We go round and round in the night and are consumed by fire

Catalogue essay Dr Neil Mulholland

To accompany the group exhibition at Terminal Warehouse, New York, October 2003 & Liverpool Biennial, INDEPENDENTS, Sept 2004

The nocturnal cultural meanderings of the North West of England exasperate and dumbfound cool kids and sleaze-monkeys alike. Doodling within the lines, Lesley Halliwell resurrects 70s children’s favourite the Spirograph. The toy allows Halliwell to create dynamic monochromatic ink drawings within a fixed period of time. Her graceful drawings are the result of endurance feats with rigid masochistic parameters; dazzling ripostes to senseless home work given by a lascivious art teacher. The critical mass of the colour field and time taken to complete a drawing is dictated by the amount of ink in her biro, while form is predominately the outcome of whatever Spirograph she uses. Superficially, the drawings are much in the spirit of self-perpetuating postmodern process painting, yet they lack the slickness normally associated with such work. The paper tears, haemorrhaging ink, imbuing the drawings with a ragged, grungy fracture. They resemble psychedelic tie dies, opening up an apocalyptic reading of postmodern painting raised in popular and counter culture, in historical accident rather than the linearity of dreary (anti)formalism.

Oliver East’s work is also concerned with ridiculous feats of endurance and the testing of arbitrarily imposed limitations. His video concentrates around an attempt to read Hugh Lofting’s novel Voyages of Dr. Doolittle to a herd of cows over a period of twelve months. The cows, initially passive and attentive, gradually grew tired of East’s presence, forcing him to run around in circles to avoid their disgruntled interruptions. East’s introduction of culture fails to impress the cattle. Culture, of course, is always a colonial imposition, just as ‘nature’ is a cultural concept. The herd have always been subjugated by the whims of the human imagination, their primary role reduced to the provision of meat and dairy produce. East’s literary endeavours to emancipate them from this fate through education might be futile, but they do have a point. In the post humanist present, evolution is of our own making a cultural phenomenon akin to art or literature. In light of this, East carries out limited no budget tests upon the restrictions we place upon our productions of the ‘natural world’ and our subsequent relationships with it.

Paul Needham’s miniature twisted coffins have a similarly absurd relationship with our models of the world. The dysfunctional comic book coffins seem to fail as sculptural memento mori since they lack the necessary pathos. At the same time, it’s this deadpan quality that makes them a particularly sharp satire on inevitability of death. Slow History – a lump of coal sculpted into the shape of a tree – accelerates entropic geological time to breakneck speed, deliberately trivialising the passage of time. Trees grow, die and turn into coal, just as people live, die and return physically to the earth. In Needham’s art, the circular path of history is inevitable and unstoppable, but our knowledge of this is both comforting and humorous. Indeed, Slow History demonstrates that, outside human conceptions of time, death isn’t destructive; it is part of a greater cycle of birth, growth and death.

Pat Flynn’s digital inferno Fire tackles the destructiveness of nature from a different angle. Being both ephemeral and unpredictable, fire isn’t a particularly classical sculptural phenomenon. Flynn therefore takes on the task of rendering a pixilated two-dimensional world of computer simulated fire in three-dimensions. The result is an oxymoron, a representation of a representation that nevertheless corresponds readily with our preconceptions of how fire would look and behave in an ideal Platonic universe. This fire is consumed by its own image. Graham Parker’s video also translates the fiery passions of a real-time event into digitalised stasis. The vocoder voice of a drunken female reveller celebrating a football victory in Manchester city centre can be heard over the image of a police helicopter impartially observing a ticker tape parade in New York. From her dialogue we can sense her euphoria, she jumps in the fountain and has drunken sex, but all while the voice synthesiser renders her discourse dispassionate and robotic.
Running counter to Parker’s extraordinarily minimal drollery, Nick Jordan and Dave Griffiths’ music video Roused by My Epilepsy, captures the kaleidoscopic rock the records ramblings of Manchester’s masked musical usurper Lord Mongo. Lord Mongo prowls mad angry in a quarry, adopting various guises and railing his gob against a gyrating void. His universe is as thin as the newspaper from which his masks are constructed; a world that owes as much to the cardboard and sticky tape mise en scene of Doctor Who as it does to William Blake’s interpretation of the parable of the conceited Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. Jordan and Griffiths ape the overlay techniques, gaudy colours and choreography found in early 80s New Wave videos by Kate Bush, Talking Heads and Devo. Directed by the acts themselves, such ticky-tacky videos harboured an intense energy, the result of exploiting the flaws and limitations of what was then new technology. The mega-budget videos shot by contemporary directors such as Hype Williams pale in comparison. Jordan and Griffiths’ lo-fi work reinvigorates video’s dirtiness, its lost sense of adventure. This wronged DIY sensibility is close to David Mackintosh’s sardonic marquetry. Mackintosh, like Jordan and Griffiths, has an incidental psychological approach to practice, working quickly to produce a large number of stream of consciousness drawings. His bleating scrawls are then quickly cut out from wood with a jigsaw, creating panels that could grace Dante’s genocidal dining room. The delirious hatred and camp Hammer Horror effects are heightened by Mackintosh’s fine craftsmanship. Despite being troubled by outpourings of blood having made the parquet flooring slippery, we know we are safe.
Meanwhile, under an iron bridge, Jim Medway’s feline predators kiss inebriated arc-lit sidewalks. Medway’s vision of Manchester echoes that of that great melancholic, Salfordian punk bard John Cooper Clarke, a consummate vernacular witness of bawdy

Northern nightlife:
The rain whips
The promenade
It drips on chips
They turn to lard
I’d send a card if I had a pen
I mustn’t go down to the sea again
A string of pearls
From the bingo bar
For a girl
Who looks like Ringo Starr
She’s mad about married men
I mustn’t go down to the sea again

Medway has a similar talent for satirising the rowdy, boozy sexuality found in the centre of most British cities on a Friday night. He illustrates the grim sconce of Manchester hidden by PR exercises designed to make the city appear modern and cosmopolitan. Of course, the omnipresence of sportswear clad ‘rat boys’, always on the alert for a blag, is as much as myth as any other. By representing council kids and their parents as syrupy cats, Medway accentuates the mythologisation of the lowbrow welfare culture that caricatures post-industrial towns in the North of England. There are as many Manchesters as there are Mancunians. The city is whatever people want it to be; two light ales, stripwood-floored lofts, the gay village, sniffing glue in bus shelters. Medway’s Swan – a can of cigarette lighter fluid painted to resemble an old floral canal barge and thrown into the Rochdale Canal – captures this multiplicity beautifully. The ‘old’ industrial Manchester marketed by the heritage industry is tossed away like a cigarette butt. It slips out of the city centre past the polished steel and glass of converted warehouse apartments. Given the striking cultural parallels, it is apt to ship this melancholic post-industrial canal culture to newly gentrified downtown New York. By reconstructing the work in the Hudson River, Medway drags the al fresco Meatpacking District back to a time before chic condos, boutiques and galleries defined its metrosexual polis. This feedback loop of consumer time similarly enchants Liverpudlian Tom Wood’s forlorn vision of pissed-up Liverpool Bay nightlife in 1980s New Brighton. In downtown New York, his photographs hover in consumer limbo, squatting with the dressed-down spectacle of innumerable retro garage band urchins. Having dominated North Eastern cultural mores, Wood’s intransigent anti-fashion shifts the different gears of other city-states.

Nostalgia for Manchester’s unparalleled pop musical heritage haunts the collaborative art of David Alker and Peter Liddell. The Smiths, New Order and The Fall are recalcitrant predecessors to shake off, casting a long shadow over the city’s culture vultures. The exceptionally diverse and prolific output of Manchester’s premier avant-garde songwriter and anti-fashionista Mark E. Smith represents Manchester’s most indomitable independence of thought. Despite (and because of) international acclaim, hip priest Smith refuses to leave his home town of Prestwich, situated to north of Manchester; and is, to say the least, very sceptical of slick corporate Britain. The lyrics and record sleeves devised by Morrissey for The Smiths represent a particularly nostalgic view of Northern Englishness. Morrissey’s great passion for the vernacular is filtered through 1960s British New Wave films such as Billy Liar and the frozen semblance of Mancunian working class community perpetrated by Britain’s longest running soap opera Coronation Street. Former local miserablists turned into international techno legends; New Order would appear to represent the opposite set of values. Yet, New Order are only superficially modern. Factory Records sleeves designed by Peter Saville in the 1980s drew heavily on modernist graphic design of the 20s and 30s, creating a retro-futurist postmodern style, one that was mixed effortlessly with a concurrent neo-classical revival. New Order themselves remained wedded to the city, investing much of their profits back into ventures such as the Hacienda nightclub. All of these artists are an integral part of the folklore and cultural infrastructure of the city, and can even be found incorporated into displays at the Manchester Art Gallery. Alker and Liddell pay homage to these major artists by painting their record sleeves on fragile English cream crackers, a means of marking their entry into cosy heritage culture while reminding us of their brittle avant-gardism. A rich pop cultural inheritance written on the shaky, transparent foundations is equally a mainstay of Liverpudlian Paul Rooney’s videos. Rooney combines the discourses of the museum audio guide and romantic rockumentary geography to create a hybrid reading of the North West landscape. Rooney weaves a complex narrative web around his subject matter, leaving us feeling that there could be no other way of responding to this environment. His work is a contemporary adaptation of aestheticism; denying the innocent eye by becoming the place it describes. Like Halliwell’s rolling circles inside circles, such reproduction of cultural history is exponential to the rate of consumption. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.

© Dr Neil Mulholland