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A Kracking Time

Myself and a friend are just back from visiting Krakow, Southern Poland – my first proper trip to Eastern Europe! Well, I have been to Vilnius (in Lithuania) but by post-Cold War definitions that’s actually Northern Europe and to say otherwise would be lazy journalism. Still, my initial impressions were that there is a similarity […]

Burning Bright

For reasons unknown I have never yet visited one of Manchester’s most treasured and beloved tourist attractions – the stunning neo-Gothic John Rylands Library, part of the University of Manchester. Considering how long I’ve been here now, this is a strange omission. Not just because of the library’s ultra-convenient city centre location (it’s on Deansgate) but also because of my life long love of all things library related. On Saturday, prompted by good weather, a visit from my Mum, and the presence of an exhibition called Burning Bright, I finally went along to take a look. Burning Bright (as you might guess) focuses on William Blake – arguably the most versatile and visionary of the English Romantics; and in particular, on his book engravings and etchings.

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I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that to see some of Blake’s work up close is to be truly stunned by not only his craft and his technical prowess, but by the ability of deceptively simple two-dimensional scenes to conjure up a myriad of spiritual, moral, and mystical associations. A version of Edward Young’s popular poem Night Thoughts, containing over 40 specially commissioned watercolours by Blake, is one of the most memorable exhibits. Published in 1797 and a commercial failure, only 26 copies of this first part of the poem were ever produced, making it a truly significant gem in the Rylands collection.

Another exhibition called An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street presented a “re-assembled” imaginative “inventory” of reading material destroyed in a 2007 car bombing in Baghdad’s revered (and still under pressure) literary and cultural centre. Although a thought-provoking and original idea – the brainchild of poet Beau Bosoleil and researcher Sarah Bodman – I felt that a more modern and minimal gallery environment would have allowed the works on display here to shine far more brightly. Somehow, they did not have the power to displace the overwhelming symbolism and the hushed, spiritual atmosphere of the library itself.

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John Rylands is certainly a thing of wonder, regardless of any exhibitions on display. Built in the 1890s and funded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her late husband, it’s actually pretty hard to believe that the building is so modern. With its medieval style and quiet, church-like atmosphere, you imagine it must have been here for far longer. This was of course the architectural fashion of the time but apparently Enriqueta was a rather unconventional woman and actually asked that they tone down some of the psuedo-religious features of the library. Standing at either end of the spacious but nook-filled reading room, Victoria and Albert style statues of the Rylands themselves are just a little bit self aggrandising.

A Successful Screening

A quick post to say thank you to everyone who came along to Friday’s screening of The Officer’s Wife. It was great to see so many people (over 100 we think) in the theatre, and the Q&A afterwards showed how enthusiastic the audience were about both Piotr Uzarowicz’s film and the work of the Kresy-Siberia organisation. All in all it was an educational, moving, and rewarding evening.

The audience had plenty of comments and questions

Some people present had experienced directly the privations and the horror of Siberian deportation. Others, of varying age, nationality and background, were there to learn about a largely overlooked (and deliberately suppressed) part of history which the film explores skillfully and without bias, despite the deeply personal motivations of the director. Interviews with survivors, historians and activists are combined to great effect with voice-over narration, animation, and an evocative soundtrack by Oscar-winning composer Jan Kaczmarek, so impressed with The Officer’s Wife that he agreed on first viewing to provide an original score.

The film’s director outside Manchester Lecture Theatre

Hopefully Trauma film screenings will host similarly worthwhile events in the future. Tomorrow This evening a new season – hosted by Merlyn Taylor – starts. Coincidentally enough it will explore animated films which deal with stories of war and conflict, including Persepolis by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, and Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies. Hope to see you there!

A still from Grave of the Fireflies

The Officer’s Wife

Last week I was contacted by Eva Szegidewicz of the Kresy-Siberia Group Foundation, a charitable organisation devoted to inspiring, promoting and supporting “research, remembrance and recognition of Polish citizens’ struggles in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland (the Kresy) and in Exile during World War 2”. The foundation was looking for a venue to screen an award-winning documentary titled The Officer’s Wifewhich examines the Katyn Forest Massacre of 1940 and its legacy. Around 22,000 Poles were murdered by NKVD agents at Katyn following the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 and the crime was subsequently denied and covered-up (both by Stalin and by his newfound Allied partners in London and Washington, who were aware of Russian culpability but who needed their support in order to defeat the Nazis).

The Officer’s Wife explores individual and collective traumas.

TRAUMA (the film group I help run at MMU) is more than happy to host and raise awareness of this important film which is due to be shown at venues around the UK throughout September. For those of you reading this blog that live in the area, the screening will take place on Friday 21st September at 6pm in the Manchester Lecture Theatre. Everybody is welcome and entry is free. It is hoped now confirmed that we will have a Q&A session with Producer/Director Piotr Uzarowicz afterwards. New Manchester Polish Consul Łukasz Lutostański will also attend and give a short introduction.

If you want to know more about the history and people of Kresy-Siberia, the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum is a fantastic example of how collective efforts and internet technologies can be combined to support, educate and preserve documents, archives and memories which might otherwise be lost, forgotten, or disassembled.

Pleasant pastures

On Saturday I went by train to a little town called Mossley which, being on the Easterly side of Greater Manchester and on the edge of Saddleworth Moor, is almost in Yorkshire. Nestled into the Tame valley at the base of the Pennines, it’s a scenic little place that feels a world away from Manchester city’s urbanity. Well, almost. The sense of English industrial history is vivid, with a handful of “dark Satanic mills” prominent in the immediate landscape and suggesting a somehow ever-encroaching modernity; as well as Mossley’s centrality to the region’s development. Externally, many of the factories (once used for wool and cotton production) appear to be in decent condition. With the passage of time, and with the inevitable evolution of social contexts, meanings, and values, they have even taken on a certain soulfulness. For me, the juxtapositions and the looming brick chimneys make a canal side walk more evocative; for the Romantics and Radicals of the Industrial Revolution, they signified something immediately alarming.

One mill – Woodend – has been redeveloped, serving as an increasingly popular combined space for community groups and artists, who can rent studios there. Nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine ghosts. The locals of a hundred and fifty years ago hurry out through a misty dawn, ready (or not) to play essential parts in the transition to a new English (British, global) economy; with all of its social discontent and its “astronomical prospects“. A few Weavers’ Cottages remain in Mossley, many high up on the town’s steep hills. Higher still sit the remains of a 12th century Norman castle, recently excavated by students from Manchester University.

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As with anywhere, there is no doubt a rough edge to Mossley if you hang around long enough – but on a daytrip, it feels like it’s earned its place as a green and pleasant space for commuters, retirees, and the holidaymakers who pass through by boat, stopping next to the locks to enjoy some good food, some lovely beer gardens, and a friendly atmosphere. Many thanks to my friend Anne, Mossley born and bred, who happily acted as my local tour (and pub) guide! 🙂

Tales of Two Cities

En route to see the new Batman movie, myself and a friend took a slightly circuitous route as part of an effort to remind ourselves that yes, there is an amazing city out there beyond our cosy home in Chorlton – even if it’s not quite so darkly evocative as Gotham. 😉 We stopped to admire some of the old mills, factories and locks between and around Oxford Road and Deansgate, which have mostly now been (or are being) repurposed to become galleries, studios, commercial spaces and flats as part of a continuing redevelopment plan. Visually retaining a sense of social history amidst patchwork modernity, many of the exteriors are as yet unchanged – spiky green weeds protrude from chipped and broken windowpanes amidst beautiful red brickwork covered in flyposters and colourful grafittied chipboard. The names of defunct-factories imprint themselves in giant letters on the area’s memory while underneath, delicate gold might signify the entrance to private apartments and graphic design firms; secure entry only. Even the most compelling of visions can’t escape the contrasts and contexts of transition.

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As for The Dark Knight Rises. Well, aesthetically speaking, Christopher Nolan and his crew have created a predictably excellent atmosphere of electrifying gloom. Performances alternate between strong and muted, keeping us generally interested in a twisting and turning narrative full of politics and references to previous film The Dark Knight. J.G. Levitt as new character John Blake is particularly memorable although I’m not sure Marion Cotillard’s Miranda really works (or shocks) as intended. Now and then, everything threatens to become laborious, almost collapsing (appropriately enough) under a crushingly heavy but unevenly balanced symbolic critique that plays out over nearly 3 hours.

The Batman movies always (and increasingly with Nolan) combine socio-political metanarratives and allegories with moments of kitschly sexy cartoonishness. Here, I think that combination goes wrong, forced towards a conclusion that might be heroic or might be ambivalent and contradictory. Being asked to consider economic injustice; 9/11 and the War on Terror; the trade-off between nuclear weapons and environmental responsibility; the culpability of the stock exchange in financial disaster, AND the effects of torture, false prophecy and violent revolution is a lot for any mainstream movie. Doing so at the same time as we follow the gymnastics, jewel-thieving and repartee of Anne Hathaway’s well-played but confused Catwoman is just a little bit too much. Certainly nothing comes close to the perfectly pitched genius of Heath Ledger’s Joker. All that aside, it’s definitely worth seeing!

Backwards into the future

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.”

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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.