaranteed applause. But in the 20th Century music often ended with a fade out instead. Holst's Planets Suite (written 1914 -16) ends with a chorus of women's voices sound fading into nothing - perhaps the first true example of a fade in music."
The score is on display in the gallery space and I urge you to stop and read the composer's direction on how to express the fade which reminds me of this quote from Alexander Graham Bell:
“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."
The BBC podcast should be available to download for the next seven days.

Astrid Kirchherr: A Retrospective at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool.

Victoria Gallery & Museum

Photography The university’s art gallery and museum reopened in 2008 with a retrospective of “fifth Beatle” Stuart Sutcliffe’s paintings and two years later they’re poignantly offering a show of photographs from the other side of one of the more tragic cultural romances, with a selection of Astrid Kirchherr’s photographs from throughout the 1960s, focusing on Sutcliffe and the fab four in their earlier incarnation and some of her documentary work capturing the people of Liverpool.

After spending last Friday evening failing to visit the Open Eye Gallery because of the length of the queue outside, I had the rare pleasure of seeing Kirchher's work in an almost empty gallery save for a fellow visitor dashing out into the corridor with her mobile phone. My mp3 player spontaneously began playing the soundtrack to Lost in Translation, Kevin Shields and Air the perfect accompaniment to the images.

At one point a section of dialogue from the film played which I'd originally recorded for a mix cd as a message to someone but as I looked at this collection, I couldn't help but make a connection between Charlotte's uncertainty and Astrid who was similarly uncertain about her place in the world (judging by the interviews I've read). But whereas Scarlett Johansson's character chose writing, Kirchher stopped at photography:

Charlotte: I'm stuck. Does it get easier?
Bob: No. Yes. It gets easier.
Charlotte: Oh yeah? Look at you.
Bob: Thanks. The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.
Charlotte: Yeah. I just don't know what I'm supposed to be, you know. I tried being a writer, but I hate what I write. I tried taking pictures, but they were so mediocre. You know, every girl goes through a photography phase. You know, horses... taking dumb pictures of your feet.
Bob: You'll figure that out. I'm not worried about you. Keep writing.
Charlotte: But I'm so mean.
Bob: Mean's okay.

If anything, the show best demonstrates the uncertain position Kirchherr retrospectively finds herself in, whether she (like Yoko later) (sorry) her connection with The Beatles chronology is what makes her work interesting or if she deserves our scrutiny in her own right. Would Astrid have been granted this retrospective on the strength of her ability to point and click alone if one of her subject hadn’t been the most famous rock band in the world?

The Beatles manager Brian Epstein certainly thought her a good enough photographer to commission her when he unveiled the new suited look for his band and she was the only photographer allowed to cover the Hard Days Night period which he'd otherwise forbidden from being seen. Otherwise her gender made working as a freelance photographer near impossible unable to attract magazines unless she was offering a new photo of John or Paul which is why she gave up in '67, relatively early in her career.

Fans will no doubt be very familiar with most of this work and the earlier shots pre-Ringo. But judging by the accompanying information, the curators have tried to include the less recognizable discarded frames offering more a sense of Kircherr’s process. Even the subtlest of differences between near identical headshots can and do mean whether we consider a Beatle to be brooding or charismatic or have a brooding charisma.

For those of us who don’t have a biography of the Beatles hardwired into our brains and think some other good music has been made since the 1960s, it’s the more artistic pieces that force us to linger. Kirchherr was a fan of the double exposure which she employed to essentially clone Sutcliffe in one street image and to show us what he might be thinking in another, merging a scene of them kissing with a portrait of the artist deep in thought.

Arguably the most interesting material is strewn through the two or three cabinets in the middle of each of the rooms filled with unlabelled candids of Astrid and various anonymous faces in Hamburg and elsewhere. It’s these which most persuasively suggest that were it not for The Beatles’s subsequent fame, many of the photographs framed and glazed on the wall could also just have remained well composed snapshots; it’s only in the later decades that they’ve become historical documents.

But the exhibition also has self portraits of Kirchherr and shots by fellow photographers. As well as eradicating the impression I had of her from Sheryl Lee’s portrayal in Ian Softley’s film Backbeat, they add lustre to the rest of the work, contextualise it. The iconic image taken by herself of herself by herself, used as the exhibition's poster (an early entry into the mirror project?) demonstrates that she had a presence all of her own.

Until 29th January 2011.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: The Bluecoat

The Bluecoat

Art In previous Biennials, the BlueCoat has been something of a cabinet of curiosities, a mish-mash of unusual and surprising objects smashing into one another thematically. But with 52 Renshaw Street rather fulfilling that application this year, my old school's ancient home has bravely kept its display to essentially four works with varying degrees of interactivity.

I visited last Friday night during the preview evening when every venue was "rammed" with people (the illustrative photo was taken later) and wondered throughout the experience whether artists prefer their work to be seen in these conditions, the spaces filled with people and the kind of collective reaction you might otherwise find in cinemas, theatres and sport stadia.

The work worth visiting for is Nicholas Hlobo's Ndize which fills the mezzanine floor and spills out into one of the other gallery areas and consists of thousands of streams dangling from the ceiling ready to be plunged into creating an environment that's both playful and sensuous. There are also "tunnels" leading to slightly sadomasochistic rubber figures or "players" as the Biennial catalogue describes them.

One of those works which is entirely impossible to describe properly (as the previous paragraph ably demonstrates) Hlobo's piece is just tremendous fun. A maximum of about ten people seem to be allowed in the environment at any one time, and the best way to "attack" it is to swim through the streamers, trusting that you won't knock into some stranger going in another direction but even more fun if you do.

Now and then you'll hit a wall, or as we did, an exterior window overlooking Hanover Street. One of the visitors made a very good point, if you'll pardon the language: "He should have covered the walls with mirrors so that when you get there you think 'The shitter's infinite'" Perhaps there's a health and safety aspect or quite simply he wanted to indicate that this new world does have an exit easily to hand.

Below that there's an installation from Ranjani Shettar in which a selection of web like shapes cast in bronze cast shadows against bare walls. Visitors are invited to step into the space, but Aureole doesn't seem to be of the art gallery, more the sort of thing which might work better as part of some chic architectural interior design were paradoxically it might be easily overlooked in favour of the colour of the wallpaper.

Like all bronze sculpture, The sections sit neatly between deliberate creation in the overall shape and allowing nature to take its course within the pigmentation. Shettar is interested in methodology and structure. She's resurrecting "lost" fabrication techniques, exploring the culture of south-eastern India. The men she works with don't see themselves as artists or craftsmen which has Warholian overtones (in his workshop, I understand, if you could screen print you were in).

Closest to the gallery entrance is The Cabinet of Carol Rama, a retrospective of work from the artist who's in her seventieth year didn't quite fit that model, probably requiring more attention than the cursory glance most of us were giving her, though potentially the large photographic portrait of the artist in her studio and the lines in her face arguably communicating as much as the paintings on display.

You may have already heard of her next door neighbour (and seen since it's one of the publicity magnets) the bewildering mix that is Daniel Bozhkov's Music Not Good For Pigeons, which arguably worked best the other night before entry because in having to queue up we had to imagine what it contained from glimpses through the exterior shell and the sounds within, building an ever increasing sense of anticipation.

Inside we discovered a replica of Liverpool Football Club dressing room inhabited on a large screen by a fractured documentary about the militant tendency in the city during the 1980s, giant cuddly pandas, CRT monitors showing this famous YouTube video of a sneezing Panda and the artist singing a cover of John Lennon's Imagine.

Sat in the packed room with the artist himself in attendance standing now and then to greet a friend it was difficult to know what to make of it other than to wonder why Liverpool football club has such an apparently small place to change. The piece would clearly be less effective with less people inside sharing glances from bench to bench perhaps trying to divine whether anyone else has a clue what it means.

In a recent report on Northwest Tonight, Bozhkov said that it was up to us humans to decide what the connections are which, along with the 'untitled' title is one of my pet hates. Such things should be inherently obvious in the work, or else outlined in the accompanying text, otherwise it leaves the artist open to a suggestion of copping out or not being sure of their own message.

The information in the Biennial catalogue enhances Hlobo's streamers with talk of an innocent game of hide and seek maturing into a caress of adult fantasy. The entry for Bozhkov's work largely concerns itself with description, the disparate elements even stranger in print, looking not unlike the infamous shopping lists Russell T Davies would hand to hapless writers on Doctor Who ("How about Queen Victoria, ninja Buddhist monks and werewolves? Oh sod this I'll write it myself...").

As I sat mesmerised by the replica shirts hung about the room I couldn't help wondering if the video material and bears distract the visitor from a rather more poignant statement about where people focus their dreams; for millions it's that dressing room and the men who inhabit it before and between sides in football matches. What if there'd been a greater selection of critters on display? Why not the Prairie Dog?

As with the rest of the official Biennial venues, the Touched display at The Bluecoat is available until 28 November 2010.

"I let a good thing go ..."

Music How is it that Gemma Hayes isn't more famous?

I didn't want it to be goodbye.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: 52 Renshaw Street

52 Renshaw Street

Art The Liverpool Biennial have been good enough to include this blog in their e-newsletter this week which seems like a reasonable hint to get around to mentioning their headquarters on Renshaw Street which I visited last Friday afternoon on the second preview day. Cleverly repurposing the empty shell of the old Rapid Hardware, with its long window space filled with art visible from the main bus routes from the south of Liverpool into the city centre it’s a near perfect way of publicising and creating awareness in a public space of the festival.

The interior is sympathetic to its previous usage. Rather than ripping everything out in favour of white cubing, as part of the Re:Thinking Trade strand which considers consumerism, most of Rapid’s fixtures and fittings are in evidence including the signs advertising special offers. The first thing a visitor sees as they step through the entrance is a classic garden shed housing a shop and café and park benches to sit at. Astroturf. It’s a space that is pleasant to simply spend time in on it’s own and a visual feast. And in three months it’ll be gone. Best make the most of it.

Billy Butler presented his BBC Radio Merseyside programme from there that afternoon. I continue to be amazed by technology which allows someone to broadcast to an entire region (and by extension a nation or the world if required) from a microphone and a laptop (or what looked small enough even to be netbook). The results is available on the iplayer for at least the next couple of days and it’s quite entertaining listening to Mrs Butler’s eldest mentally navigating this cutting edge contemporary art. He’s especially disturbed about Daniel Knorr’s The Naked Corner in which humans appear in the shop window with slogans daubed on their naked flesh. I can’t entirely blame him.

By necessity, 52 Renshaw Street also retains the shop’s labyrinthine make up and as with all the best gallery spaces, part of the excitement is in discovering each art piece, yomping up and down stairs, turning corners, passing through curtains, not really sure what you’ll be confronted with. That being the case, as with Laura Belam at The Oratory, I’m sensitive to not wanting to give too much away about the display so that people intending to visit will still be surprised about something. If you fall into that category, we’ll part company here. Except to say that amid the installation work, keep an eye on the paintings that make up The Human Strain strand too, especially the Zbynek Sedlecky which have a stunning emotional simplicity.

Now that they’ve gone, here are a few highlights. The aforementioned Sedlecky uses broad brush strokes to create gnomic urban socialist landscapes with muted greys and browns that emphasise the brutality of modernist architecture. The most recent example on display is Airport which turns the waiting area or lounge into a place of solitude overwhelmed with loneliness and darkness, despite some large white spaces and light past colours. Plastic chairs and human beings are reduced to their most simplistic elements yet somehow you’re forced into applying the detail yourself fighting against the inherent alienation on display.

If that’s quietly impressive, there's nothing quiet about Karmelo Bermejo’s The Grand Finale, Bank Load Granted to an Art Gallery Used to Pay a Firework Display at the Closing Ceremony of Art Basel Miami Beach, 2009 whose title alone has more depth and artistry than most work and makes a default 'untitled' title simply indefensible. A two and half minute video of the word “Recession” picked out in Helvetica through some golden pyrotechnics, it recalls the K Foundation’s similarly outlandish act of burning a million pounds, but we’re also witness to the one occasion when a crowd that aren’t financial wiz-kids making profit from other people's misery cheer and applaud that work.

Stepping into Alfredo Jaar’s The Marx Lounge is as close as a real person might get to Boorman’s stargate journey to a hotel room in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the Biennial catalogue describes, its plush burgundy décor is “situated conceptually between a library reading room and the seminary environs of a public boudoir” […] “where audiences can sit, read, speculate and come to their own conclusions on the relevance and viability of Marx’s ideas today”, which is aided by a giant boardroom table filled with books around the topic some of which I discovered on closer inspection I’ve actually read.

For some reason, in the white heat of research for my film dissertation, I entirely failed to notice that, despite the title, Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism was a Marxist tract but with its deconstruction of the shopping mall and general disembowelling of consumerism you'd think I might have noticed. If I had noticed I might have made a decent stab at suggesting hyperlink cinema itself was inherently Marxist because it gave a collective responsibility for story to a range of different characters all working towards a satisfactory climax. Certainly puts an alternative complexion on Love, Actually. But I digress.

Similar critical of consumerism but in an entirely different, far louder way is Ryan Trecatin’s Tril-ogy Comp, a series of three videos strewn on televisions through the otherwise empty basement in which the artist parodies the editing and characters employed in the kind of reality tv shows that appear on Mtv or ITV2, the likes of The Hills or Keeping Up with the Kardashians or that thing with The Saturdays based on that thing with Girl Aloud (which is probably based on something else). In a heroic feat of observation, the artist is at the centre, screaming and talking in the second and third person about himself and generally saying things like “I’m not here to make friends”.

With its nanosecond shot length and abrupt soundtrack my initial reaction to the first what, episode? was not positive. In my notes I make reference to Daphne and Celeste suggesting that this must have been like inside their heads at the height of their what, fame? A typical quote is “Utterly horrible, headache inducing” but slowly as I moved from screen to screen I began to develop a grudging respect for the work simple because I realised that in fact my reaction to it was much the same as my reaction to that thing that it’s aping, mostly because through by mid-thirties eyes there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between them.

As with the rest of the official Biennial venues, 52 Renshaw Street is open until 28 November 2010.

Obi-Wan and Yoda living in exile

Film The Binary Bonsai has this lengthy essay on the creation of Chewbacca:
"Around 8.30 on Monday, April 12th, 1976 on stage 3 of Elstree studios in England, then the home of Mos Eisly’s Docking Bay 94 (and later rebuilt into the Death Star docking bay) and one certain Corellian hunk o’ junk, Peter Mayhew and Harrison Ford stepped in front of the camera for scene AA53, ‘Jabba and Han Solo in docking bay’, their first.

The rest is history."
Late on, the writer suggests that Chewie has nothing to do in Star Wars and that Lucas agrees.

They're wrong.

I think that Lucas, by including Chewie in the prequels has inadvertently retroactively given the wookie a pivotal role (I'm extrapolating from the this classic old Slate article) in A New Hope.

If you believe that the Jedi (or what was left of them) had a long term plan to retake the galaxy from the Empire, which includes the none wiping of R2D2's memory, the wiping of C3PO's memory and Obi-Wan and Yoda living in exile until required to nudge Luke (or Leia) along in their training, it's not entirely impossible that Chewie brought Han unknowingly to Tatooine for a long standing, all part of the plan, agreed rendezvous with Obi-Wan, effectively making Solo the sidekick.

Poor Greedo.

National Sculpture Prize 2010 at The Blue Coat Display Centre.

Art Still available for the next couple of days is as I've already heralded in the title, the National Sculpture Prize 2010 exhibition at the The Blue Coat Display Centre. I passed through yesterday on my way home from meeting/being in the same room as Vince Cable, still in my suit and when I brought out my notepad to write some notes for the next paragraph, someone came over and asked if I was from the Arts Council which was very flattering. Just a blogger, I said, not really wanting to give the wrong impression. It was still proof that I should wear my suit more often.

Of the objects in the space, my favourite is the People's Choice winner, Nicolas Moreton's "Oh Joyous Light". A giant stone ovoid, broken in two, it's rather an agate crystal which has rebelled and decided to obey the laws of Euclidean geometry. There's something other, uncanny about it, especially since Moreton has placed a light source in the centre bringing to mind the moments in films like Alien, Cocoon and The Fly when an incubator breaks open. It's the kind of work that frees the imagination. What could have escaped and where is it now?

The rest of the collection can be seen here and in the centre itself until the 25th September.

"Tonight is a complex sellout."

Film Given my own rubbish experience on seeing The Dark Knight, I wish I'd been in this cinema, when the manager went from screen to screen and handed the audience the riot act:
"Tonight is a complex sellout. That means we sold 2400 tickets for 2400 seats. There will not be an empty seat in the house. There will be no saving seats for friends that don't exist or dumping your coat or your bag in a seat next to you. Right now we have 8 people in the lobby who are telling me they have no place to sit."
And that even before he tells them to shut up with extreme prejudice.

Vince Cable talks to the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce in the Pan Am Bar at Albert Dock Liverpool.

Politics I wore a suit this morning. Before anyone reading this who’s currently being choked by their tie in a sweltering office wonders what’s so special about that, I never wear a suit. Other than my MA graduation, I only ever seemed to have worn it to job interviews - for my present position and an ill-fated visit to BBC Birmingham three or so years ago. It still has some train tickets in the pocket from a less ill-fated interview at the Royal Bank of Scotland Credit Card Centre in Manchester in 2001. But it felt important this morning, because I expected everyone else would be wearing suits and so it proved as we sat down for a breakfast meeting with our present Business Secretary Vince Cable. Who was wearing a suit too.

Organised by the local chamber of commerce, this was a fringe event to the conference and about as close I’ll be getting to the event. For all my passionate justification for being a Liberal Democrat, I’m not actually a member of the party largely because I like the role of observer too much. If I joined the party they might actually ask me to do things like hand out leaflets and that wouldn’t do. Some mild Twitter canvassing is the limit of my participation, and ad-hoc participation at that. This was simply a chance to look a favourite politician in the eye and see if he is lying. We’ll get to that later.

The breakfast consisted of a buffet of French pastries and later bacon and sausages sandwiches (brown sauce). This was not a banquet. This was an opportunity instead for local businessmen and women to ask about the changes and policies and policy changes the coalition government are putting into place, the abolition of the Regional Development Authorities (RDAs) in favour of smaller Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), the simplifying of the planning processes, making the balance in employment law between employer and employee fairer, the pressure on banks to invest and a few other issues I had difficultly following because I’m not a local businessman or woman. The room was less hostile than I expected, certainly more polite. There were moments of passion, some "delegates" with well researched, preprepared questions.

Vince is much more relaxed and articulate in person than on television where he can sometimes be a bit hesitant. He only became agitated once, towards the end when he was pressing home his frustration with the perception that the RDAs were the conduit for the likes of Europeans funding and not just the most convenient administrative body. He didn’t say much that hasn’t already appeared in interviews in print or on the radio (the gist is in this old Guardian interview), so no scoops sadly. Like any politicians he has talking points and stock answers reiterating that this new government is like a new board of directors at a failing company and that as in that scenario whatever is being done is never initially good for the workforce.

This is one of the few occasions when I’ve even been too intimidated to ask a question, largely because the question I really wanted to ask, about the change in the media’s perception of the party since they entered power was a bit off-topic and I didn’t want to break cover (feeling more like a gatecrasher as time went on). My ultimate impression was not of a man lying, but one dealing with the dichotomy of power. That ideology is inevitably stunted in government and that coalition is about compromise and that however many inspirational manifesto pledges they've made, it wasn't until they were faced with the beaurocracy that they really understood how many of those pledges and promises could be put into practice.

The Lib Dems know full well that much of what they’re doing is and will make them horrendously unpopular. But it seems, at least to me, that they’re making themselves horrendously unpopular with people who either didn’t understand what its leaders were saying during the election campaign or didn’t read said manifesto, often disaffected Labour supporters unable to grasp that the point of the Lib Dems is that they’re neither one thing or another and also in many ways a smattering of both of which ex-Labour man Vince is emblematic.

Afterwards, I chatted to a couple of very well informed people who were being directly affected by these changes in policy. They fear that the government is moving too fast, hastily putting into place changes when more considered thought might be required, and they might be right. But if meeting this secretary of state convinced me of anything it’s that we should all just wait and see and stop fearing the worst, which is perhaps the naïve view, and underscores why it’s best that I leave the politics to those other, better informed people. I'm glad we swapped business cards.

The Hope Street Feast 2010

Food The Sefton Park event begins the Liverpool Food and Drinks Festival, the Hope Street Festival concluded it. Many of the same stalls were in attendance today and before work I yomped on a giant prime pork sausage sandwich with, for fans of the Danny Baker Show, red sauce, brown sauce and yellow sauce. It was a very long sausage. It was also raining heavily though given the number of people I met I actually knew (which is surprisingly rare even in such a small city) attendance was still reasonably high.

There was also a tombola, in a caravan, at the junction of Hope Street and Hardman Street. Not one to let an opportunity for failure go to waste, I stepped up, paid my pound for a ticket, turned the barrel and went for a rummage. I asked the lady what I should be looking for. "It'll tell you" she said as I pulled out one of the small, rectangular paper wallets. I tore it open. "You're a winner!" It said. "I won!" I said. "Ha ha ha" At which point I realised what she'd explained beforehand. "You can choose any of the prizes. They were donated by the stall holders."

Which is were my trouble began. I'm a foe of choice. I spent three minutes trying to decide which sausage to have out of the four choices as the stall holder waited for a decision and in the end I just picked the prime pork sausage because it was at the bottom of the menu. I was watching The Special Relationship tonight and for once admired Tony Blair for taking a proper decision on Kosovo (or at the least the heroic Michael Sheen version of him). And we've already discussed the glories of the near random film selector, Lovefilm.

So as the hostess (for this was my own private game show) listed the prizes, which were sitting on a set of wooden shelves at the back of the caravan, I simply couldn't decide. Should I take the family ticket for a cathedral tour? No, that seems like a gluttony since I've already been. Two tickets for the Everyman Theatre? No, because at present, who am I going to ask and what about empty seat syndrome? She held up some photographic prints of places in Liverpool. Handy gifts perhaps but I wanted something for myself.

On to the food. Pasta, liqueur, wine. Flowers (empty seat syndrome again). Round and about it went, the indecision looking more embarrassing, she looking more pensive. Meanwhile, outside, a man selling programmes says "More content than the Lib Dem Conference" which throws me off my stride somewhat and all along I'm look at one item, entirely unlike the others, at the back of my mind thinking "I can't have that. Not that, surely. From all of these goodies. I'm the first winner, I have to send a clear message."

"I can't believe I'm going to say this. Um, can I have the bag of muesli?"
The brown paper bag is handed to me with some relief.
"Well" I said, "It'll last the longest time."
"Enjoy." She said.

And here it is: