Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Anoushka Athique's Fabric Walk: A Personal Response

Arthur Berry wasn't a great supporter of urban renewal. In his famous lament for the lost pubs of Burslem the artist, playwright and broadcaster  speaks fondly of gaunt, dark  buildings discoloured by years of wet smoke and complains that nothing has been the same since they were knocked down. Travelling though the Potteries today  it's impossible not to share a little of Berry's nostalgia as entire neighbourhoods disappear from the map. Following years of  decline no-one would deny that change is overdue but  regeneration was never going to be painless and this conflict is reflected in an art project currently underway in the city.

Place, Space and Identity was initially conceived as part of the RENEW North Staffordshire programme with the aim of bringing creativity to the area's urban renaissance and extending the opportunity for participation in the arts . In its third phase it is overseeing public art projects in a number of areas designed to confront our industrial heritage and provoke discussion about the future aspirations of the city. One of these areas is Middleport.

Over the past weeks Anoushka Athique has been carrying out repairs to clothing in return for residents memories. Taking these stories as a starting point her intervention into the urban landscape takes the form  of a route wrapped in fabric around the streets and parks of this once thriving community . Before continuing I must declare something of a personal interest here. My parents grew up in Middleport and so did their parents before them so perhaps I might add a few memories of my own as we follow the Fabric Walk.

Like many journeys it begins at a station before continuing  alongside the long closed Railway pub and already I find myself scanning the landscape for the distinctive purple fabric that will guide my next step. Crossing the road I pass another  sadly neglected boozer where, in the early 80s, they served chicken in a basket  and teenage girls drank lager and black. I'm travelling back in time and heading towards the canal.

Following the wrapped tow path I'm reflecting on the role of canals as the arteries of the industrial revolution when a barge approaches causing the fabric to ripple in the swell and I'm reminded how filthy this canal was when I was a child - a foul polluted waterway full of old prams and bikes - and how much better it is today as a site for boating and pleasant strolls.  Change shouldn't  be measured solely on what we lose. We must also take into account what we gain as a result.

Crossing the partially wrapped bridge into Middleport proper  it strikes me how the experience is causing me to look at things differently. I'm no longer simply a stroller I'm attuned to the unexpected, to the psycho-geography, the derive. Once into  familiar surroundings the full impact of  the regeneration programme on the area becomes apparent. Whole streets are boarded up awaiting demolition while many have  disappeared altogether. Following the fabric adorning the railings of the park where my grandmother liked to sit I notice the dilapidated club that was once at the heart of the community. Another derelict drinking den I think to myself. Arthur Berry would not be pleased.

Anoushka Athique says one of the ideas the Fabric Walk explores is that sewing, wrapping and repairing are inherently caring and restorative actions and nowhere is this more apparent than in the lovingly wrapped individual bricks sitting on a demolition site. Equally touching is a nearby  sign bearing the name of a street that no longer exists  bandaged in the now familiar purple fabric. But it isn't only the bricks and mortar I imagine being cared for  as I look around but all  the qualities that once made up this community and which must be preserved if it is to be reborn.

For a moment I think I've reached the end of the walk but something tells me it can't end at this spot. That would be too desolate, too sad, and so I press on and it's not long before I'm back on track heading into an unexpected green space which may once have been scarred by industrial debris but was long ago returned to nature. On this early autumn afternoon there are people walking  dogs and relaxing in the sunshine and the contrast to the blighted streets I've  left behind couldn't be more pronounced.

Amid all this greenery my thoughts turn to renewal and as I head up to the highest point overlooking Middleport and Berry's beloved Burslem I'm reminded once again of his opposition to change. If he'd had his way the Potteries would have remained the dirtiest city on the planet to which, he imagined, tourists would flock to marvel at  the soot and the grime. Well that was never going to happen but - in respect to Berry's generation, to the memory of my grandparents who lived and worked in these streets and to  the younger generation that will repopulate them - we must ensure that this opportunity to build a better future is not wasted.

Retracing my steps along part of the Fabric Walk I'm pleased  I took the time to explore it. There are no Reichstags or Pont-Neufs -although as we have seen there is a partially wrapped canal bridge - but these economies of scale are entirely sympathetic to the environment. What's more it demonstrates that Place, Space and Identity is fulfilling its mandate. Evidence from cities that have undergone similar transformations suggests that the arts have a significant role to play in the process, both in offering creative solutions and developing vibrant communities. Let's hope they are given further opportunities to do so in the Potteries.

To find out more about the Fabric Walk and Place, Space and Identity's other public art projects visit www.placespaceidentity.org/

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ceramic Cities and Victorian Nurseries

It was interesting to read Mike Wolfe's thoughts on Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds in the Sentinel (June29). Writing about  his visit to Tate Modern in January Mike describes the experience of his encounter with the ten tonnes of  crafted clay seeds in the Turbine Hall and his frustration at being prevented from roaming freely through them.

This was because health and safety officers had  raised concerns about the levels of dust generated by visitors tramping over the unglazed seeds. Mike isn't alone in  his disappointment at being unable to experience the work as  Ai Weiwei intended but his proposed solution  is certainly unique. Given that the  seeds were produced in Jingdezhen - the centre of Chinese ceramic production -he thought it would provide an excellent marketing opportunity if a Stoke-on-Trent manufacturer offered to glaze the seeds and thereby solve the problem.

Made in Jingdezhen. Ai Weiwei and his Sunflower Seeds

Despite his best efforts the idea was ignored which is a shame because even if the offer was rejected (as, I suspect, it would've been) it  could only have benefited the city to be associated with such a talked about work of art and its newsworthy creator. It would also have provided a topical introduction to the current exhibition at the Potteries Museum exploring the links between  Jingdezhen and Stoke-on-Trent.

Given their shared industrial heritage it's unsurprising that visitors have long commented on the similarities between the two cities - Mike Wolfe recalls being reminded of Burslem and Longton when he was part of a North Staffs delegation in 2003 - but while the two cities are at the heart of the story it has a fascinating sub-plot. Spanning centuries of ceramic history the show explores a dialogue between east and west driven by trade, fashion, etiquette, social values and technological change.

Picture: Potteries Museum

Alongside many Chinese originals  are examples of early adaptations by local potters which, along with a little 18th century industrial espionage, would eventually lead to the development of bone china at the end of the  century. This breakthrough saw Stoke-on-Trent rival Jingdezhen in terms of quality for the first time which, combined with increased import duties, saw a decline in Chinese wares on the domestic market.

In addition to this story of porcelain and chinamania visitors are also treated to a little Arts and Studio pottery featuring rarely seen examples of 20th century ceramics from figures including Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji. There's also a section looking at cross-currents in contemporary design.

While given the time scale in question the displays may be a little on the modest side a more generous way of looking at it would be to say the exhibits have been carefully chosen to illustrate the narrative. This  aside, for anyone with an interest in ceramic design, the exhibition is certainly worth a visit. It's just a shame it doesn't include a handful of glazed sunflower seeds. Ceramic Cities continues until September 4 and, I'm pleased to say, admission remains free.

Children occupied an ambiguous position in Victorian society. While many endured Dickensian  exploitation childhood was idealized in art and popular culture. This idealization is no more evident than in the illustrated nursery books pioneered by publisher Edmund Evans during the late nineteenth century.

The founding fathers of the  genre were Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott. Utilising new wood block printing techniques Evans was able to mass produce their work at prices which had previously been unaffordable to many families, establishing a style that would remain influential for decades to come. In the case of both Crane and Caldecott this was only one aspect of their practice. Crane in particular enjoyed a varied career as a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement but, nevertheless, took his work for children very seriously.

School's Over. Kate Greenaway. 1879. V&A Images

 Illustrations by both men, along with a smaller number from popular rival Kate Greenaway,  (who in a somewhat unwholesome example of  Victorian ambiguity was encouraged by the brilliant but flawed John Ruskin) can be seen in Magic of the Nursery at Leek’s Nicholson Gallery from July 9 to September 3.

Parts of this post originally appeared in the Arts Scene column of the Sentinel Friday June 24 2011

Monday, 27 June 2011

Heard the one about the Painter and the Pistol?

Hidden Paintings of the West Midlands

Once upon a time we knew what to expect from the BBC. While  entertainment  naturally dominates  the schedule there's always been a place for programmes in which  someone who gives the impression they know what they're talking about leads the viewer on an educational journey. Sadly these programmes are becoming a rarity.

Not content with foisting the lazy opinions of comedian David Mitchell  on the nation on Thursday's Question Time the beeb, last night, gave us an arts programme fronted by another comedian Nick Hancock. Now Mr Hancock seems like a nice chap and we all know he's a passionate Stokie but do these qualities  make him the most suitable person to send in search of the Hidden Paintings of the West Midlands?

From the outset things didn't look good. 'This is a programme about art' our host began before reassuring the viewers - who he must've feared were already deserting in droves - that he's not Brian Sewell. No kidding. What next, Alan Carr on the saucy secrets of the San Marco frescos?  Harry Hill explaining the overlooked slapstick in the paintings of Caravaggio? It's a thought but  let's see where Nick Hancock begins his journey.

Surprise, surprise it's at the Britannia Stadium. Now this may be a Premier League arena with the loudest fans in the land  but, as far as I'm aware, it's never been associated with the arts. The excuse for this barely disguised love-in between Old Nick and Saint Peter, it transpired, was to take a look at what the Stoke City chairman described as a historical record of our industrial heritage. This turned out to be a fairly ordinary landscape and, unfortunately, it set the tone for what was to follow.

After a quick dash down the canal to Middleport it was off to the Black Country to examine some of the earliest images of the industrial workplace. These were dealt with in short shrift before two ex- steelworkers were given the opportunity to reminisce about the conditions they worked in. That they belonged to a completely different era to that being discussed didn't seem to matter and, anyway, steel was quickly dismissed in favour of the motor industry. Sadly Mr Hancock wasn't able to come up with many hidden paintings to illustrate his point (ie that cars were once manufactured in the Midlands) so it was back to the Potteries.

Here things began to get interesting - particularly for  viewers fond of those true crime programmes that occupy the schedules of certain TV networks - and, once again, why wasn't I surprised? The paintings Mr Hancock had come to discuss were by the Edwardian  artist John Curry who had a torrid affair with their subject, Dolly Henry, before shooting her dead and ending his own life in 1914.

Curry, we learn, worked for Minton before securing a place at the Royal College of Art leaving behind a wife in Newcastle-under-Lyme.  He was 'utterly enslaved' by Dolly, we're told, even declaring his love for her with his dying  breath. One suspects  this tragic tale of domestic violence, murder and suicide was always going to be central to the programme but it's a shame it rarely rose above the level of a bad joke the punchline of which was 'He should've stayed at Mintons.'

Not Included. Dudley. JMW Turner. 1832. Lever Gallery

The show closed with a man perched precariously atop a converted camper van painting the post-industrial landscape of the Black Country. Once again we were told it was a historical record - which is more than can be said for the programme itself. Where's Arthur Berry? I wondered. Where's Reginald Haggar? Where indeed is Turner's famous painting of Dudley Castle? OK it's not hidden and it isn't in the West Midlands but surely a painting of a town in the throes of industrial change, once described by  Ruskin as a 'clear expression of what England was to become,' deserved some kind of attention. Sadly not because Hancock, let's not forget, isn't Brian Sewell.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Staffordshire University AMD Show 2011

Show and Tell

Dr Astrid Herhoffer says she’s proud to lead a faculty where talent is nurtured and encouraged to grow. On the evidence of this year’s Arts, Media and Design show she has every right to be as, once again, Staffordshire University demonstrates the potential of art to surprise, inspire and transform lives.

From the outset the surprises come thick and fast provoking a range of responses. On the one hand there’s the restrained beauty of Margit Kiviniemi’s  painterly surfaces that appear to have rusted and the towering grandeur of Heather Silcock’s billboard-sized urban fox.
On the other hand there’s something  sinister about the text that is etched, filed and framed in Stacey Booth’s piece Welcome to the Wonderful World which plays on our willingness to share even the most personal thoughts on social media networks. Similarly unsettling is  Kristy Styles’ domestic chiller, La Maison Etrange,  which bristles with the kind of menace you might expect from David Lynch.

Debbie Mills with her exhibit Innocence. Photo by Horace Wetton

There’s also pathos and humour to be found. Debbie Mills’ childlike den, looking sadly abandoned, invites the viewer to crawl inside and hide from the crowds. Nearby, Rachel Bradley may be in the frame of her video projection but she’s also hiding –in this case masquerading as Ziggy Stardust – in a performance that’s both amusing and oddly affecting.

Elsewhere there are collapsing skyscrapers and chairs that appear to be climbing the walls but there’s much more to this comprehensive exhibition than fine art. With strong showings from across the faculty, ranging from textiles and ceramics to graphic design, I’d urge visitors to set aside the time to take it all in.

Of particular note is the Photography display. Among a hugely impressive offering two to look out for are Matthew Basham and Daisy Harper. Basham’s visceral work displays a streak of Surrealism while Harper’s sumptuous colour images exquisitely capture the fluidity of dance.

For all the departing students represented in the show this is the culmination of an exciting journey and the beginning of a new one. It’s been well documented in recent months that these are difficult times for the arts but lecturers Ian Brown and Sarah Key are confident Staffordshire University is prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. So too, you’re left feeling, are today’s talented graduates.       

The Art, Media and Design Show 2011 continues at Staffordshire University’s College Road campus until June 18.
A Version of this post originally appeared in the Sentinel Monday June 13 2011

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Reprieve for Stoke Museums

But What Does the Future Hold?

Visitors to the Potteries Museum will welcome the news that Stoke-on-Trent City Council has postponed the introduction of admission fees to the home of the Staffordshire Hoard. Since February £7,500 has been received in donations from the public prompting the council to delay the introduction of the controversial charge until after the summer.

Announcing the decision cabinet member for economic development Mark Meredith said "We have been receiving donations, although at a level that is slightly below what we were  hoping for, but we are approaching our busiest time at the museum. We are therefore looking at extending the donation period to see if donations maintain their success with a view to continuing with our preferred option of keeping the museum's admission free."

This is good news as is the report that the campaign to save Etruria Industrial Museum, symbolized by 9 year old Jack Fowler-Evans, has been given more time to explore the possibility of creating a body to run the important heritage site. Speaking on this subject Councillor Meredith said it was "inconceivable" that the museum could close. So what happens next?

Well, as we have heard from the former elected mayor, the council's "preferred option" is to continue with the policy of free admission at the Potteries Museum and he personally considers it "inconceivable"  that we could lose an asset such as Etruria. This will be reassuring to many people but what trust should we place in the words of a man whose political journey led him from the Militant Tendency to the leadership of a bizarre coalition that brought only deadlock when the city needed direction?

Compare his statements from 2007, when announcing ambitious plans for city centre regeneration, with those of last week when the council embarrasingly scaled down the proposals to little more than a 60 minute makeover. Given these facts, along with the flip-flops during  his period in office, it should come as no surprise that questions are already being raised about the long-term feasabilty of the council's commitment.

Martin Tideswell, writing in the Sentinel believes the postponement of admission fees is only delaying the inevitable and goes on to argue that cultural attractions need to market themselves more successfully. While I'm not sure about  his suggestion that the Potteries Museum should celebrate the achievements of the likes of Robbie Williams and Phil 'The Power' Taylor  there is some merit in his thinking given the wealth of heritage in the city that is often overlooked.

These are difficult times and the coming months will prove crucial in determining the city's relationship with its  cultural assets. Yes we need to look at how we promote ourselves and see if this can't be improved but at the same time we must remind those in elected office that the city's heritage belongs to us and must be preserved for youngsters like Jack Fowler-Evans to pass on to the next generation. Are you listening Comrade Meredith?

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Keep The Potteries Museum Free

Say No to Admission Charge

Stoke-on-Trent City Council hopes to raise £73,000 by introducing an admission charge at the city's  museum. Claiming that it can no longer afford the annual cost of keeping the museum open the council intends to scrap the principle that museums should be free for all.

Supporters of the museum engaged in a campaign to raise enough money to avoid the introduction of the charge have collected £5,000 but this will not be enough. Unless more can be raised the council will introduce the £2.50 fee on June 5.

For many people, in what is frequently described as one of the most economically deprived areas in the country, this could prove to be the date the museum ceases to be a significant factor in the cultural life of the city.

This would be a great shame because the museum's collection is part of our heritage. Charging visitors to view the world class display of ceramics - which, let's not forget, was designed and produced by our  ancestors- would be like introducing a levy on the family silver.

The new council, a Labour Council to paraphrase Neil Kinnock, must look into this proposal urgently. Excluding anyone from culture on economic grounds is not only unfair it is unacceptable in a civilised society.

Perhaps they should take note of the words of William Morris who said he didn't want art for a few anymore than he wanted education for a few or freedom for a few.  But then William Morris was a man of principle.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Ceramics by Halima Cassell

Dreams Made Manifest

Anyone bringing ceramics to these parts should be prepared for a friendly reminder that we have more then enough clay beneath our feet. Not that Halima Cassell has anything to fear. The Blackburn artist’s eye catching work ensures she’ll never be accused of carrying the proverbial coals to Newcastle.

As recently noted in Art Daily ceramics is once again making an impact on the international scene as a new generation of artists breathes life into the centuries old material. Having exhibited extensively both in the UK and internationally Pakistan born Cassell’s latest collection, fusing history and tradition with contemporary flair, is her biggest solo show to date.  

Blurring the line between raw material and finished work she prefers to leave her ceramics unglazed allowing the clay to provide the colour while the interaction of light and shadow on the deeply carved surfaces adds a sense of drama to her multi-faceted dish-like forms.

Unsurprisingly the influence of her Asian background is evident throughout but so too is a fascination with the artistic heritage of other cultures ranging from African design to Neo-Gothic architecture. Traces of Modernism in the shape of Hepworth, Modigliani and naturally Brancusi are also apparent.

Perhaps less obvious yet equally interesting are subtle shifts between organically feminine forms and robustly masculine ones. This playfulness appears to be a feature of Cassell’s work - a mixture of the structured and the fugitive - a fusion of parallel planes and flowing lines.

Alongside Cassell’s trademark ceramics are recent pieces in other materials – stone, wood and most notably bronze (and here the ghost of Brancusi looms largest) - pointing towards a diversification of her practice and a growing concern with sculptural form.

This exhibition deserves to be seen in North Staffordshire. The days of large scale pottery manufacturing may be over but with so many of us able to say ‘my grandmother was a ceramic artist’ Cassell is guaranteed to find a discerning audience - just don’t expect any cups and saucers.

Halima Cassell: Dreams Made Manifest continues at Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Museum and Art Gallery until May 8.

A version of this post originally appeared in the gO supplement of the Sentinel 25.03.11