An extraordinary performance of Different Trains in the world’s first railway station

An extraordinary performance of <em>Different Trains</em> in the world’s first railway station

An amazing event took place in Liverpool last night. On a railway station platform a mile from my home the American composer Steve Reich appeared on an outdoor stage to present a world exclusive presentation of his iconic 1988 composition Different Trains, performed for the first time with a film accompaniment created by documentarist Bill Morrison. Continue reading “An extraordinary performance of Different Trains in the world’s first railway station”

Whistler’s falling-out with the shipping magnate from Speke Hall

Whistler’s falling-out with the shipping magnate from Speke Hall

Ruskin famously put down Whistler with his sneer on seeing his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket that the painter was ‘a coxcomb asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.  Whistler promptly sued him for libel.  At about the same time, the tempestuous Whistler, who didn’t suffer fools gladly (and anyone was a fool who failed to understand his work) was having another mighty  difference of opinion with his patron, Frederick Richards Leyland, a Liverpool shipping magnate from Speke Hall who had commissioned Whistler to decorate his dining room. The resulting Peacock Room was rejected by Leyland as a gross act of vandalism, though it is now considered one of Whistler’s greatest works. Continue reading “Whistler’s falling-out with the shipping magnate from Speke Hall”

The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past

The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past


Do the walls of a derelict building hold the memories of those who once inhabited its rooms?  Recently I visited the old Merseyside Trade Union Community and Unemployed Resource Centre building at the top of Hardman Street which has been opened up for a Biennial exhibition. I wasn’t there for the art (least said about it the better) but because the building holds memories of mine, and I wanted to see inside before it is turned into a swanky hotel. Continue reading “The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past”

Waiting for jellyfish on High Park Street

Waiting for jellyfish on High Park Street

Jellyfish 3

Blue light till dawn

When it’s Biennial time in Liverpool, all kinds of oddities turn up in the most unlikely places.  Walking down Park Lane by Liverpool One the other day with my daughter Sarah we encountered an avenue of trees wrapped in what can only be described as knitted woolly trunk-warmers.  They were created by an army of knitters for Yarn Bombing, part of ‘a carnival of the built environment’ to celebrate ‘the hidden creativity of the argybargy in art’. Obvious really.

Tree warmers

Leg-warmers for trees on Park Lane

Then last night the two of us were on High Park Street, a fairly desolate stretch of Liverpool 8, waiting to see a Biennial installation that had been recommended by friends.  Behind the steel shutters rolled down over one of the empty shop-fronts that pepper this once-thriving street, there were jellyfish, and at ten pm the shutters were due to rise to reveal them.

Jellyfish a1

Waiting for jellyfish on High Park Street

We had thought we would be the only ones mad enough to turn out at ten on a Saturday night to look at jellyfish in a derelict shop window.  But when we arrived there was already a small crowd, and more people gathered as we waited for the magic moment.  Clouds had rolled in off the river after another sweltering day, and rain began to fall.  Umbrellas went up. The event was late.  Then, by remote control, the shutters began to roll up, revealing a large fish tank filled with tiny jellyfish peacefully floating in gentle blue water.

Jellyfish a1a

The shutters go up

This installation, by Walter Hugo & Zoniel Burton, is called The Physical Possibility of Inspiring Imagination in the Mind of Somebody Living, though somebody alongside me muttered, ‘Where I come from, we call this an aquarium’.  The blue light and the gently shifting jellyfish were undoubtedly soothing, and drew the kids in close.

Jellyfish 5

A ‘secret, magical window’

The installation is described by the artist duo as a  ‘secret magical window’ and as a ‘psychedelic display, intended to have a discordant presence within the building and to intrigue those in the surrounding area’.  But what I found most intriguing – and what turned out to be the subject of nearly all the photos I took – was not the installation itself, or the jellyfish, but the incongruity of a crowd of people, adults and children, gathered on a darkened street as warm rain fell, staring at an illuminated fish tank.

Jellyfish 4  Jellyfish 2 Jellyfish 1

Gazelli Art House in London is supporting the project and live-streaming a video from within the tank into their gallery. They say, ‘The projection is viewable both from within the gallery but also from the street outside, creating a virtual corridor between the two cities’.  I hope David Cameron drops by.

There are more images of the installation on Gazelli’s website.

High Park Street, Liverpool 8 1982

High Park Street, Liverpool 8, 1982 (photo  by Steve Howe)

Back in the 1970s, we lived in a top-floor flat on Princes Road where, from the back kitchen door that led to the wooden fire escape, we could look out along High Park Street. As now, this was a deprived area, but then the broad street was always bustling. There were shops, pubs, a bakery – and the local social security office.  Now it’s a desert.  The controversial Pathfinder programme depopulated the area, leaving the once-homely Welsh streets tinned-up and decaying (fellow-Liverpool blogger Ronnie Hughes keeps an eye on what’s happening there; his most recent report is here). Most shops have gone, a lonely chippy hangs on, along with one pub – Ringo Starr’s old local, The Empress, a local treasure that draws Beatles aficionados from all over.

At the top of the street is another treasure – the grade II listed High Park Street reservoir. Built in 1845, it’s a rectangular structure half the size of a football pitch, with a tower at one corner. It’s one of the earliest examples of public health engineering in the world, and once held 2 million gallons of water, serving thousands of homes in the area.

High Park Street reservoir

High Park Street reservoir: outside

But since 1997, the reservoir has been redundant. Now it’s being managed by a social enterprise, Dingle 2000, which is looking at uses that could be made of it that would benefit the local community.  Ideas include growing crops on the roof and selling the produce at a farmers’ market inside the building.

Because there is an inside.  The blank external walls conceal a spectacular piece of Victorian workmanship, with high vaulted ceilings, a grid of cast iron columns and a series of brick arches, reminiscent of the Albert Dock constructed just a few years earlier.  At the moment it often serves as a dramatic backdrop for scenes in films or TV dramas.

Liverpool High Park Street reservoir building

High Park Street reservoir: inside

I’ve never been inside the reservoir (it’s sometimes opened up to the public on annual Heritage Days) but next door is another historic building with whose interior I was once familiar – the High Park Social Security office.

High Park St Social Security office 1969

High Park St Social Security office 1969 (

Built in 1865, this used to be Toxteth Town Hall, and it has Grade Two listed status.  Over the years it served as a register office, morgue, police cells, medical dispensary, Coroner’s court – as well as the local DHSS office for social security and unemployment benefit claimants.

Empress pub

Ringo Starr’s local – featured on the cover of his album ‘Sentimental Journey’

We left a small crowd still peering at the jellyfish installation.  On the next block the light from the open chippy door revealed that it was empty. A little further along, the door of Ringo Starr’s old pub, The Empress, had been left open to let in some air on this hot night.  A few regulars stood, illuminated in the warm glow of the interior.  Denizens of their own floating world.

John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation

John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation

‘Difference is what is really exciting about the world’.
– Stuart Hall

I haven’t seen much of the contemporary art on display in the 2012 Liverpool Biennial – somehow the hermetic, jargon-laden language that seems to permeate this year’s jamboree makes me feel like an unwelcome guest at a party strictly for those in the loop.  But one work I have seen is a gem: John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation at the Bluecoat is a three-screen video based on the life, work and thoughts of the Jamaican-born sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall.  Remarkably, for a film about sociology and theoretical approaches to cultural identity, Akomfrah’s presentation manages to be beautiful, lyrical and poetic; it is moving, intellectually stimulating, and pushes the boundaries of documentary film-making.

I loved it so much, I had to go back and see the work several times.  Though Akomfrah’s film unfolds against images and events from the life of one man who arrived on these shores as an immigrant from Jamaica in 1951 and went on to graduate from Oxford University and build a career as an academic and media commentator, immersed in the flood of images on Akomfrah’s three huge screens, there are wider, deeper and more personal resonances: these are the times through which we have all lived these last 60 years.  The carefully selected images of British society in flux and of rebellion and resistance in the decades following the 1950s represent my own history, if not my own experience.

Identities are formed at the unstable point where personal lives meet the narrative of history.  Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation.
– Stuart Hall

In this remarkable, multi-layered film Stuart Hall’s ideas about identity, immigration and selfhood (Hall’s own mellifluous voice captured in archive TV and radio clips) unfold against a kaleidoscope of images (newsreel footage and family photos and film) juxtaposed with readings from William Blake, Dickens, Mervyn Peake and Virginia Woolf, and music – the jazz that Hall loves, and a rich mixture of other tonalities, from the gospel voice of Mahalia Jackson to the ethereal, wordless chanting of Stephan Micus. The result is a brilliant work that combines biography, social and cultural history with a meditation on individual memory and personal identity.

It is dawn, England, across the city in the countryside the light grows. On the soundtrack, lines from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves:

The sun rose. Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore …Now, too, the rising sun came in at the window, touching the red-edged curtain …The wind rose.  The waves drummed on the shore, like turbanned warriors, like turbanned men with poisoned assegais who, whirling their arms on high, advance upon the feeding flocks, the white sheep.

Sunlight slants across the verandah of the Hall family’s house in Jamaica.

‘I lived in the most exquisitely differentiated class system in the world.’

On Desert Island Discs in 2000, Hall tells Sue Lawley how, growing up in a middle-class Jamaican family of mixed Portuguese-Jewish, African and English descent, he absorbed a deep sense of an ambiguous identity from an early age: ‘I was three shades darker than anyone else in my family’. He felt an outsider even in his own home as a child, and was no less alienated as a student:

‘I was too black in my family…an outsider from the time I was born.’

Akomfrah punctuates his film with occasional titles, and one appears now: the promise of beyond.

I was brought up in a lower middle class  family in Jamaica.  I left there  in  the  early  fifties to go and study  in  England.  Until I left, though I suppose 98 per cent of the Jamaican population is either Black or coloured in one way or another, I had never ever heard anybody either call themselves, or  refer to anybody else as ‘Black’. Never. I heard a thousand other words. My grandmother could differentiate about fifteen different shades between  light  brown and dark brown. When I left Jamaica, there was a beauty contest in which the different shades of women were graded according to  different trees, so that there was Miss Mahogany, Miss Walnut, etc.

People think of Jamaica as a simple society. In fact, it had the most complicated colour stratification system in the world. Talk about practical semioticians; anybody in my family could compute and calculate anybody’s social status by grading the particular quality of their hair versus the particular quality of the family they came from and which street they lived in, including physiognomy, shading, etc. You could trade off one characteristic against another. Compared with that, the normal class stratification system is absolute child’s play.

In an interview with Caryl Phillips in 1997, Stuart Hall recalled:

Most of my life had been spent thinking that the apogee of scholarly work and education was to get a scholarship and go to England to be finished off, and then come back, as it were, civilized. A good proportion of my life as a schoolboy was spent in the study of English literature, romantic poets, British history and so on. When I came to England in 1951 I came by boat. I arrived in Bristol and took an early autumn journey from Bristol to Oxford, and I thought, I know this place, I know everything about this place, it’s absolutely completely familiar. It was a homecoming.

In Akomfrah’s film the needle drops on a Miles Davis lp and Hall speaks of going to Oxford University: ‘I had to go through it, but I couldn’t leave it behind’. The improvisation and spontaneity of the jazz unfurling on the soundtrack a contrast to the rigidities of his Caribbean upbringing. At Oxford he played in a jazz band with a saxophonist and a drummer who were Oxford bus drivers and conductors who had migrated from the Caribbean with their families. Someone reads from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone:

‘Suddenly his eyes were wide open.  Where was he? Who was he?  There was no knowing’.

In the same moment that he graduated from Oxford, Stuart Hall’s politics were shaped by the crucial events of 1956 – Suez and Hungary. The ‘idea of democratic socialist anti-imperialist politics was born’.  With figures such as EP Thompson, Ralph Miliband and Raymond Williams he launched the New Left Review.  From 1959 to 1961 he edited the journal whilst working first as a supply teacher in Brixton and then teaching media studies at Chelsea College.  In 1957 he was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

For Akomfrah, this represents ‘the coming of transmutation’: his three screens immerse the viewer in footage of Hungary and Suez, CND and the Aldermaston marches, the Notting Hill race riots and murders, Hall at a demonstration speaking out for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Sometimes a blood red screen punctuates the flow of images.  Words from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone are heard: ‘his gaze wandered for the first time … to the north … and came to rest on a city’.  This was a time when Hall spoke at meetings up and down the country, when he encountered the cities and working class people of northern England for the first time. Lines from Dickens’ Hard Times murmur above the images:

Coketown … was a triumph of fact. … It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it. … It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long …

It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same payments, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

Ellington plays alongside images of the Sharpeville massacre and Hall articulates why he thinks equality was the driving force behind freedom movements:

‘I question the opposition between liberty and equality.  It has been the idea of equality that has mobilized nationalist movements.  When they said ‘we want to be free’ what they meant was ‘I want to be free not to be unequal”

Hall appears in clips from a BBC TV film, England Our England, made in  1964 with Richard Hoggart.  It’s an examination of English provincial working class life and people, and appears in the same year that Hall in effect launched the discipline of media studies with Teaching Film, examining  the new wave of northern British film-making, co-wrote The Popular Arts and was invited by Hoggart to join his newly established Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. Four years later, in another year of cultural and political turning points, Hall will be appointed director of the Centre. Lines from William Blake echo images of the turbulent times:

I heard an Angel singing
When the day was springing 
Mercy Pity Peace
Is the worlds release 
I heard a Devil curse
Over the heath & the furze 
Mercy could be no more 
If there was nobody poor

The question of identity becomes urgent: it’s a question for all young people but is, above all and at this time, one for young blacks. Who they’re going to be? Every child – white or coloured – wants to belong to the world, but what does it signify when the price of belonging is that you want to change the colour of your skin?  Words from Gormenghast again:

‘To the north, south, east or west, turning at will, it was not long before his landmarks fled him. Gone was the outline of his mountainous home. … Gone boyhood. Gone.  It was no more than a memory now.  … From the gold shores to the cold shores:  through lands as harsh as metal he made his way.’

It’s here that Akomfrah arrives at the core of his exploration of Stuart Hall’s geographical passage from the Caribbean shore to the cold and unwelcoming shores of Britain and his metaphysical journey into black identity and the meaning of multiculturalism. Hall had been worrying at the fabric of this question for some time: Akomfrah has earlier offered us a clip from one of Hall’s earliest TV appearances – presenting a documentary on the 20th century experience of Jewish immigrants to Britain – and now we hear his voice in a clip from a BBC radio series, Generation of Strangers.  Akomfrah leads this passage with a screen caption: ‘Roads to freedom’.

Hall had married and begun raising a family. He and his wife had experienced racism in Birmingham and elsewhere, and the experience was leading to him shifting his sense of class identity to one rooted in what, for most English people at the time, was the most tangible badge of his identity – the colour of his skin.

‘Britain is my home, but I’m not English’

Akomfrah has located an evocative clip from Ebony, the 1970s BBC TV magazine show for ethnic minorities, of Stuart Hall making a rousing speech about the new generation of British youngsters who proudly and defiantly identify themselves as black.  This was a crucial moment in the evolution of Hall’s thinking – and his own personal sense of identity, necessitating a shift from a view of his place in society that was class-based:

‘I went home and my mother said ‘I hope they didn’t think you are one of those immigrants’

When I went to England, I wouldn’t have called myself an immigrant either, which  is  what we were  all known as.  It was  not until I went back home in the early 1960s that my mother who, as a good middle-class colored Jamaican woman, hated all Black people, (you know, that is the truth) said to me, “I hope they don’t think you’re an immigrant over there.”

I went back to England and I became what I’d been named. I had been hailed as an immigrant. I had discovered who I was. I started to tell myself the story of my migration. Then Black erupted and people said, ‘Well, you’re from the Caribbean, in the midst of this, identifying with what’s going on, the Black population in England. You’re Black.’ At that very moment, my son, who was two and half, was learning the  colors.  I said  to  him, transmitting the  message  at last,  ‘You’re Black’. And he said, ‘No. I’m brown’. And I said, ‘Wrong referent. Mistaken concreteness, philosophical mistake. I’m not talking about your paintbox, I’m talking about your head’. That is something different.  The question of learning, learning to be Black. Learning to come into an identification.

Something new was being born. Mahalia Jackson hums and sings ‘Christ the Saviour is born’ as a mother gives birth.  Disasters abound: the Torrey Canyon, villages bombed and burning in Vietnam, cities in flames in America. Family snapshots of Hall, his wife and children holidaying by the sea.  In apartheid South Africa, a whites-only beach is invaded by protestors who are brutally manhandled by police.

‘As the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after the other, beneath the surface … ‘

People fleeing repression  flail desperately at the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain. Marchers in Selma, banners unfurled, have their eyes on the prize. In England, Enoch Powell warns of rivers of blood to come. Stuart Hall asserts: ‘We are here to stay‘.

‘It was not until the civil rights and decolonisation movements that I understood my identity.’

Stuart Hall published Policing the Crisis (1978) before being appointed Professor of Sociology at the Open University the following year. One of many more key texts was Questions of Cultural Identity published in 1996.

There’s not much respect for black PhDs from Oxford, which was one of the things I learned. People looked at me as an immigrant, they couldn’t tell me apart from another boy just knocking around. Notting Hill—the New Left Club had a club in Notting Hill that we were involved in. You know, walking with families back to Palace Terrace, protecting them against the Mosleyites. In a sense race made it possible for a connection to be made.

In ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, a lecture published in Culture, Globalization and the World-System (1991) Hall discussed the way in which the Black diasporas who settled here in the  period of post-war migration in the fifties  and sixties transformed British social, economic and political life, and, at the same time, came to a new understanding of their own identities:

In the first  generations, the majority of people had the same illusion that I did:  that I was about to go back home.  That may have been because everybody always asked me: when was I going back home? We did think that we were just going to get back on the boat; we were here for a temporary sojourn. By the seventies, it was perfectly clear that we were not there for a temporary sojourn.  Some people were going  to stay and then the politics of racism really emerged.

Now one  of  the  main reactions  against  the  politics  of  racism  in Britain was what I would call   ‘Identity Politics One’, the first form of identity politics. It had to do with the constitution of some defensive collective identity against the practices of racist society. It had to do with the fact that people were being blocked out of and refused an identity and identification within the majority nation,  having  to find some other roots on which to stand. Because people have to find some ground, some place, some position on which to stand. Blocked out of any access to an English or British identity, people had to try to discover who they were. This is … the crucial moment of the rediscovery or the search for roots. In  the  course  of  the  search  for  roots,  one  discovered  not  only where one came from, one began to speak the language of that which is home in the genuine sense, that other crucial moment which is the recovery  of lost  histories.  The  histories  that  have never  been  told about ourselves that we could not learn in schools, that were not in any books, and that we had to recover.[…]  The identity which that … produced in Britain, as it did elsewhere, was the category Black. […]

Anti-racism in the seventies was only fought and only resisted in the community, in the localities, behind the slogan of a Black politics and the Black experience. In that moment, the enemy was ethnicity. The  enemy had to be what we called ‘multi-culturalism’. Because multi-culturalism was precisely what I called previously ‘the exotic’. The exotica of difference.  Nobody would talk about racism but they were perfectly prepared to  have ‘International Evenings’,  when we would all come and cook our native dishes, sing our own native songs and appear in our  own native  costume.  It is  true  that some  people,  some ethnic minorities in Britain, do have indigenous, very beautiful indigenous forms of dress. I didn’t. I had to rummage in the dressing-up box to find mine. I have been de-racinated for four hundred years. The last thing I am going to  do is  to  dress up in some native Jamaican costume.

In the same speech, Hall elaborated on the how, in his native Jamaica, social distinctions based on class and, as he puts it in  Akomfrah’s film, ‘exquisite’ gradations of skin colour trumped a common Black identity:

But the word “Black” was never uttered. Why? No Black people around? Lots of them, thousands and thousands of them. Black is not a question of pigmentation. The Black I’m talking about is a historical category, a political category, a cultural category. In our language, at certain historical moments, we have to use the signifier. We have to create an equivalence between how people look and what their histories are. Their histories are in the past, inscribed in their skins. But it is not because of their skins that they are Black in their heads. I heard Black for the first time in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, in the wake of the de-colonization and nationalistic struggles.  Black was created as  a political category in a certain historical moment.  It was created  as  a  consequence  of  certain symbolic and ideological struggles. We  said,  ‘You  have  spent  five,  six, seven hundred years elaborating the symbolism through which Black is  a negative  factor.  Now I  don’t want another term.  I want that term, that negative one, that’s the one I want. I want a piece of that action. I want to take it out of the way in which it has been articulated in religious discourse, in ethnographic discourse, in literary discourse, in visual discourse.  I want to pluck it out of its  articulation and re-articulate it in a  new way.”[…]

So identities are ‘never completed, never finished … they are always, as subjectivity itself is, in process. John Akomfrah is himself a migrant of another, younger generation, born in Accra in 1957, one of five children of Ghanaian political activists. He was educated in west London schools before graduating in Sociology from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982.  He co-founded the Black Audio Collective in the same year, with the objective of addressing issues of Black British identity.  His work always takes a deliberately questioning approach to documentary film-making, and that is very apparent here.  His first film was the remarkable Handsworth Songs (1986), which documented the 1985 disturbances in Handsworth and Broadwater Farm, reworking documentary conventions to explore the history of the black experience with an uncompromising intellectual rigour which some found disconcerting.  More recent films include Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), The Nine Muses (2010) and Mnenosyne (2010).

The Unfinished Conversation ends with a simple dedication – ‘for Stuart Hall, in gratitude and respect’ – and with these words from The Waves:

‘The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell … withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.’

I said at the start that Akomfrah’s film represents my own history (white, British), if not my own experience.  Yet, as Hall pointed out in ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, our experiences are in a certain crucial sense, shared.  As he told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs, ‘our fates and histories have been connected irrevocably … we have been a part of this story from the beginning … Empire is something absolutely deep and at the heart of English identity … it’s an inside part of Englishness …we are part of you’:

People like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries; symbolically, we have been there for centuries. I was coming home. I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth. There are thousands of others beside me that are,  you  know,  the  cup  of  tea itself.  Because  they don’t grow  it in Lancashire, you know. Not a  single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. This is the symbolization of English identity – I mean, what does  anybody  in  the  world  know  about  an  English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea?  Where does it come from?  Ceylon – Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English.  There is no English history  without that other history.  The notion that identity has to  do with people that look the same, feel the same, call themselves the same,  is  nonsense.

In his adulatory review for the Telegraph, Mark Hudson wrote that Hall’s story, ‘which might have appeared a rather obscure Caribbean tale, is told with a calm lucidity that makes it feel at once universal and profoundly British’. He noted that:

It is rare that there’s a degree of consensus, let alone unanimity, among critics and gallery-goers attending large contemporary arts events. But at the Liverpool Biennial (continuing until November 25), the main talking point has been The Unfinished Conversation, John Akomfrah’s beautiful and moving film about Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born academic and champion of cultural studies. Among the array of exhibitions and installations dotted about the city, many of them a touch lightweight or just plain opaque, Akomfrah’s film stands out as a work of substance that says important things about what Britain has become over the last half century.

See also

Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds at Tate Modern


We visited Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition, but while we there I decided to take a look at the current installation in the Turbine Hall – Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.  I have my doubts about this work.  It consists of 100 million porcelain, hand-painted sunflower seeds that took an entire factory of workers in the city of Jingdezhen, once famous for its production of imperial porcelain, more than two years to produce.

Most critics have been appreciative of this work.  I certainly appreciate Weiwei’s position as an artist experiencing state restrictions (for example, being prevented from leaving China during the week that Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  And I appreciate the interpretation placed on the exhibit by many art critics, perhaps best expressed by Andrew Graham-Dixon:

Why seeds of stone? A certain grim irony may be intended, a comment on life as it must be lived by most Chinese people. These are seeds that can never open, never grow into the million forms of life their form promises. Each represents a kind of stillborn existence, while it is the  fate of the whole mass of them to be – literally, in the act performed daily by the work’s audience – downtrodden.

But I can’t help visualising the dreadful daily monotony of those two years during which the female workers of that Chinese factory laboured at their hand-painting.  That certainly seems like a grim irony.

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo during the award ceremony in Oslo, December 10, 2010. This was the first time in 74 years the award was not handed over to the winner or a representative, because Liu is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges for urging sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system.


You can read Andrew Graham-Dixon’s review in full here.  An earlier post about Ai Weiwei is here.  And I loved Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light at the 2008 Liverpool Biennial.

Local scenes: the work of Jon Pountain

Local scenes: the work of Jon Pountain

One of the Biennial Independents exhibitions – Landscapes and Views at the Corke Art Gallery on Aigburth Road – features views of Liverpool painted and drawn in a variety of styles, mainly by local artists.  One of these is Jon Pountain, whose painting of the library and  bus shelter on Lodge Lane I encountered last year on a visit to my GP at Princes Park Health Centre.  I think this is the photo he used as the basis of the painting I saw that day: Jon uses a digital camera like a sketch book; the paintings he creates from these images are later rendered in pastel on paper.

Jon is a local artist – he lives on Bentley Road, which probably explains seeing his painting in the Health Centre.  During the last Biennial in 2008 his Lodge Lane Days project displayed reproductions of his paintings of the street in window fronts along Lodge Lane.

I like to think that my work offers a portal into places and moments, a space to step into and view that which is essentially transient.  The subject matter for each piece created comes from transient moments captured along Lodge Lane itself. Although the work  reflects life along Lodge Lane I am not setting out with any intentions to make a documentary of life on Lodge Lane. I hope that each piece will have its own identity and that any interpretation and narrative is up to the imagination of the viewer themselves to decide.

The current exhibition at the Corke Art Gallery includes this painting of the ‘Pivvy’ at the top end of Lodge Lane, as well as the night view above.  There is also a superb night view of Upper Stanhope Street, from his own private collection.  These night views, with their lit windows illuminating night people and the light spilling out into the darkness, have something of Edward Hopper about them.

Jon Pountain, who was shortlisted for the 2006 John Moores Painting Prize, says his work focuses on everyday places, moments and journeys:

I try to recreate the feeling of light and space within each scene, in order to transport the viewer into the painting, as if standing there looking in. Everything is caught momentarily – in transience, waiting for someone to come along and continue the journey. It is important to me that my work is reflective of the present. Because of this, I hope that it will in some way comment on a variety of aspects of our lives and surroundings.

I am currently working on new paintings which all feature bus stops as a main focal point. Acting as a bookmark for a journey the bus stop becomes the one constant, the fixed anchor which is set paradoxically against the flux of people passing by.

Here is a slideshow of Jon’s Lodge Lane images:

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Amongst the other works on show at the Corke Gallery were two ink and wash drawings by Pete Betts an old acquintance, who, by curious coincidence I met again the other day at the allotment after we had lost contact for many years. We knew each other years ago when he and several other friends were teachers at Quarry Bank School where Pete taught art.  Curiously, he once taught Nic Corke, owner of the gallery, as Nic confirmed today.  Often Liverpool feels more like a village than a city!

The Temple of a Thousand Bells

This morning we went to see the installation by Brazilian artist Laura Belém which is the first of this year’s Biennial artworks to be opened to the public.  It’s on display at the Oratory, next to the Anglican cathedral, a Grade I listed building that is only rarely open to the public.

It consists of one thousand suspended glass bells, with sound accompaniment telling of an ancient legend of a temple of a thousand bells that was built on an island.  I have to say, it looks better in the photographs than in reality.  I think the solidity and formality of the surrounding memorials overwhelms the installation.  The bells look plasticky (I am surprised that they are, apparently, made of glass), and it doesn’t look like there really are a thousand bells.  However, if you watch the Vimeo video (link below), you’ll discover they are glass (there’s an interview with the glass-blower, so apologies to him) and it is confirmed that there are a thousand.

The Biennial website explains:

It is a free adaptation of an ancient legend, the story of an island temple whose most remarkable and distinctive feature was its endowment of a thousand bells. Allegedly, the sound of these bells could be heard by travellers crossing the sea even at a great distance from the island. Over the centuries, the island sank into the ocean, and so did the temple and its bells. But the island and its shrine are not completely forgotten, as shown by the unremitting attempts of a sailor to hear again the music of the sunken bells. Although their sound has long vanished into the depths of the ocean and his undertaking seems pointless, the man does not give up trying and obsessively pursues his search.

The artist cannot guarantee that the lost music of these bells (possibly symbolising our continuous and somehow frustrated quest for spirituality) will be heard during the exhibition period. But traces of their sound might find a resonance in the ears and hearts of those who are most able to open themselves to their surroundings and interpret silence.

The Oratory is the former chapel of St James’s Cemetery, the former burial ground which once occupied the rocky hollow on the east side of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral now called St. James Gardens.  This hollow was originally a quarry and provided the stone from which the Town Hall and other 18th century public buildings in the city were constructed. By the 1820s, however, it was exhausted and a proposal was made to adapt it as a cemetery, Liverpool’s only public cemetery at that date being the non-denominational Necropolis at Low Hill, opened in 1825.

Work began on the new St James’s Cemetery in 1826 and the architect John Foster was appointed to design the necessary buildings and to lay out the ground.  The Liverpool Museums website elaborates:

Through his imaginative use of a unique site Foster created a cemetery of real dramatic grandeur. He transformed the east wall of the quarry into a sequence of broad ramps lined with catacombs cut into the rock face; these led down to the burial ground itself, laid out with winding paths and planted with trees. On the high ground to the north west, overlooking this sunken area, Foster built the Oratory (foundation stone laid 1827) and a house for the minister (later demolished to make way for the Cathedral), while at the south west corner he provided a monumental entrance arch and a porter’s lodge. The cemetery was opened on 13 January 1829 but Foster designed one more addition to it, the small circular temple which marks the grave of William Huskisson (1770 – 1830), the Liverpool MP killed at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway.

The purpose of the Oratory was to accommodate funeral services before burials took place in the cemetery, but it was also used as a kind of cenotaph for housing monuments to the dead.

Following the closure of the cemetery in 1936 the Oratory fell into disuse. In 1980 Merseyside County Council assumed responsibility for its care and carried out major repairs. In 1986 it became part of the newly formed National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside. Further important funeral monuments from elsewhere have now been added to the original collection, including some from demolished churches on Merseyside, making the Oratory into a gallery of 19th century sculpture.


‘On The Street’ in Anfield

‘On The Street’ in Anfield

Alerted at the last minute by the Liverpool Art and Culture Blog, I nipped up to Anfield this evening for the last night of  ‘On The Street’, a video installation that’s been on display in a terrace of derelict houses in Anfield for the past week.

On the Street

Empty properties in the heart of the regeneration zone, have been occupied by the giant ‘ghosts’ of those who once lived there. The illusion has been realised through a large-scale video installation created by Brooklyn-based artist Ed Purver with local young people aged 11-17 as part of Liverpool Biennial’s ‘On the Street’. The launch took place on Friday 16 April attended by members of the local community, friends and family of the young people and those supporting the project.

When I arrived at dusk a closing street party and barbecue was just winding down, and local adults, kids and community police officers stood around watching the show. A lot of the kids were recognising themselves or others in the giant videos that flickered in the empty rooms of the derelict houses.

An impressive work, obviously appreciated by the locals.  Glad I didn’t miss it.

Ed Purver’s video sketchbook for the project

Liverpool Stories video: Giants in Anfield

Biennial: Keep Crossing Fingers

I spotted this when I got off the bus at the bottom of Leece Street today.  It turns out to be a Biennial piece – by Otto Karvonen. It says this on the Biennial website:

Working principally outside the gallery, Otto Karvonen makes simple, often humorous interventions into everyday life, designed to prompt us to question the nature of reality and our own beliefs.

Otto Karvonen’s latest work explores precisely this slippage between the universal and the individual in our experience of the city. In a series of signs distributed along the Made Up route, Karvonen crossbreeds personal observation with the formal language of street signage to reveal the cityscape as a series of overlapping and modulated realities.

He’s keenly aware that the experience of a city depends on personal history and identity as much as the bricks and mortar which define the physical limits of a place: “When I’m staying abroad in an unfamiliar place I start to automatically look for resemblances and draw parallels between places, apparently in order to locate my own identity in relation to the new surroundings. We carry our places of importance with us in memory and longing, and always project something of them onto the new places we visit and inhabit.”

This is another, over by the Anglican Cathedral:

Biennial: Turning the Place Over

Biennial: Turning the Place Over

Of all the strange sights that the Biennial offers this must be the strangest.  Richard Wilson’s Turning The Place Over is extraordinary – an 8 metre oval cut out of a derelict building and mounted so that it revolves.

From the Biennial programme notes:

One of Wilson’s incredible temporary works, Turning the Place Over colonises Cross Keys House, Moorfields. It runs in daylight hours, triggered by a light sensor. Co-commissioned by the Liverpool Culture Company and Liverpool Biennial, co-funded by the Northwest Regional Development Agency and The Northern Way, and facilitated by Liverpool Vision, the project was conceived as a stunning trailblazer for Liverpool’s Year as European Capital of Culture 2008, and the jewel in the crown of the Culture Company’s public art programme.

Richard Wilson is one of Britain’s most renowned sculptors. He is internationally celebrated for his interventions in architectural space that draw heavily for their inspiration from the worlds of engineering and construction.

Turning the Place Over consists of an 8 metres diameter ovoid cut from the façade of a building in Liverpool city centre and made to oscillate in three dimensions. The revolving façade rests on a specially designed giant rotator, usually used in the shipping and nuclear industries, and acts as a huge opening and closing ‘window’, offering recurrent glimpses of the interior during its constant cycle during daylight hours.

The construction programme started in February 2007 and involved the careful deconstruction of the façade across three floors of the building, which was then reconstructed and fixed to the enormous pivot installed at the heart of the building. This astonishing feat of engineering is stunning audiences on many levels. Disturbing and disorientating from a distance, from close-up passers-by have a thrilling experience as the building rotates above them.

Wilson has exhibited widely nationally and internationally for the past twenty years and has made major museum exhibitions and public works throughout the world. Wilson has also represented Britain in the Sydney, Sao Paulo and Venice Bienniales and been nominated for the Turner Prize on two occasions. He was one of a select number of artists invited to create a major public work for The Millennium Dome and the only British artist invited to participate in Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2000, the largest contemporary art project ever staged in Japan.

Wilson’s past projects have generated both critical and popular acclaim. His seminal installation 20:50, a sea of reflective sump oil which is permanently installed in the Saatchi Collection, was described as ‘one of the masterpieces of the modern age’ by the art critic Andrew Graham Dixon in the BBC television series The History of British Art.