Friday, August 15, 2014

East of England

Usually when I take some time off, I just go for the R&R option, stay local and then half way through my break think I should go somewhere for a day or two. This year I needed to get away and with a friend being free last weekend in Nottingham, I decided the direction I would head in would be the east. You could even say the far east, given I got as far as Cromer. Along the way stayed in Norwich for three nights, and caught up with an old friend in Cambridge.

Nottingham has always been a favourite city - like Manchester but a bit more compact. Unlike Manchester its independent scene seems more integral to the city. The various alley ways off the Lace Market enable small retailers (including the new bookshop Five Leaves) in the heart of the city. The Northern Quarter used to be a little like this, but is now mostly bars and eateries, not a bad thing, but leaving one to wonder where you might set up an independent bookshop in Manchester with sufficiently low rent and high footfall.  In one of the 2nd hand record shops I ummed and ahhed over "Some Time in New York City" by Lennon, with the 2nd album "live" with Frank Zappa and Neil Young's never-on-CD "Journey Through the Past." Both were a bit expensive (and are rare for a reason, neither are particularly good!)so I stuck with Lennon's posthumous "Milk and Honey" and Siouxsie and the Banshees "Hyeana."

On then to the Nottingham Contemporary, a fantastical futuristic new gallery that looks like its landed in the city from another planet. I'm a great fan of architectural contrasts - far better than "faux" assimilation, or the apologetic modern box. Yet inside the gallery disappointed. We seem to retain a real problem in the UK with historical moderrnism, let alone our more contemporary art, and its something I've seen before at the Sage, in Middlesborough, and even to a lesser degree at the very popular Tate Modern. We've built these new spaces to showcase an art that the British have always been slow to embrace. The current shows in Nottingham seemed to exemplify this. Carol Rama's show, part of a touring retrospective, shows an interesting international artist, with links to Dada and surrealism, and an edginess to the work. Yet the works are presented with little commentary, and even titles and dates of composition are kept separate from the works themselves. We are left with a pretty show, but with little comprehension. The dialogue with Danh Võ's installations in the adjoining gallery seemed tenuous at least. Danh Võ seems emblematic of our problem; an avowedly international artist - Vietnamese born, refugee in Denmark, and now based in Mexico City - his work - a mix of found works (photographs etc.) and installations that pre-date his own mid-70s birthdate they would, I think, be politically resonant in Vietnam or even New York, but here they seemed to exist without context. The gallery space, so exciting from the outside swamped the work, the white walls and open glass windows exposing the two installation pieces, rather than enhancing them. Context isn't the only thing in art, but this felt without context, and the work itself didn't seem strong or individual enough to make the difference. Leaving the space, a little disappointed, I noticed that the art books in the shop were pushed back into one corner, whilst gifts and children's stuff dominated the space. It seemed at one with our uncertainty over the role of contemporary art in a civic space - great building, lovely cafe, but what on earth should we put inside it? A room of Rama's work apologised in advance for having work of a sexual nature in it.

Avoiding rainstorms (mostly) as hurricane Bertha spluttered over the UK, I travelled down to Norwich. Its a lovely journey through ever-flatter countryside, passing through small towns on the way. Norwich is one of my favourite cities, far enough from the bustle of London that it doesn't feel like a commuter town, and at the same time with a lively local independence, showcased in the many little record shops and cafes down St. Benedict's road and elsewhere.

But if I was going to be in the east, I wanted to see the sea, and so headed off to Cromer on Monday for the first time. If you wanted a seaside town out of central casting, Cromer would fit the bill.  A steep seafront that leads down to exemplary beaches, wooden groynes and a pleasant pier (off which children were sat crabbing) bringing back memories of other similar places. I sat watching the sea's undulations; it was a luminous green for much of my time there. Walking up past the town I headed towards an old lighthouse which overlooks the Royal Cromer Golf Course, an expensive links at the top of the headland. If this was my Sebaldian journey, it came without any of the baggage that the misanthropic old German had, and instead brought back warm memories of childhood excursions - England at its best.

Heading back into Norwich to meet a friend, it was great to be in such a different landscape, an England that seemed to hark back, old churches, farms and fields, and every now and then a moderrnist jolt: a solar farm glinting in the sun. I didn't in the end get to see much of Norwich's sites, or (an earlier plan) go to Ely Cathedral - the trip a mix of seeing thnngs and stopping for a rest. I made it out to an earlier exemplary gallery, the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at UEA, here was a fascinating exhibition by John Virtue, a painter who began in the North West, but whose name was new to me. His giant monochromatic seascapes were impressive in every way. Was it that this show resonated with where I had just been, or was it simply more successful art? An accidental find, but a worthwhile one.

My trip east ended in Cambridge, where I slumped with my bags on Parker's Piece watching the world go by before catching up with friends. 

So yesterday saw me heading back to Manchester, seventh train journey in six days, quite a complex itinerary given the idiotic pricing models of Britain's train companies, but at least I only had one short delay. Manchester's trams were looking less reliable as I headed back during rush hour, wanting to get home to then go out again. I was glad I made the effort, as there's an intrigueing book-themed exhibition at Anthony Burgess, around the work of Micheal Butterworth, whose long history intersects with Michael Moorcock, UK Sci-fi, "New Worlds", Savoy books and more. Free to look around, there's also an evening of talks and films a week on Tuesday which is recommended.

As Anthony Burgess Foundation leaps back into life for the autumn, where it will host many events at the literature festival, where its programme is now available - I'll probably do a piece on what I'd recommend later on. Butterworth edits arts journal "Corridor 8" and this home to intrigueing new arts journalism prompts me to remember that the Burgess/Observer arts journalism prize is open to entries for its 3rd year. 

The evening finished at Castlefield Gallery, where as well as linking up this "response" show with Manchester Art Gallery's Ryan Gander exhibition, the zine "Shrieking Violet" celebrated its latest edition and 5th year. Its on sale in the Cornerhouse and Piccadilly Records or online here. My piece on "the secret history of the synthesizer" is included.

So, after a few days being wined and dined by other cities, Manchester did its best to whisper a few sweet nothings in my ear on return. Our relationship will survive a little longer, perhaps, despite the lure of other places!

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