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Anarchy Lives and Breathes

For months now posters and banners have been appearing all over the city centre to promote the 4th Manchester International Festival which brings artists and performers from around the world together for 3 weeks worth (almost) of exciting, new and original events. I’d hoped to go along to something but feared it might all be a bit expensive and had put off making arrangements. Imagine my joy then when a friend unexpectedly offered me a free ticket. Hurrah! After a few drinks in Albert Square, off we went to the Albert Hall, properly opened for the night to host an incredibly short but powerful performance by the massively popular Maxine Peake (does anyone NOT love her?!). She was here to interpret one of the most radical pieces of poetry written in the English language to date: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy. As you probably know, this was Shelley’s reaction to “the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” – the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where hundreds of peaceful protestors were injured by government troops (Hussars and infantrymen) on horseback, 18 in total being killed.

Manchester town hall: not far from where the Massacre happened

The Albert Hall is usually shut. It’s been in a state of uncertainty for a number of years with the downstairs now and then used as a bar and the chapel upstairs in semi-disrepair, although it’s soon to reopen as a music hall. Repurposed by MIF as a pop-up performance space, this meant that Ms. Peake had an amazing place to orate from, emerging (it seemed out of nowhere) onto the candle-lit vestry where at moments she shook with a nervous adrenaline brought on most surely by the power of the words she was to share. Her tone and manner were those of an imploring, fiery and impassioned prophetess conjuring a vision for all who would listen. For a fleeting moment I wondered if her delivery was a little over the top. She quickly disabused me of that notion, or maybe she just made me forget. Like a muse summoned by Shelley himself she urged and implored us, still at first and then (in the poem’s final and longest movement) with outstretched hands. We (or at least the English) must stand fast against oppression; rise like lions after slumber against the ghastly and bloody pretenses of the corrupt authorities who hide from us their true nature.

peake orates

It’s blurry because she was all spectral and Joan of Arc like, okay?

As she came off stage to walk ghost-like through the crowd, at least half of the audience were left wondering how it could all have gone by so quickly. Ninety-one stanzas in barely over fifteen minutes! Leigh Hunt did not choose to publish this poem until after Shelley’s death, saying that he felt “the public were not yet sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit with which this flaming robe of verse is written”. Whether or not that was his real reason I am not qualified to say but it makes me wonder how much more discerning we are these days? Personally speaking, I vaguely remember reading the poem as an undergrad, and probably even saw an original copy at the Keats-Shelley house over in Rome. But if I’m honest, it’s not one that really struck me. During this performance the poem not only came to life, it transcended its source. It almost felt like we were part of some great historical moment. Quite possibly we would be, if only we could be shaken out of our apathy.

Fans of Maxine can hear her talking about her part in the Festival here.

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Wild and Playful Artistry

Raqib Shaw‘s latest exhibition has brought new life and colour to the Manchester Art Gallery – both inside and out. Having draped their railings with flowers, foliage, and the twisted branches of Willows, the museum invites you inside to find Kashmiri-born/London-based Raqib’s work scattered and displayed in various locations. Vivid, fantastical scenes combine real and fictional creatures within sparkling fairytale landscapes both Indian and European in influence; together these conjure up a mythology that feels familiar – like a childhood memory – and highly original – bold and shocking. Surveying his beautiful (and at times slightly macabre) menagerie you can almost hear the sound of wild animals. Of course it’s always nice to look at the more traditional pieces in the Gallery’s collection, but finding one of Shaw’s pieces next to say, George Stubbs, or Charles-August Mengin, makes for an enjoyably startling contrast.

Although given a vast amount of space in the Patron’s Gallery, I’d say that it’s more stimulating finding Shaw’s works amongst pieces from the Victorian era. Seeing them all at once threatens to generate a certain loss of impact that comes from being over-awed by his use of jewels, gold, and enamel. Similarly, Susie MacMurray‘s Widow – a stunning and meditative dress made using black leather and 100,000 adamantine silver pins – is equally helped by being positioned among pieces dealing with life and death in the 17th century. New observations and ideas arise at these intersections. MacMurray’s dress says something about mortality as flawlessly as any of the masters behind her.

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Something I also really like about the Gallery is the space that is devoted to activities for kids/big kids in the Clore Interactive Gallery. Technical problems aside (sadly many machines were out-of-order when I visited) it’s great to find a play space where you can let your imagination wander and your creative side express itself after soaking up all the “proper” artworks. Of course, participation is a big thing in museums and cultural institutions these days and it’s not always done well. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a pile of hastily gathered crayons and a few “give us your comments” cards; not exactly inspiring! For me, the Manchester Gallery has got it spot on. Somehow they manage to offer a range of activities that are as stimulating for adults as they are for children. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was exclusively adults who were “interacting” with the objects in the Clore room on Sunday! By letting visitors climb into a giant rotating “kaleidoscope”, invent their own “free form” still life compositions, or activate a 3-D spinning model of a painting (Marion Adnams’ Lost Infant), artworks are brought to life in a way that encourages collaboration.

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Raqib Shaw’s exotic monkeys – and the lovely staff who let people wander around taking as many photographs as they like! – demonstrate in quite different ways that going to a gallery is definitely not all about tradition, reverence, and intimidating curation. Creativity is, after all, all about a certain freedom.

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 Serpentine Spring

Emerging, before even the turn of last century, from a handful of immigrant families and some traditional money-making laundrettes, Manchester’s Chinatown has grown to become the third largest in Europe. A half square-mile filled primarily with restaurants, supermarkets, herbalists and accountants, its growth was driven by a population explosion that began in 1984. In 1987, the erection of a beautiful Ming Dynasty Chinese arch (or Paifang) marked the fact that Chinatown and its community were most proudly and definitely here to stay.

Sometime every February then (the exact date changes according to the moon and the sun), various surrounding roads are closed off, everything becomes a great deal more colourful, and celebrations marking the start of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year begin. Food stalls, traditional music, a Dragon and Lion dance, and a 12 minute firework display were among this year’s festivities. The weather wasn’t exactly friendly, meaning that the crowds were a little smaller than hoped – but everybody who made it seemed to be having a great time, particularly the children buying paper dragons and sweets and waving long streamers around in the cold air while the stall holders gleefully shouted out half price promotions or cooked up delicious smelling food.

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According to the Chinese Zodiac, this year is the year of the Snake, the meaning of which varies by gender. According to Mary Bai at CITS:

People born in the year of the Snake often have a good temper and a skill at communicating but say little. They possess gracious morality and great wisdom. They are usually financially secure and do not have to worry about money. They are determined to accomplish their goals [and] hate to fail. Although they look calm on the surface, they are intense and passionate. They have a rich source of inspiration and understand themselves well. They are people of great perception. Women under the sign of the snake do well in housework but are irritable.

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!

Coloured Judgement

Some beautiful colours were on display at Blank Space on Thursday, where Glasgow School of Art trained Liz West’s Chroma explored how objects are collected, grouped, and (always artificially) brought together under particular classificatory systems. For me these themes are naturally fascinating – not just for reasons of Information Science, but as Liz’s exhibition showed, because of the psychological and aesthetic decisions that feed into our perceptions of particular items or item types. Colour is just one way to group things – but if everything is uniformly yellow, or green, does that mean we fail to perceive (or ignore?) just how different those items actually are? Do they become somehow more deeply alike?

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The use of distinct coloured lighting in site-specific installations, spread across multiple rooms, created a mood that was somewhere between children’s play area and nightclub; quite an accomplishment. “Orange Chamber” was a particularly memorable piece; viewers had to crouch down on the carpet and peer through a long narrow slit at a sea of objects (litter? toys? factory products?) brightly lit and then intensified/multiplied by the use of mirrors. Seeing your own partial reflection at the back of the enclosure naturally implicates you and your own collecting/colouring habits! Tucked away at the very end of Hulme Street near the motorway, Blank Space (which, run by Blank Media Collective, opened just last year) “champions emerging artists, writers, musicians and performers by giving them a unique platform to showcase their work”. The slightly scruffy location only makes the friendly chilled-out space inside feel like even more of a gem.

Narrative building blocks

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.

Carefully composed – but mutable

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.

The wind blows through and weeds grow all around…

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.