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Democratic Promenade at the Bluecoat

Democratic Promenade

at the Bluecoat, Liverpool until 27 November 2011

Reviewed by Denis Joe October 2011


Someone in Liverpool’s art sector must be working their way through a list of nouns or adjectives and is ticking them off one by one; counting down to Year Zero. This year the word is ‘Radical’ and as part of Liverpool City Of Radicals 2011, the Bluecoat’s artistic director, Bryan Biggs, has overseen this exhibition which looks at how the artists engage with the radical, through their work. The exhibit draws on works from the 20th century onwards.


Admittedly the celebration of Liverpool radicals takes place a century on from three events that happened in the city: the first post-impressionist exhibition of British artists took place at the Bluecoat; the famous Liver building, a radical architectural development, was completed and Liverpool became paralysed by a transport strike, which some say was near to revolution. The work of David Jacques’s work features prominently. His Serif types (2011), that can also be seen as a sort of Sopas de letras, dominates the publicity.


For the exhibition a new commission is a film of his Irlam House Bequest (If you cannot get to the exhibit you can watch the film here). Jacques poses some interesting questions in his work, especially about myths: the creation and the necessity of them. With Irlam House Bequest, like the best mythology, there is a blurring of the lines between fiction and reality; the whole story has a plausibility about it and yet we know it is not real. What is refreshing about Jacques work is that although it is concerned with ideas and propaganda, the work itself lacks any partisanship, but this should not be seen as a lack of commitment. The standard of his work displays a strong willingness to engage with the audience. His lack of ‘message’ allows the viewer to take so much more from it than one would normally expect in a work of art. This is true for all his work, though Irlam House Bequest is, perhaps, his most successful work to date in the execution of that approach.


What is interesting, about Bryan Biggs’s approach to the curating of this exhibition, is that he doesn’t seem to confuse the idea of ‘radical’ with ‘progressive’ and the displays highlight those movements which distanced themselves from the establishment at the time.


Aside from the works by artists, the exhibition also includes examples of the radical propaganda including Defend Your City an anti-ring road poster from the late 1970s by Brian O’Toole. The poster seems to suggest that the Council were bulldozing communities when in fact the communities were those of the predominately Catholic population of the Scotland Road area, considered one of the worst slum areas of Britain at the time (e.g. see Jane Turner’s review of Paul Trevor’s photography).


Smash RobotsOf other interest are the Smash Robots made, in the 1970s, by Ford workers at the Halewood plant. They pay homage to the Robots from the legendary Cadbury’s Smash Potato advertisements. The model robots were made using company resources, by workers, and sold in pubs. The end products are beautiful replicas, some looking better than the actual robots on TV.


In Gallery 2 Rose Vickers draws on the Utopian Socialists such as William Morris for her work. Delicate paper designs using socialist and trade unionist banner styles. Though one has to admire the craftsmanship of the work, the end result is so weak that it makes the sickly Romanticism of William Morris seem positively revolutionary. The blandness of the slogans: “We Make Our Own Future” or “Yesterday Is History, Tomorrow Is A Mystery” ; may sadly, reflect what often passes for profound thinking these days by an increasingly detached political elite.


Also in another section are works from some of the artists, predominately Adrian Henri. There are photos, publicity posters, handwritten poems and paintings. For me Henri was one of those people who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Like John Lennon there are many myths surrounding him and like Lennon he played the buffoon, perhaps as a way of hiding the fact that his talents were mediocre at best. Whilst poets like Brian Patten and Roger McGough got on with the work of being poets and, especially in the case of the former, produced some worthy poetry, you get the impression that if Henri exhibited some of his used toilet paper it would have met with approval.

His influences were the French Symbolist school of poetry and surrealist art and although he attempted to ape the American Beat poets he never quite matched the energy of their writings. He took to T S Elliot’s dictum about writing for one’s tribe, but whereas Elliot’s tribe were the highbrow literati, Henri claimed his homage was to the ordinary people of Liverpool. But rather than produce anything of real value, I feel that the majority of Henri’s work was just spontaneous trash, much of which is on display at this exhibition. I think that Henri was aware of his limitations and whilst he condemned McGough and Patten for appealing to the ‘London scene’, truth is that he would have been exposed as a charlatan had he attempted to move away from the cosiness of the radical sixties Liverpool. That is not to say that Henri’s work does not have a place in this exhibition. Much of the displays of the radical sixties and seventies local movements are amateurish at best, and was carried over to the early eighties, as can be seen in the works of Graham Williams and Brian O’Toole.


Mr DemocracyGallery 3 is given over to an ambitious work by Oliver Walker. Mr Democracy is an installation using 1,000 toy dolls, imported from China, programmed to recite a written constitution for the UK. It is a response to the fact that the UK is one of three countries in the world not to have a written constitution. The constitution was developed in Shanghai by three postgraduate constitutional law students from the East China University of Politics and Law. A brief was set and discussed, and the 3 lawyers were left to draft a new constitution for the UK, through research and broad sampling.


It’s an interesting concept from a number of views. Politically, the question of a constitution is worthless if there is no indication about the future of the monarchy. But still, the fact that art is posing questions that should really be posed within society is a sad reflection on the state of political debate these days. And the work is no doubt meant to stimulate debate. It is also interesting that the production of the material is handed over to China, a country that is leading the West in many areas (though maybe not human rights). I find that the use of mass produced plastic dolls to be a little unsettling. In one sense it seemed to say that we ordinary folk are all the same and, like babies, we put up with whatever is given us and our only protest is to whinge. The whole thing left me feeling that there was some Nietzschean concept of the artist as the saviour of mankind.


The upstairs gallery proved to be one of the best artistic comments on the state of society; one wall is given over to two large prints of worker’s action from 1911. One print showed a demonstration from Bloody Sunday in 1911, whilst another showed workers occupying St. George’s Hall in 1921. In front of another wall is a video installation by Peter Walsh. The film is called Demo but although we can see people demonstrating in the background, the ‘demo’ is really a demonstration of the specs of various digital cameras with Walsh commenting on the merits of each. At over 30 minutes in length it is not an easy piece to watch and even a nerd would perhaps find it boring after ten minutes. But as a comment on how we, as a society, seem to be estranged from political discourse, and our experiences are increasingly through communication technology (and how some even see that technology as the cause of social unrest, as was the case with the Arab Spring/Facebook/Twitter issue), it is a stroke of genius. Whilst political debate these days can hardly raise an eyebrow of interest, it may also be telling us that there are more boring things than politics: a discussion of various developments in visual capturing equipment, for instance. Then, on the other hand, Walsh may just like cameras.


A Crowd of People Stood and StaredOn the a third wall we have an installation by Alan Dunn called A Crowd Of People Stood And Stared. This installation was first seen in the Bluecoat in 1997 for the 30th anniversary of the release of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album. The fictional crowd pays homage to that famous album cover but in the context of this display the work takes on a more profound and disturbing role. Four of the original figures have been replaced by four plinths on which a TV set is placed and a different video is played. As a whole, the work explores the concept of ‘the crowd’ in various situations. What makes the work more sinister is that the figures do not look ahead and have their interest diverted by something only they can see. It is as if we are being told that big issues do not concern us anymore. If the figures were passively standing around the impact would not be so hard-hitting, but they seem to be actively ignoring what is going on in front of them.


If this were a series of debates then I would find much to disagree with. But this is a collection of art works, and art itself can only comment on the world as it sees it. As such Democratic Promenade succeeds in displaying provocative, intelligent and entertaining works. It is a credit to the city that it has produced such talent, from the Halewood workers to David Jacques, but it is also an exhibition that says so much more about contemporary society and, more pertinently, how we reflect upon it.


The Bluecoat has been at the heart of the art world in Liverpool since the early 20th Century. It is a beautiful gallery and is always worth visiting because it manages to exhibit a lot of exciting work. I think that Democratic Promenade will be seen as a milestone in the gallery’s history and a feather in the cap of Bryan Biggs.


Exhibition info: From Friday 30 Sep 2011 to Sunday 27 Nov 2011, 10.00 AM - 6.00 PM. Free, no ticket required.


Democratic Promenade Exhibition Tour. Sat, 08 Oct 2011 2.00 PM - 3.30 PM Tickets: Free, just turn up. Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of the Bluecoat and curator of Democratic Promenade, leads a tour of the exhibition.

Artists' Talk: Alan Dunn and Nina Edge. Thu, 20 Oct 2011 6.00 PM - 7.30 PM Tickets: Free, but ticketed. Two artists in Democratic Promenade discuss responding to critical political and cultural moments in their work.

Artists' Talk: David Jacques and Brigitte Jurack. Wed, 02 Nov 2011 6.00 PM - 7.30 PM Tickets: Free, but ticketed. Two artists in Democratic Promenade discuss their work and interests in history, time and imagined futures/pasts.

Artists' Talk: Pete Clarke and John Davies. Wed, 16 Nov 2011 6.00 PM - 7.30 PM Tickets: Free, but ticketed. Two artists in Democratic Promenade discuss contested public and private space in the city in their work.

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