Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2008

A Google of Bloomberg New Contemporaries shows that the Guardian called the 2003 version ‘a depressing welter of gimmickry, infantilism and juvenile ego-flexing’. Indeed, I called the 2006 exhibition a ‘gallery of sighs, where perfect form combines with emptiness and lack of original thought to produce an exhibition of horrific mediocrity’. What is there to add in 2008? Well, not much really, so how about some attempted analysis and a look at some (slightly) highlights alongside (very) lowlights?

The New Contemporaries exhibitions are aimed at showcasing the work of young artists who are at (or just out of) art school, and it has come to Liverpool for every Biennial so far. The overwhelming bulk of the art on display is flawlessly executed, yet emotionally and intellectually unaffecting; nondescript stuff in every form of visual media, seemingly unconnected to human existence itself. On one side, a large canvas filled with blackness, except for a few tiny scrapes of white. On another, a couple of wigs in a box tremble slightly. The overall impact is profoundly depressing. Whose idea of culture is this? What are we looking at here?

Well, to be frank, we are looking at products of art school training. We are looking at explorations of form and technique, with little care for content. We are looking at the work of people who – if they have anything interesting to offer – think they’d best keep it to themselves, or at least out of their art. These artists may still be young, in their mid-to-late twenties, but did they dream of creating stuff like this when they were children? Probably not. Hopefully not. If so, they moved in very rarefied circles.

Of course, there are some exhibits that merit attention. In particular, ‘It happened in the corner’ by littlewhitehead held my interest for a few minutes, starting when I caught a glimpse of what I imagined was a huddle of people around something in – you guessed it – the corner. My first thought was ‘oh, they’ve found something interesting to look at’. My second was ‘hang on, surely there can’t be that many visitors in that area, there’s hardly anyone else here’. My third was ‘oh, it’s a piece of artwork’. So, watched by the CCTV no doubt, I spent some time trying to peer over the heads of the plaster and wax crowd. Even though I’m six foot two, I still had to stand on tippy toes to glimpse…an empty white podium. 'It' is nothing. Oh well, that’s postmodernism for you.

Jason Underhill’s ‘Jessie Lives’ is also intriguing in a vaguely unsettling way. A video shows Jessie talking at the camera about her problematic social life and hopes for ‘new friends’ in a fragile and slightly naïve way. She wants to meet someone who won’t mind standing in the rain with her to catch a glimpse of Robert Smith from The Cure. She’s met the person holding the camera, and they are alone together. What is going to happen, and why am I worried even though I know it’s only acting?

Sitting in the bleak and disintegrating area on ‘the wrong side’ of the road from Liverpool’s former docks, this exhibition is like an alienating invasion. In a sense, it is the perfect metaphor for Capital of Culture and corporate ideas of post-industrial regeneration, sitting there totally divorced from the day-to-day experience of local people’s lives, and the unfolding economic crisis. Do people in the nearby Cains factory make art?

As I said in 2006, it can't go on like this, and surely it won't. I mean it.

There are two more exhibitions in the A Foundation building, including works by seven Korean artists and Manuel Vason.

1995: Liverpool docks dispute begins

On 25th September 1995, the marathon Liverpool docks dispute began when 329 stevedores refused to cross a picket line mounted by eighty former co-workers, who had been sacked by the Torside contractors. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company - who sought to crush any resistance to the casualisation of working conditions - then made the 329 redundant. A two and a half year campaign for reinstatement was initiated, which was isolated and then strangled by the Transport and General Workers Union. The end finally came in February, when the sacked dockers accepted a settlement of £28,000 from MDHC - just £85 per head.

The efforts of the sacked dockers and their relatives attracted both international solidarity and celebrity support (most notably from then Liverpool FC forward Robbie Fowler), and has since been seen as one of the first examples of working class people using the internet in struggle against bosses. It was also notable for the alliances made between sacked dockers and social movements outside of organised labour, such as Reclaim The Streets. In 1999, Liverpool writer Jimmy McGovern dramatised the dispute for television, with Irvine Welsh.

In 2008, an exhibition at the FACT centre showed photos taken during the dispute by Walton-born photographer David Sinclair.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Realms and Realities

John O'Neill and Richard Young
Gostins Gallery, Hanover Street (19th September - 29th November 2008)

The art of John O'Neill always strikes me as being more realistic than real life. He typically takes an everyday situation and spins it a little, so people's feelings and desires leap out at the viewer more than they would on actually seeing them. That's not to say he's a caricaturist - far from it - but he perceives that the folk at the bar might be smiling, but they are actually snarling inside, and so paints them that way.

His Biennial selection on the first floor of the Gostins building fills the cafe with lurid colour, in stark contrast to the tables, chairs, and the walls they hang on. In an important sense, O'Neill world isn't the Gostins world of trendy boutiques and meditation centres. No, it is the heaving city centre streets just around the corner, it is frantic and nightmarish nightlife, it is wherever rotten drunk people become CCTV stars, like Friday Night Fool (above left). In short, it is the Liverpool that hasn't been and won't be packaged for the Capital of Culture dollar.

O'Neill can do calm and tranquil, such as in two of his Sefton Park Palm House pictures. However, it is noticeable that there are no people in these images. This is in stark contrast to visions like the Great White Lie, a horrific collision of holiday and concentration camps, where daytrippers swarm under the ever watchful eye of some Dr Mengele/Oswiecim tourist board figure. Commercialisation and extermination are two sides of the same coin, it seems to suggest. Since the holocaust is so often written off as being an atrocity beyond human understanding, this would be a bold claim to make.

Down the corridor, some unsold paintings by Richard Young (1921-2003) are displayed. These skilled, impressionistic renderings of people, their postures and expressions are well worth viewing, but it is O'Neill who sees further.

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