Why George Shaw should have won the Turner Prize

    

By Kenn Taylor

I always take an interest in art’s biggest bauble, the Turner Prize, and usually have my favourite entrants, but for once, in 2011, I was actually excited about a nominee. It was through the prize I learned about the work of George Shaw, comprising of paintings, in Humbrol enamel model paint, of seemingly insignificant places in the area of Coventry where he grew up.

Occasionally, something just speaks to you. I’m not from Coventry and my feeble attempts at Airfix as a child were limited, but his representation of abandoned pubs, bent fences, tatty lock-up garages and scrappy woodland appealed greatly to me. There was a personal recognition that the landscapes he was painting looked similar to where I grew up, but more importantly, and why I wanted him to win the Turner, was that his work felt so representative of where the UK is now as a country.

This is not to disparage Turner winner Martin Boyce’s work, which I also like. However, Shaw’s paintings seem much more significant, almost like a stark acknowledgment of a Britain brought back down to Earth after what Adrian Mole writer Sue Townsend brilliantly referred to as ‘The Cappuccino Years’. The time when we pretended everything was getting better in new modern sophisticated Britain, when really they were getting worse, covered only briefly by froth on the surface now swept away.

Coventry, like pretty much everywhere outside the South East of England, has suffered economic decline, in particular in its once thriving car industry. However Coventry’s decline was not in a dramatic, easily aesthetic way the likes of Liverpool and Glasgow did in the 1980s; cities picked apart by so many ‘social realist’ photographers and documentary makers.

Coventry’s decline was slower, almost unknowable. A breaking apart, due to various factors, of economic, social and cultural ties, something that has now enveloped much of Britain, from Dundee to Burnley, Ipswich to Plymouth. Shaw’s Coventry is neither the ‘gritty’ inner city like East London, places for the latest crop of art students to colonise, nor the ‘quaint’ leafy suburbs, but the area in between. Places where the hope of the post-war settlement, of new housing estates and modern factories and a better, more stable, more egalitarian world has decayed. Places confused, liminal, unsure of what anything means any more or where things are heading. The Britain that I know, the Britain David Cameron hasn’t got a clue about.

That’s not to say ‘The Cappuccino Years’ that led us to now didn’t have their plus points. For those of us in the arts it was a boom time. Galleries expanded and spread, audiences grew and diversified, there was cash for ambitious projects, and art entered more into the arena of mainstream culture. Now though, when I look back on so much of the work that was created at this time, at least that which dominated the public consciousness; the infamous Young British Artists, all those big public sculptures and the Tate Modern Turbine Hall projects. Grand visions assembled by armies of fabricators with money no object. Even if I like such work and still value it, I can’t help but think back into art history.

Back to the turning of the 19th century into the 20th, of the Fin de siècle, the Viennese Secession, the beautiful decadent work produced at the zenith of a culture that would soon collapse in on itself. A high point before everything that was solid melted into air, transformed by technological advances, war, depression, revolution, social change and scientific discovery. I look back and ponder that we might now be at a similar point again.

The sheer lack of monumentalism in Shaw’s work seems to me to represent the UK now. A country humbled from its arrogance that its laissez-faire, sado-monetarist system should be embraced by the world and that real industry could be replaced by finance and the ‘Cool Britannia’ cultural industries. Shaw shows instead the reality; a Britain cracked, dog-eared, confused, battered, half-shod, but in a way that is sublime and truthful rather than bleak.

His use of Humbrol model paints is also resonant. An everyday product that most people must have used at some point as children, Humbrol was once manufactured in Hull. Now it is produced in China and its old plant stands abandoned and boarded up. Hull being another place in the UK that has suffered slow, quiet, decline, ignored by those in the ever faster spinning wheel of the City of London, a wheel that has now fallen of its axis.

It was great seeing musician and former graffiti artist Goldie on Channel 4’s Turner Prize coverage from the Baltic in Gateshead. The very fact that the Turner prize was held in Gateshead, shown on Channel 4 and partially presented by Goldie is a positive product of the last ten to fifteen years, of art’s increasing popularity and expansion out of the capital and, to an extent, out of elite circles. Goldie’s open enthusiasm for fellow West Midlander Shaw’s work was also great in contrast to fellow presenter Matthew Collings, looking like Karl Marx and talking the usual jargon.

Shaw at least has been given a solo show in the Herbert Museum in Coventry, and like all Turner nominees, should see his work grow in popularity and price even though he didn’t win. Hats off to Martin Boyce, but we’ll see in decades, who was making the more important work, the work that captured the spirit of our age.

This piece appeared at a-n Online in January 2012.

Look11

Liverpool, various venues

May – July 2011

A new entry on Liverpool’s cultural calendar, Look11, is a vast photography festival encompassing exhibitions, events and projects over several months. Like the similar but larger Liverpool Biennial, it has taken over many of the city’s arts venues for the duration and has an over-arching theme – ‘photography as a call to action’.

Open Eye Gallery has been promoting photography in Liverpool since it was founded in the 1970s. This will be the last exhibition in the Wood Street space that it has occupied since the early 90s, before it moves to a new, larger home on the waterfront. Appropriately, Uncommon Grace features images chosen from Open Eye’s archive, curated by American photographer Mitch Epstein, who will have his first UK solo show at their new space.

The shots are very much of their time, nearly all from the 1980s; they feature some of the most influential British photographers of the period, many of whom cut their teeth in Liverpool, including Tom Wood and Martin Parr. The lives of the working-class and the decaying fabric of the industrial north are the inevitable main themes of many of the images, with photographers like John Davies and Parr finding truth and beauty where others would see only ugliness and squalor. It’s a timely show, and you wonder what such photographers would think of Liverpool’s startling regeneration, and the Open Eye’s shiny new home.

Bluecoat has perhaps the most successful exhibition of the festival overall. Taking ‘Containment’ as there own ‘theme within a theme’, the show is varied, but high-quality and coherent. Ben Graville’s ‘In and out of the Old Bailey’ (2002-09) features ‘papped’ shots taken of prisoners through the mirrored glass of prison vans on their way into the UK’s central criminal courts. The images raise issues of privacy, media intrusion and voyeurism. Beyond this though, their power as portraits is undeniable; the garish colours, lack of focus and the candid poses, some defiant, others cowering, adding to their disconcerting fascination.

In total contrast, David Maisel’s ‘Library of Dust’ (2006) project records the corroded copper containers that hold the cremated remains of patients who died whilst in the Oregon State Mental Asylum. Dating from between 1883 and the 1970s, these ashes were never collected by the families of the deceased. The large and vivid images detail the copper decaying in rich greens and whites, only the faded institutional labels revealing their true grim purpose. That these works highlight the containment not only of human remains, but those who society deems as ‘other’, so much so that many were rejected by their own families even in death, is as poignant as it is troubling.

The vast Novas Contemporary Urban Centre is, as usual for festivals like this, filled to the brim with several different exhibitions. Its basement crypt holds the largest exhibition, which appears to have a documentary focus. Robert Polidori’s ‘New Orleans After the Flood’ (2005-6) is a series of large images of the destruction wrought on domestic environments by Hurricane Katrina. Featuring the bright colours of family homes wrecked with the dank grey floodwater and filth, the images are shocking in their epicenes and fascinating in there detail.

On an even larger scale, are Ed Burtynsky’s trademark large-format photographs of landscapes altered by man. ‘Oil Spill’ (2010) taken after last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, are some of his most recent images and, like so much of his work, are stunningly aesthetic in there approach, but terrible when you consider what they feature. His black and white images of ship-breaking in Bangladesh meanwhile, are even more gripping, featuring dirty, dishevelled human figures in a mess of mud and rotting metal, overwhelmed by the vast vessels they are dismantling. Closer to home, Ian Beesley’s shots from Hay Royds Colliery in Yorkshire highlight that similarly dirty work continues in the UK, despite what many think.

These are just three of the more interesting shows in Look11, whose venues encompass everything from Café walls to the city’s main Walker Art Gallery. The organisers have done a good job in pulling it all together. However, ‘photography as a call to action’ doesn’t seem to quite fit with much of the work exhibited.

While many photographers share this aim, many don’t, they want to represent the world in a certain way, a world that is complex and multifaceted. The decision to try and show differing work in pairs, or at least close context, is a good one, helping to create dialogue and ask questions of different images and photographers, rather than presenting any views as a singular truth. This seems to me a far better framing notion for this disparate collection of exhibitions than attempting to graft ‘a call to action’ onto them.

Nevertheless, Look11 is an impressive programme that it a must see for anyone interested in documentary photography. Hopefully the festival will get the chance to continue to develop over the next few years, despite the arts cuts, and continue to use photography as a tool to examine our complex, ever-shifting world.

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine in June 2011.

A Sense of Perspective

Tate Liverpool

Until 5th June 2001

A Sense of Perspective is an exhibition of works from Tate’s collection, curated by the member’s of Young Tate, the gallery’s engagement programme for 16 – 25 year olds. The exhibition is part of a wider partnership, Youth Art Interchange Phase II, with other galleries around Europe.

Programmes such as Young Tate are increasingly common in institutions up and down the UK, with participants frequently adding contextual ‘add ons’ and interpretation to core exhibitions. Here, Tate Liverpool takes things a step further with an exhibition in its ground floor gallery curated entirely by Young Tate. Everything from the theme to the layout and the public events has been programmed by them, albeit guided by Tate staff and the criteria for the project’s European funding (Which was, as you might expect, ‘European citizenship, identity and cultural democracy’).

Through a series of workshops and debates the young people at each of the four participating galleries, in Liverpool, London, Paris and Helsinki, came up with a unifying theme, A Sense of Perspective, with each group then free to interpret this in there own way. Young Tate decided on three sub-themes of ‘between generations’, ‘between cultures’ and ‘between spaces’ and to use the Tate collection to explore the complex and shifting nature of contemporary identity.

Young Tate state they chose the works that inspired the most discussion amongst them, with their ideas often distinct from the artists’ own stated intentions. They have selected both British and international artists and included several new acquisitions. Photography, video art, contemporary sculpture and mixed media works dominate, reflecting perhaps the most relevant fine art mediums for this age group, or simply the most relevant mediums for their ‘in between’ theme.

The exhibition is well laid out, with pieces working successfully next to each other despite the variety of artists and mediums. Stand outs include Mother Tongue (2002) a video work by Zineb Sedira. In it, Sedira speaks in French to her mother, who answers in Arabic, and to her daughter, who answers in English, reflecting starkly the inevitable evolution of culture between generations, exacerbated by globalisation and the speeding up of technology.

Meanwhile, Sarah Jones’s constructed reality images of teenage girls seemingly stuck in suburban middle-class mediocrity, Sitting Room (Francis Place) III (1997) and The Dining Room (Francis Place) I (1997) quietly notate the angsty experiences of millions of the young and artistic, while apparently ‘provoking considerable discussion within the group, raising issues of gender, class, age and entrapment.’ Adjacent, two shots by Wolfgang Tilmans of contemporary ambiguous sexuality The Cock (kiss) (2002) and Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees (1992), chosen as a companion to Jones’s images show instead young people confident, unabashed and raw.

A less well known gem is Martin Boyle’s Gate (We don’t meet here. We are always together first) (2004) fabricated from the type of cheap mesh and steel tube that guides the paths of millions of young people around schools, youth clubs etc. The artist’s own view is of the object as a direct physical link, an ‘aide-mémoire’, to youth, a time of increasing freedom yet still framed by adult barriers. Young Tate though see deeper, with the structure as a symbolic gateway between different generations and cultures.

Olafur Eliasson’s Yellow versus Purple (2003) features interchanging circles of yellow and blue light, slowly merging to form a purple sphere. This was interpreted by Young Tate as symbolising the pointlessness of attempting to view the world in binary extremes; left versus right, good versus evil, black versus white, when so much is indeed, two sides of the same coin. The work is both beautifully simple and visually striking.

Although a catalogue provides more detail on the project, there is a frustrating lack of contextual information in the exhibition itself about how it was brought together. Young Tate may have wanted their selections to speak for themselves, but as the curatorial process was just as much a part of the reasoning behind this exhibition, surely this is an oversight?

The participants of Young Tate have been given a golden opportunity, to curate a show at one of the country’s largest galleries, and in short, they have delivered. Not all of the works here are outstanding, but crucially they work in context of both the theme and the gallery space itself. There are some obvious choices, but there have also been some obscure works chosen that really resonate, the sign of a good curator if ever there was one.

Are such shows then perhaps the future of museum education? Young people taken on as by-proxy apprentices? It may offer a solution to the spiralling cost of art education, though if always thrown in at the deep end, will participants ever be able to explore wider ideas beyond the practical delivery of an exhibition?

The cards featuring the personal responses of the Young Tate members are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show, veering as they do between talking from the heart and typical ArtSpeak. The key test of such programmes will be if the members of Young Tate will be able to learn such terminologies so they can forget them. If they can retain the originality they show in how they have created this show within Tate’s systems and not be entirely absorbed and overwhelmed by the current dominant trends and ideas of cultural institutions, instead taking what they have learned and staking there own path.

This exhibition works on its own an interesting thematic interpretation of the Tate collection, but it’s worth seeing even more if you want to see something of the future of arts engagement and curating and a younger perspective on contemporary art and culture.

 This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine in April 2011

The Land Between Us: power, place and dislocation

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Untill 23rd January 2010

The Land between Us combines a variety of landscapes from the Whitworth’s fine collection with a selection of more recent and contemporary works, examining landscape as a genre and the places and power associated with it.

In Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forrest Path, Birch and Sycamore branches are woven into dense forest, creating an entrance to the exhibition that is both playful and unsettling. Beyond this is a diverse selection of works ranging from a Rembrandt etching to Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs.

A key theme is change; both in the landscapes themselves and who is representing them. William Holman Hunt’s idyllic Holy Land portrayed in The Plain of Rephaim from Zion, Jerusalem contrasts sharply with Larissa Sansour’s video work Soup over Bethlehem which examines the complex politics of contemporary Palestine.

Equally striking though are the continuities. J.M.W Turner’s rendition of Conway Castle, Caernarvonshire, a structure built in the 13th century to control and monitor local people, sits adjacent to Donavan Wylie’s South Armagh, Golf 40, West View 2007, a photograph of a British Army watchtower in Northern Ireland constructed for a similar purpose in more recent times.

By placing these works next to each other, the exhibition forces the viewer to confront the tensions between them and to look beyond to the power structures that influenced them. It’s a simple idea but creates a context for a radical re-examination of these works that manages to be both subtle and intellectually challenging whilst remaining accessible.

The Land Between Us is a curatorial marvel that should be viewed by all interested in the art and politics of land and landscape.

By Kenn Taylor

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine December 2010.

Liverpool Biennial 2010

Various venues 18 September – 28 November 2010

The Liverpool Biennial, now in its sixth incarnation, is the largest festival of contemporary art in the UK. It’s a huge undertaking that can only really be appreciated by walking around it. Every two years the city is literally filled with art in every conceivable place. Virtually every type of medium is represented by hundreds of artists from all corners of the globe.

The core of the Biennial is the International Exhibition, programmed by a myriad of curators to a singular theme, which this year is ‘Touched’. More specifically, the festival’s stated intention this time around is to showcase contemporary art that can allegedly transcend boundaries of culture, language, identity et al and move those experiencing it on an emotional level.

Bluecoat, the city’s oldest and perhaps most diverse arts centre, is as good a place to start as any. Some works hit home, like Nicholas Hlobo’s Ndize an enchanting and engulfing tactile installation which highlights the Biennial’s ability at its best to transform the city’s spaces and your view of them. However, others like Daniel Bozhkov’s Music Not Good For Pigeons, an uncomfortable amalgam of football, The Beatles and political militancy, highlight the Biennial at its worst – international artists attempting to respond to Liverpool and coming up only with cliché.

Tate Liverpool, usually the only Biennial venue to charge entry, is thankfully free this year. On entering Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology, a large collection of different sized textile ‘rocks’ is visually pleasing and invites, well, touch. Unfortunately, as it’s now accessioned in the Tate collection, we can only look; a great disappointment to the children who run in to play on it. It seems touching has boundaries.

In the main gallery, Jamie Isenstein’s furniture and flame installation Empire of Fire left me cold. Better was Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan’s model boat-building project with local community groups Passage which looked like it had been a great deal of fun for all involved, if not revelatory to look at. Tate’s is a diverse exhibition but not as strong as in previous years.

This year Open Eye Gallery has decided to focus on three works by Swede Lars Laumann. New commission Helen Keller is multi-layered and complex but ultimately not as rewarding for its considerable duration as 2006’s surely self-explanatory Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana, which manages to be equal parts engaging, amusing and thought-provoking.

FACT, frequently Liverpool’s most radical arts institution, this time around has two of the best works in the Biennial. Gallery 1 contains a recreation of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980 – 1981, which consisted of the artist getting up on the hour, every hour, for one year. Documentation of performance is frequently boring. This however is both aesthetically arresting and emotionally moving as the thousands of images and clock cards he used to prove it display clearly of all the ups and downs of his commitment laid out across the gallery.

Upstairs meanwhile is Yves Netzhammer’s Dialogical Abrasion, an installation which transforms the gallery into an uncanny, fractured environment; part Ghost Train, part Alice in Wonderland, part Michel Gondry outtake. Heightened by an accompanying animation and jarring sound and lighting effects, the work makes you question your own perceptions and, despite its alienating effects, you’re compelled to stay to explore its many different layers and moods.

One of the most exciting elements of the Biennial is its utilisation of the city’s abandoned and forgotten spaces. The focus this year is the former Rapid Hardware store on Renshaw Street. The store is vast but seems underused, attempts at theming different sections fall flat and works lie cobbled about here and there between not so old posters for bathroom fittings. Nevertheless, for the gems the building is worth taking the time to explore. A highlight is Ryan Trecartin’s Trill-ogy Comp – a trio of garish videos filled with extreme characters sliding through even more extreme situations, made all the more disturbing by being placed down the empty corridors of the shop’s the labyrinthine basement.

Elsewhere, in the former Scandinavian Hotel, Alfredo Jarr’s We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know, an uncompromising filmic account of the genocide in Rwanda is a reminder that sometimes the unvarnished truth is the most moving thing of all. Less good however is Emese Benczùr installation on Lime Street’s abandoned Futurist cinema, now emblazoned courtesy of the artist with a slogan over the middle of it ‘Think About The Future’, an intervention considerably less poignant than the cinema’s own faded signage clearly illustrating its past glory and now insecure future.

For almost as long as there’s been a Biennial, there’s been an alternative fringe uniting under the banner of ‘The Independents’. This year though, a new initiative apart from this has seen most of the city’s major independent arts collectives come together under a new banner called The Cooperative. Taking over another abandoned shop, this venue serves as both a temporary gallery and event space and a central showcase for the exhibitions in each of the group members own galleries. It seems there’s always a fringe to add to the fringe.

Even then, there’s so much more. Outside of the main Biennial there are dozens of other exhibitions, events and initiatives which link to it. Even if you stay in the city for the festival’s duration and had unlimited free time, you’d be bound to miss stuff.

That’s not really the point though. Despite pulling in all sorts of different directions, there’s something admirable about the fact that, somehow, it all comes together, and this critical mass of art in a relatively small and still very poor city has to be appreciated. For every action of the Biennial there is a reaction and Liverpool, never one to have anything imposed upon it, becomes a hotbed of competing creative voices shouting to be heard and I can’t see it working in any other city in the UK.

But, bringing everything back to this year’s theme; did all of this work touch me? The idea of showcasing contemporary art that can overcome boundaries and communicate deep transcendental truths is admirable. But the word ‘Touched’ is suitably vague that curators have inevitably taken it to mean whatever they want. Even some of the best works seem only tenuously linked to the theme and many others are as obtuse as any art you can see anywhere. This is unfortunate, as the show could have been more radical and revelatory had it stuck more cohesively to this original intention. Despite this though, there’s enough work that shows, in the right hands, yes, the best art can shatter all of the bullshit that surrounds it and move you.

Perhaps then, this Biennial especially, is best appreciated by not trying to see everything, not reading the guidebook or the curatorial musings. Instead, just wander through the city, the art is everywhere remember, and see, what, if anything, touches you.

By Kenn Taylor

An abridged version of this review was published by Aesthetica magazine in October 2010 and can be viewed here.