Friday, March 28, 2008

Small "c" capital of culture

I was in Liverpool yesterday, since I like to go over now and then. It's more of a building site than ever, which surprised me - presumably this year of culture didn't stop the buildings that are going on. But you come out of the grubby-as-ever Lime Street and don't really feel that you're in a city where anything particular is going on, despite the billboards proclaiming it everywhere. Presumably later in the year all of this will change, but for now, a tourist would be disappointed I think. My favourite second hand bookshop, next to the station, is no more - it hung on grimly, longer than I expected - but now its gone, so Liverpool 1 Culture 0 on that count. However, things looked up when I got to the Tate, always a favourite gallery space, where they've had their most prominent rehang in years. Their exhibition of 20th century art is divided into the figurative and abstract over two floors, but in each case the theme weakens as you get towards the present day. There are a few misfirings - I felt the Andy Warhol cow wallpaper diminished the electric chair/chairman Mao prints over it; Warhol always teetering on kitsch, the wallpaper pushing it over - and though I like Mona Hartoum's work, the presence of three or four similar pieces actually detracted from the work - the frisson of seeing her electrified kitchen instruments lessened when you come to her cheesewire cot, or her knife handle wheelchair. The final room was an unmitigated disaster, a hotch-potch of contemporary art from round the world that was certain not abstract - but tended to be a half-baked documentary/artistic commentary on politics - a piece playing an amatuer recording of "Wonderful World" on a loop will probably cause health and safety problems for gallery staff, whilst a Julian Opie installation failed to achieve the optical illusion that it intends. That's the negatives out of the way; but the positives were many. In particular, a room dominated by female surrealists blew me away. I'd not seen any of the pieces before, and they had a freshness, and a cutting edge (politically and personally) that was quite inspiring. Similarly, by taking the theme of "bathers" in the first room, a powerful subset of ideas and representation was followed through a very wide ranging set of artists. On the abstract floor there was more of a concentration on particular movements: abstract expressionism; op art; minimalism but with some well chosen pieces - both well known and new to me. I can't remember the artist, but there was a brilliant silver disc on one wall, where the disc moved creating a powerful optical illusion. The show is full of these kinds of surprises. It's on for a long time, and I'm sure I'll revisit, since it covers much more than is really "doable" in a single go. Avoid reading the commentaries next to the paintings, if you can, since quite a few are absurdly reductive.

Afterwards, I met a friend and we went to see Hoi Polloi's The Doubtful Guest (based on the Edward Gorey cartoon) at the Everyman. A strange, funny show, and I enjoyed it - like the previous show of their's I'd seen, "Floating", it requires you to suspend your disbelief and open your imagination up, so one for imaginative children of all ages, I'd guess; though there's always a little padding in these things, with a sense that for all the dance, music and stagecraft, its been workshopped from something smaller. Yet something of the magic lingers afterwards, and you get a sense that there's been some magical transfer of imagination across the room; though to what extent that comes from Gorey's exquisite source material, and what extent to the players, is a matter for conjecture.

It's a shame the city's retailers don't seem to have embraced the opportunities of the capital of culture; the Waterstones was one of the most poorly-stocked and shabbiest I'd seen - where were the Gorey books for instance there? Most of the building work round the city seems to be leading towards the development of "Liverpool One", a new - guess what? - shopping centre. One hope's this year's legacy for the city is something more than their very own Arndale.

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