Students of architecture and urban planning know all about “reading” buildings – how their design and utility are matters not just of bricks and mortar but of time, space, place and communities. For me, not being schooled in those theories, buildings are anyway a source of fascination. I love to take pictures of whatever notable architecture I stumble across, finding it as interesting to photograph as people. Looking through a lens, you get a sense of what a structure represents at the same time as you interpret it subjectively. A combination of physical, elemental, and human properties affect how a building and its surrounding spaces are created, adapted, imagined, and used; these embed it within real and fictional narratives, which metamorphosise and mutate over time.
There are countless examples in literature of buildings given a (usually symbolic) life of their own – Miss Havisham’s Satis House, Kafka’s Schloß, Henry James’s “Bly”, and (a personal favourite) Castle Dracula, to name a few. Certainly the deeper characters of buildings are most obvious in Gothic literature and in ghost stories, murder mysteries and historical novels, where the locations, often dripping with mediaevalism, are full of trapdoors, tunnels, mirrors, secret passages and crypts: clear metaphors for human behaviours, psychologies, and the mystical. In 1987, Will Eisner, author and illustrator of the first graphic novel, published “The Building”. Evocative black pen and ink drawings accompany a story about the life of a building in New York city, interwoven with the ghostly tales of 4 of its diverse inhabitants. In its foreword he writes:
After many years of living in a big city, one gradually develops a sense of wonder, because so much that happens there is unexplained and seems magical. When I was growing up in the turbulence of city life, it required only a surface alertness in order to deal with the welter of changes and experiences that sped by. There was little time to reflect on the rapid replacement of people and buildings. I took these things for granted. As I grew older and I accumulated memories, I came to feel more keenly about the disappearance of people and landmarks…I felt that, somehow, they had a kind of soul. I know now that these structures, barnacled with laughter and stained by tears, are more than lifeless edifices. It cannot be that having been part of life, they did not somehow absorb the radiation from human interaction. And I wonder what is left behind when a building is torn down.
In The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories , Edward Hollis details the histories of buildings that range from the Notre Dame de Paris and the Berlin Wall to Manchester’s very own Hulme Crescents (where apparently, “the prophecies of the future are fulfilled”). Sadly I can’t check out their London-inspired curves – the crescents, shoddily built, leaky, rife with cockroaches, mice, and crime were torn down in 1992, just 20 years after completion.
You might go down into the depths of a beautiful Roman Catholic or Norman Cathedral and be provided with reams of information about former inhabitants; in these spaces, the sense of history and meaning is palpable. But what about the more modest or easily overlooked spaces that fill so much of our environment, used and then forgotten? Everything we build or leave behind is full of stories and unknown memories.Wandering through the Old Quadrangle at Manchester University I was impressed with the buildings. Back home, I decided to photograph the little hut that sits in the over-grown back-garden. Probably nothing particularly interesting has ever happened in there; but for some reason its presence is one that I like, as I look out my bedroom window.
A six part series of photogravures by Tacita Dean titled Fernsehturm is currently featured in the Whitworth Gallery’s Building on Things exhibition. Originally film stills, they show the changing light and atmosphere of a rotating restaurant located inside Berlin’s famous East-side TV Tower. Shot as the sun set, Dean’s images offer a delicate visual comment on how, even when a regime crumbles, its iconography and monuments may remain to be used in new ways. “As you sit up there at your table…and with your back to the turn of the restaurant, you are no longer static in the present, but moving with the rotation of the earth, backwards into the future”. Focusing on depictions of ruin and regeneration, Building on Things is the main reason I went along to the Whitworth today. However – keeping with the directional theme – their major exhibition at the moment is We Face Forward, part of a Manchester-wide West African art festival, so naturally I took a look at that too. The source for their title is a comment by Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, who wryly reminded the major players of the Cold War that his country faced neither East or West.
Wandering around the galleries, these two exhibitions spill almost into each other. Indeed, Francois-Xavier Gbré’s stunning shots of abandoned, crumbling, or mid-restoration buildings act as something of a bridge between them. Educated at Ecole Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques, Gbré is of French/Ivorian descent, and although trained in fashion and design, his focus here is on identity, architecture and urbanism. Tracks comprises a series of elegantly composed photographs which are imbued with coolly subtle commentaries on the “absurd” ostentation of both French and British colonialism. His locations are not just West African; alongside Mali are ruins in Lyon, Israel and beyond. As he puts it: “Between memory and future, time seems suspended. These silent voids are loaded with a thousand wrongs, impregnated with the living being. I reveal what time has left us, secretly, timidly. Forgotten areas filled with memories, with possibilities, with History.”
Serious points are being made in much of We Face Forward; the ecological and geo-political pressures upon West Africa; the strange gaze of the white man and the harshness of urbanity. Barthélémy Toguo’s long almost scroll-like watercolour, Purification, (113cm x 10m) suggests how slavery, violence, and the denial of nationality affects the bodies and minds of those oppressed in a supposedly “global” world. His figures are half sillhoute, half flayed; powerfully evocative and somehow pulsing with mysteries and life. There is plenty also which is playful, light, and optimistic. Georges Adéagbo’s The Becoming of the Human Being “illuminates and traces relationships between Manchester and Cotonou, via the wider context of the UK, France, America and Africa”. Described as “museological”, archival and archaeological in its layout, this installation is full of strange juxtapositions made within a fantastically careful yet vibrant assemblage of papers, posters, records, political and musical ephemera and poetic jottings on the nature both of destiny and Nicolas Sarkozy. These highly personal artefacts relate both to the artist’s own life and those of friends and relatives; at the same time they say something about broader West African sociocultural and geographic connections. An essay in one of the books on offer in the exhibition’s reading area – Kobena Mercer’s “Black Art and The Burden of Representation” – stimulated further thoughts along these lines.
How much can art reveal about the condition of a whole region? About the lives of millions of people spread across more countries than most of us could name? Does an exhibition curator have some responsibility to make a definitive statement, present a coherent political view, in the works that are chosen? Clearly it is not possible to fix and define any diverse population of people; and creativity will always leave space for the illusory, the momentary, the subjective and the unknowable. Victoria Udondian plays beautifully with these ideas in 6 x 7m of glorious woven textiles. Aso Ikele (1948) is made entirely of second-hand fabric and – despite the title – it was actually created this year. I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I read the little leaflet provided to accompany the piece. Inside, Udondian embeds a fiction of Aso Ikele within a historically plausible narrative, rooting her work in a variety of facts about Nigerian weaving, the patterns of the European clothing trade, German anthropologists; she even cites books on the subject. And as well as playing with notions of provenance, origin and historical fact, Aso Ikele is (you’ll just have to trust me) the warmest and most wonderful smelling artwork that I’ve ever been close to!
Back at Building on Things, and Liverpudlian printmaker Ann Desmet’s Roof Shattered was one of my own favourites. Although not as grand and attention grabbing as her cyclical Babel Flower collages, and not globally focused like the works in We Face Forward, this deceptively simple work manages all the same to say something about cultural renewal and the fragmentation of memory. Made from six pieces of a broken mirror found amidst the ruins of Manchester’s still-to-be-restored Victoria public Baths, Desmet has overlaid each piece with cut outs from one of her linocut prints, giving them a patterned appearance. But, encased within a little glass box, the pieces are destined to never quite be reassembled.
A quick word while there is still time to see it about the fantastic House of Annie Lennox exhibition now on at the Lowry. On loan from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, exhibits include a wall full of gold and silver discs awarded to Annie both for her work with the Eurythmics and her solo releases; a variety of costumes she has worn over the years; beautiful and striking pictures that show how she works with photographers and costume designers to create a playfully bold array of “characters” or personas; and recordings of her never officially released “Butterfly Music” (instrumental), which you can listen to through headphones as you peer into little glass cases containing a selection of personal artefacts. There is also a room where you can sit and enjoy her typically unique music videos, and information about the AIDS-awareness campaigns she has supported ever since hearing Nelson Mandela speak to the press on Robben Island.
Although Annie – one of Scotland and the world’s most successful and respected musicians – did perform at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert (just Google it if you didn’t hear about the Jubilee), going around the gallery was for me a welcome relief from the seemingly exponential growth of Union Jacks and fawning newspaper front pages about England’s beloved Monarch. Still, the BBC made sure that we couldn’t forget about her, with rolling footage displayed on a giant outdoor screen that stands proudly in the centre of what they call their “public realm” at Salford Quays.
Another exhibition on at the Lowry right now is about the man after whom it is named – L.S. Lowry, famous for his “unromantic” and to many critics “amateurish” pictures of industrial Northern scenes, painted between the late 1920s and 1960s. Of course, the Lowry always show something from their permanent collection of his work, but the themes change every so often. This time the focus is on his paintings of figures – both depictions of the “unfortunate” and poor characters who could be glimpsed in areas of Lancashire and Salford at a time when government didn’t offer very much to people struggling to make ends meet, and of important figures in his life such as the mysterious “Ann” (real or fictitious? Nobody can be sure). Lowry is often associated with a certain stark realism, or with an ethic of social reform. Yet he himself said:
“I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me […] Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I made my figures half unreal. Some critics have said that I turned my figures into puppets, as if my aim were to hint at the hard economic necessities that drove them. To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them in the way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision.”
I can’t help but imagine that the Queen and her family must look down from their balcony and also see a mass of half unreal figures. Parts of a vision that centres on their own sense of self-worth and family history rather than on the lives of the people themselves; and somehow when Annie Lennox speaks about her commitment to “good causes” I find it far more compelling than when Kate Middleton does.