Ai Weiwei: ‘I have to speak for people who are afraid’

This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008. I was reminded of this stunning installation, perhaps Liverpudlians’ favourite from the Biennial, reading an informative piece about its creator, Ai Weiwei in today’s Guardian.

The article notes that Tate Modern has commissioned Weiwei to fill its Turbine Hall later this year, but goes on to focus on his delicate relationship with the Chinese government, resulting from his angry and sustained denunciations of officialdom through interviews, documentaries and the internet. The article explains that his attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:

“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.

Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”

Ai Weiwei says his father’s experiences have left him with a sense of duty

To speak for the generation, or generations, who didn’t have a chance to speak out … And I also have to speak out for people around me who are afraid, who think it is not worth it or who have totally given up hope. So I want to set an example: you can do it and this is OK, to speak out.

Four beetles found at Lennon home


Couldn’t resist that headline from today’s BBC Liverpool report of the National Trust’s survey of the wealth of wildlife found in the garden at Mendips, Lennon’s childhood home. Here’s the story:

Four beetles were among the wealth of wildlife uncovered in a survey of the garden at John Lennon’s childhood home. The National Trust, which owns the house known as Mendips in Woolton, Liverpool, carried out the survey on the 100ft-long (30m) garden. A wasp beetle, which mimics wasps, three species of ladybird, as well as wildflowers, frogs and wood mouse were among the discoveries. Lennon lived at the house from the age of five to 23. Ecologist Peter Brash, who carried out the survey, said: “This wildlife survey at Mendips uncovered a garden which has been undisturbed for years with lots of nearby green spaces including Strawberry Fields, creating ideal corridors for wildlife.

Strawberry Fields
Strawberry Fields

We can only speculate on the wildlife that would have occupied the garden in the 1950s when John Lennon lived with his aunt and uncle. But it’s clear from the lush green surroundings of the Woolton area of Liverpool that bird song and butterflies would have been an everyday part of his life.”

The survey team turned up wildflowers including lesser trefoil and common cat’s ear in the lawn, which Lennon used to mow to get his five shillings pocket money. Birds seen or heard in the garden included wrens, swifts, goldfinches, swallows, housemartins and dunnock. The Trust’s biological survey team examined the wildlife in the garden of Mendips as part of its work surveying species and habitats of National Trust properties.

Early Beatles songs were written at Mendips. The three-bedroom semi-detached house was bought by Yoko Ono in 2002 and donated to the National Trust. The Trust restored it to how it would have looked when it was Lennon’s home and opened it to the public in 2003.

With my daughter, I joined the NT guided tour of Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road, Paul McCartney’s childhood home, last summer.


It’s a tremendous experience  – due not only to the superb NT restoration of the properties, but also to the enthusiasm of the two guides: contrasting personalities, but both extremely knowledgeable.  Mendips was John Lennon’s boyhood home from 1948 – 1963.   John’s Aunt Mimi and her husband George were a childless couple and so they were very happy to raise John here (from the age of almost 6) as their own. Menlove Avenue is a wide and busy boulevard scattered with trees and parks with simple semi-detached houses lining both sides of the suburban road.

20 Forthlin Road was built by the council in the 1920s and has been in the ownership of the National Trust since 1995. It  is perhaps one of the most important houses in the history of popular music, since the Beatles composed and rehearsed some of their earliest songs there. It was also the birthplace of the group The Scaffold, of which Michael McCartney was a member.

Forthlin Road
Forthlin Road with NT guide

It’s authentically furnished as it would have appeared during the 1950s and early 60s and there is a display of family photographs taken by Michael McCartney.




Superlambanana stays

Taro Chiezo with his original

After six months of negotiations Liverpool City Council has agreed a deal to keep the original Superlambanana – or at least a replica of it – in Liverpool. The new sculpture will be made of more durable materials than the 17-foot original and will be licensed to be on public display for the next 80 years. The artist, Taro Chiezo, will oversee the construction of a brand new sculpture which is expected to go on show within the next six months at a location still to be decided. The original sculpture, which arrived in the city in 1998 was limited to a 10-year display licence, and will be handed back to its creator. It was unveiled at the opening of the Tate Gallery Liverpool.  Intended an ironic comment on the dangers of genetic engineering, it was developed with the city specifically in mind as both the banana and lamb were once a common cargo in Liverpool’s docks.

At first the Superlambanana was controversial, but slowly became a popular feature and a recognised symbol of Liverpool – particularly after the hugely successful Gosuperlambananas display of 120 mini lambananas at various locations in the city for 12 weeks in the summer. Each was individually designed by an artist, school or community group and sponsored by businesses or community organisations. They were enormously popular, with residents and tourists following the trail to see them all – and taking an estimated 1,000 snaps of the statues each day.

All but two of the SLBs were located in Liverpool. Lovemedoodle was located at Euston railway station in London, whilst The Highest SuperLambBanana was located on top of Moel Famau in North Wales.

At the end of their ten week run, the mini Superlambananas were auctioned off for the Lord Mayor’s charities, with each having a guide price ranging from £3,000 to £8,000.[18] The first of two auctions was held at St George’s Hall on the 9 September 2008 with 68 Superlambananas up for sale. In total they sold for a combined sum of £550,000 or approximately £7,800 each, well above estimates.

The final salute was a display of most of the superlambananas on St Georges plateau, 8 September 2008.


Capital of Culture: The Transition

Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture came to a close this evening with the Transition celebration at Pier Head where I took these photos.

We arrived to find the Three Graces beautifully illuminated. A film of the year’s highlights was projected onto huge screens, including one on the half-completed Museum of Liverpool. Another film had animation Liver Birds take flight for Vilnius to make the handover whilst the real Liver Birds (!) were illuminated with searchlights.

Then there was a brilliant firework display, accompanied by a stirring mix of Liverpool musical favourites – The Farm’s All Together Now, Here Comes The Sun, Imagine, and so on.

The celebration was staged in front of the Three Graces, where the new canal extension which will link the Leeds-Liverpool canal to the Albert Dock has transformed the waterfront (photo taken on 1 November):

Liverpool’s brilliant year

Here are some facts about the European Capital of Culture 2008 event provided by the Liverpool Culture Company:

  • A total of 7,000 events featuring around 10,000 artists were staged in Merseyside to coincide with the European Capital of Culture year. Highlights included the Turner Prize and La Machine – a 20-tonne mechanical spider created by Francois Delaroziere, which crawled through the city centre.
  • Average hotel room occupancy in Liverpool during 2008 was around 77% – second only in the UK to London.
  • Tate Liverpool saw a 66% increase in visitors throughout the year, with more than one million people passing through the doors.
  • The year was launched on January 11, 2008 with a performance by Ringo Starr and Dave Stewart at the city’s St George’s Hall. Around 600 local people, including guitarists, choirs and schoolchildren and 40 aerial performers, were also part of the show, which ended in a fireworks display.
  • Sir Paul McCartney performed in front of a sell-out 40,000 crowd at Liverpool FC’s Anfield stadium in May along with The Zutons, Kaiser Chiefs and Foo Fighters.
  • Other events in the programme included The Stirling Prize, MTV Europe Music Awards and more than 100 Superlambananas – half-lamb, half-banana sculptures with steel frames made out of fibreglass – located across the city.
  • The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, hailed the year as one of “the most successful” programmes staged by a city.
  • According to market research, 70% of people in Liverpool visited a museum or gallery in 2008. The UK average is 59%.
  • More than 3.5 million people visited Liverpool for the first time, spending  £176 million, with a total of 14 million flocking to the city during the 12 months.
  • The North West Development Agency said the economic benefit of Capital of Culture 2008 status was £800 million, taking into account visitor spend, media value and income from events attributed to Capital of Culture.
  • Conde Nast readers placed Liverpool 3rd in a list of their favourite UK cities.
  • Every child in Liverpool’s schools – around 67,000 youngsters- took part in a cultural activity during 2008.

From YouTube, two Liverpool anthems:

In Liverpool’s footsteps

Well here’s a turn-up for the books: the rest of the country looking to Liverpool as a model!

This article in today’s Guardian reports that today Andy Burnham, Culture Secretary, will announce a plan for there to be a regular British Capital of Culture – with the format drawing on the success of Liverpool in 2008. Actually, by now, it’s not that surprising – not only was 08 a quantitative success (3.5 million first-time visitors last year, generating £176m from tourism alone, plus huge regeneration benefits), but, perhaps more importantly, a qualitative triumph – transforming Liverpool’s image in the UK and around the world.  And living here, the change in how we feel about our city has been palpable.

Andy Burnham told the Guardian:

In Liverpool, something important and significant has happened that has implications for cultural policy in Britain, but more broadly for regeneration, education, skills and the new economy. But more valuable has been its success in regenerating belief, hope and human spirit. It has changed outside perceptions of Liverpool and Liverpool’s perceptions of itself.

In the speech he gave at Liverpool University, Andy Burnham identified five lessons from Liverpool’s year as capital of culture:

Lesson number 1 – A vibrant cultural base has economic benefits – particularly for the visitor economy. Regeneration led by culture and cultural projects can be the most successful and durable – unlocking investment and stimulating a new creative economy. This is why it is important to sustain investment in culture and the arts.

Lesson Number 2 – Placing culture centre stage also has wider indirect benefits – more elusive, but adding quality and value that cannot easily be replicated by other investment. And, crucially, turning perceptions on their head.

Lesson Number 3 – The ability of culture to contribute to the delivery of world-class public services – most particularly education and health – is under-developed in Britain.

Lesson Number 4 – Centres of power in culture and creativity can shift just as quickly as in finance. And creative skills will be more important – not less – in the economy of the future. It is vital to understand the links between a vibrant cultural base, culture and creativity in schools, and the digital economy.

Lesson Number 5 – Investment in a strong cultural base should be maintained – more so, not less, in tough economic times. But more can and should be done to unlock the full value around Britain of the investment the country already makes in it cultural organisations.


Liverpool Capital of Culture success

I’ve just caught up with this article, in the Independent last week, applauding the success of Capital of Culture.

It’s not as if the UK has been awash with good news of late – but before we head towards year’s end with those round-ups of all that went awry in ’08, we shouldn’t forget to celebrate one big success story: Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture.

Recently the Daily Post reported that Liverpool’s tenure as the UK’s European Capital of Culture 2008 has generated an £800m boost to the regional economy.

Another assessment in  the Daily Post stated ‘Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture has been an unprecedented success – and cultural leaders say it’s in the communities where it has had its greatest impact’.

Many expect to see the legacy of Capital of Culture in the new Museum of Liverpool, the new-look Pier Head with its canal link to Leeds, the Kings Dock and the Liverpool One shopping centre. But, in an interview in the Daily Post,  Culture Secretary Andy Burnham sees it in the eyes of the children he met through the Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium (Larc), an experience which proved the power of art and culture to change lives.

In another piece, Samantha Parker looks at the impact Culture Year has had on Merseyside’s communities and what it means for the future.

And in another piece of good news – it looks as though the original Superlambanana is to stay in Liverpool.  The BBC is reporting that Taro Chiezo, the designer, is in town and is likely to sign a deal for it to stay.

P.S. 5 January: It had 7,000 events, involving 10,000 artists and 60 premieres. But was Liverpool’s year of culture a success? Alfred Hickling gives his verdict, Guardian

Capital of Culture: looking back

The Peoples Launch

A look back at events attended in Liverpool during Capital of Culture year, 2008.


  • Wayne Shorter (Phil): Daily Post
  • Turner Prize 2007 (Tate): Tate site
  • Three Sisters on Hope Street (Everyman): Daily Post
  • Busqueda, by James MacMillan & Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – Joanna MacGregor (St Georges Hall): Daily Post review












  • American Piano Music – Joanna MacGregor (Cornerstone Festival): review
  • Stockhausen Memorial Concert (Cornerstone Festival): To mark a year since the passing of Karlheinz Stockhausen, with Joby Burgess (percussion), Sarah Nicolls (piano) and Matthew Fairclough (sound diffusion).
  • Recollections: photographs of Philip Jones Griffiths
  • William Blake: River of Life (Tate): Daily Post

What a Capital year for Liverpool said the Daily Post.