Liverpool Art Prize 2012
Friday 27th April – Saturday 9th June
Liverpool Art Prize winner Robyn Woolston’s
metaphor for a post-apocalyptic world is contained within a red-bricked
room built by nineteenth century hands, a room that was part of a transport
network crucial to capitalism. Today we are left with the life-threatening
results of this system of despoliation, exploitation, greedy consumerism,
profit and loss. There might be a certificate of excellence on the wall
for “New Uses for Railway Buildings to Metal at Edge Hill a cultural
destination” but we’re still doing capitalism to ourselves.
We’re still doing it though some of us are trying not to.
Silver birch is one of the last trees to lose its foliage in autumn but
the one in Robyn Woolston’s installation won’t experience
spring’s resurrection. A dead silver birch whose brittle branches
are about level with the round window (the natural light is somehow drained
by the colour of the brick and the density of the building’s energy)
stands at the centre of this grim mandala. It has a mulch of white plastic.
On one of the walls hangs a bright white neon sign proclaiming: last
in lower case, contained within unnecessary plastic which creates a reflection
of the word. This is a link with manufacturing; with exploiting consumer
greed; with advertising and its profligate use of materials and with the
coming catastrophe. Last orders, last chance saloon, last tree on the
planet…we are reminded of Eliot’s Waste
Land: “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME”
The artist commissioned the sign but she doesn’t usually use new
materials; the tree from Witherslack Estate, Cumbria, came from a previous
When Ai Weiwei installed a hundred million hand fired and hand painted
ceramic sunflower seeds at Tate Modern the human instinct to walk in them
and handle them was stifled by health and safety considerations which
cordoned them off and rather defeated the object. Here at Edge Hill the
viewer is free to walk on the plastic, feeling its brittle crunch. The
fact that the white plastic underfoot consists of thousands of disposable
plastic knives and forks is interesting on two counts. Firstly it references
the whole notion of eating as consuming: another self-destructive activity
creating increasing numbers of obese people; secondly the so-called disposable
implements are not disposable. Plastic swirls around the oceans of the
world; most of it does not biodegrade. It lingers for centuries, unbalancing
the delicately balanced ecology. The prolific, wasteful product upon which
our capitalist system is based is choking our planet as surely as the
silver birch is stifled by the white plastic that cannot nourish it.
Walking on those brittle yet resilient plastic shards is an uncomfortable
experience, more sharp-shrill than crunching bones and quite high on the
shudder count. If you fell you could injure yourself on the sharp edges,
but it’s compelling. And that is what this installation has over
a painting, a photograph, a film or a sculpture trying to say the same
thing. It is this experiential moment of texture and sound that cuts across
the cerebral activity.
And that is why I have written my review of “last” in the
directness of the present tense.
Robyn Woolston is not sure if the planet will survive: “We put
product and profit before people; we put planet last. It should be the
planet first, then the people who depend on it. We’ve got it wrong.
The feeling that comes to mind with regard to this is Cormac McCarthy’s
book The Road which is post apocalyptic.”
Just as we are feeling depressed a couple comes in. They enjoy the plastic-crunching
as if they are enjoying snow. “The last crunch!” the artist
The show is to close today but is that all she means?
Alan Dunn’s installation does not have the claustrophobic minimalism
created by Robyn Woolston, nor the assault of her poetic directness. Instead
there is diverse provision in his tribute to the human mind’s capacity
to take a complex journey triggered by a single experience, in which a
whole world of memory and detail becomes available.
In his case the Proustian moment was a bus in a tunnel. Alan Dunn put
together the Soundtrack for a Mersey Tunnel
while travelling on the 433 bus every day. The collection of tracks lasts
2 minutes 33 seconds: the length of time it takes to go through the tunnel.
He has also compiled CDs of artists’ works on themes such as revolution,
the number 4, the colour grey, and the Williamson Tunnels. He has recorded
poets in the tunnels when closed and set up a choir of tunnel workers.
The audio experience at the centre of the installation provides an opportunity
for the visitor to hear rare and amazing material, and to take the 433
bus CD away with them. Choosing more or less at random I listened to Alex
Bellos talking about the qualities of the number four, Four
Minute Warning by Null and Void, Three
Cool Chicks by the 5 6 7 8s, the voice of Leadbelly introducing
Grey Goose and a virtuoso guitar performance
by Bo Diddley. But there was so much more and so little time - as Alan
Dunn has said, the projects “take a few years to make an impact.”
Around the audio section there are display cases of related objects including
a fragment from Apollo 8 which was flown round the moon in 1968. There
are three photos of the 433 Arriva bus in the Mersey Tunnel, surrealised
by the large scale of the tunnel, by having no driver or passengers, by
looking shiny like a toy and by being curiously stationary, though some
blurring of the background of the middle photo does reference movement.
There are model buses, a sound track for the Mersey Tunnel, photographs
of a tunnel construction crew, a Mersey Tunnel diagram from the Eagle
comic 1951, a photo of Brecht’s Drip
Music (1959-1962) being performed by a man on step ladders pouring
water into a small tin bath; there’s a detailed examination of the
word revolution, a window sill full of covers from 33rpm vinyl records,
Irina Ratushinskaya’s novel: Grey is
the colour of hope (1989), the August 4th page from a Chinese calendar,
seventeenth century drawings of the moon, Mersey Tunnel post cards, a
CD of alternative ring tones, the Smiths’ This
Charming Man, a tin of grey paint, a sign for the 13th floor…
The whole installation is a mind map representing a phenomenal amount
of painstaking and detailed work: a tribute to the passion of the artist
and to the resourcefulness of the human mind.
So, on the one hand we have an artist inviting us to spend time on a
journey of discovery that will take some time; on the other hand we have
an artist grabbing our arm with a wild-eyed plea to take immediate action
because the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are about to pay a visit.
Are we going to listen to CDs while the planet burns? And this is the
paradox. Alan Dunn has the optimistic view that the human mind is amazing
in its capacity, perhaps indirectly implying that this capacity will include
a creative solution for discouraging the men on horseback.
But will there be time?
Drawing Paper is another interactive
opportunity in which the viewer is encouraged to participate in that most
basic of the arts - drawing. The exhibition is a drawing room with materials
supplied. Here, examples of work are displayed and stimulus material such
as botanical drawings, bark, mirrors, a ram’s skull, crumpled metal,
old binoculars, a box camera, part of a musical instrument with JAPAN
BANJO on it, a pile of books, a model of a male torso, is available. Visitors
are invited to draw something - leave their mark as it were.
Jon Barraclough and Mike Carney have curated and published Drawing
Paper: an occasional free newspaper which features work from 90
local, national and international artists. There have been five issues
since 2010 and copies are available as part of the hospitality. Drawing
Paper honours drawing as a process as well as a product and recognizes
its wide-ranging capacity:
“Drawing is such a basic human expression and yet it has the capacity
to be emotive, descriptive, powerful and highly personal to the creator.
It is like a conversation we can have with the world and with other people
about how to see things and ideas.”
Drawing Sessions is a more recent development achieved with the support
of the artist collective, The Royal Standard, where Jon Barraclough and
Mike Carney are based. People meet to draw in the same space to the stimulus
of music and sound - a method favoured by both artists.
It seems to me that the efforts of Jon Barraclough and Mike Carney to
demystify art and encourage people to use drawing as communication is
laudable, as are their efforts to acknowledge the work and make it freely
accessible to other people through publication. The process is ongoing
and can only be hinted at in such an installation because it is all happening
elsewhere. The publications reveal a very high standard of resourceful
energy, a variety of technique and approach and a wonderful sense of spaciousness.
The size of the newspaper and the absence of clutter enables you to see
the drawing properly.
Tomo, aka James Thompson describes his method as DIY. Poverty has always
caused artists to use materials they had to hand. Picasso painted on cigar
boxes. More recently poverty has been linked with the decision to responsibly
recycle the plethora of waste materials all around. Tomo compares it to
sampling music: using what is there and using the transformative, alchemical
power of imagination and skill to produce a surprise. The mundane is all
around us to be used but there are surprising things beneath the surface
as Breaking Point, with its layered
effect created by fly posters, illustrates. This work uses black ink and
collage to create a sort of Pandora’s Box opened to reveal stylised
jewels whilst colourful kites fly. It’s like an image from a child’s
book, though the use of black is unnerving - a word I keep using in relation
to Tomo’s art. Pink Razor, composed
from ink, emulsion, masonry paint and hair on reclaimed board is another
unnerving piece. It shows a razor, feminized by being pink, a foot with
blood coming from it and blood swirling round a plughole, all depicted
in a comic-book style. Apart from the emotions evoked by the idea of naked
vulnerability and sharp implements, the unnerving thing here is the real
hair round the plughole. Speaking of sharp instruments, in Script:
What Lies Within (2010-2011) the artist uses ink on a reclaimed
Berlin theatre script, incorporating handwriting into type. The script
is in German which gives another dimension and then there is a hooded
figure in black ink with a sharp implement. What reflection is that in
his eyes? How much more dramatically direct the visual image is when compared
with the verbal image of the writing.
These pieces have a macabre feeling of pulp fiction, a surrealist edge
reminiscent of the work of Magritte, who had a passion for popular culture.
We regard the Graffiti artist as a very contemporary and revolutionary
spirit - braving the authorities, accessing dangerous places along railway
lines and up towers and using motifs from popular culture and the slogan-laced
imagery of political power to challenge the status quo. But this artist
also shows stylistic links with the past: such as the traditional wood-cut
with its use of black, its dramatic decorative effects and linear focus.
Death of a Lifter has resonance with
those traditional depictions of martyrdom - the saint stuck with arrows.
He wears a hoodie, which is a contemporary reference, but this is also
a traditional garment from the middle ages.
The Business is in the Bag (2010) is
a witty allusion to the fast food industry. The artist has used ink on
a reclaimed Parisian McDonald’s bag, reappraising it as art with
its own motifs, rendered more novel by the French language. The ironic
comment references the tradition of French cuisine vis
a vis the notion of packaging and advertising tactics taking precedence
The Liverpool Art Prize 2012 is a thought-provoking
exhibition raising big issues, not least the role of the artist. It addresses
the encouragement and survival of the creative spirit in a world that
is ugly with ignorance and greed. Four of the five artists present a celebration
of possibilities, the fifth uses her creativity as a clarion call because
the possibilities are running out.
Comment left by Sandra Gibson on 22nd June, 2012 at 12:00
The Sound of Ideas Forming is the name of Alan Dunn's Exhibition - sorry I omitted it.