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.
A lovely day for late October and a lovely day to meet with an old friend from Glasgow (well, Northern Ireland actually, but let’s not split hairs). We first met during our long-ago Undergrad days at Glasgow Uni – which suddenly didn’t seem so very long ago after all. Naturally my being new to the city meant a good excuse to go exploring, so we headed away from the city centre into Salford, and down to the Quay to look around the undeniably beautiful Media City UK complex where the BBC, ITV, Salford University, and various start-up media companies (“Media Village”) will make, or are in the midst of making, new homes. Right now, the BBC make a very 21st-century impression while the ITV “quarter” is still a literal building site – meaning that Simon Cowell and Tracy Barlow grin unconvincingly out from their posters as if to distract us from the fact it’s JCBs behind them rather than sweeping, angular glass and metal.
A little bit like Glasgow’s Pacific Quay (where BBC Scotland and the Armadillo sit) in its aspirations to state-of-the-art waterside glamour and a combination of business, creative industry, and apartments, it’s far grander, much more spacious, and infinitely more interesting to photograph. No matter which direction you look in, you are guaranteed to find a good shot.1 Media City may have “installed enough fibre to stretch from Salford to Sydney” to cater to the “bandwidth-hungry requirements of the media industry”, but it really does feel like a public space; especially with the Lowry Arts Centre and the Imperial War Museum North also on its banks. Everyone can wander around and enjoy the landscaped park, the piazza, and the bridges that cross the river. Near the BBC building, a temporary sound sculpture (or, if you like, “an acoustic wind pavilion”) called “Aeolus” made delicate and almost harmonic sounds in accordance with the movement of gentle winds. The installation captures the music of Salford’s breezes via a combination of strings and amplifying tubes. You can hear it here, at the website of Luke Jarram, the artist who designed it in collaboration with acoustic scientists at Salford University and Southampton University.
Still, the Media City UK complex has not been without controversies. It has brought about a certain (probably inevitable) amount of “upheaval” and some political wrangling both within the BBC, and with the institution’s favourite sparring partner, Westminster. Some question the justification for moving operations all the way up North from London. There has also been criticism about the pretty exorbitant cost to Salford University of moving its media students there. I guess that over time, we will find out if the “vision” can become part of a successful reality. As one overheard passerby, on his way back from Manchester City’s resounding victory over Man U at Old Trafford, commented to a friend: “Just so long as they [the BBC] keep charging us the same license fee”. Sadly, it’s doubtful that Salford University will be able to charge its students the same tuition fees as previously when they undertake studies on the site.
I can’t find anything to criticise about my experience today of the place in terms of its design and use of space. I had a great time looking around. Hopefully it will remain accessible to everyone and not become upmarket to the point of ultra-exclusivity as business gets properly underway.
Well, I hope you’ll agree! p.s. can’t promise any prizes but let me know in the comments if you appreciate the Beatles reference. 😉