Mind the Gap
December 5: Sometimes I can’t believe how stupid I am. As my old primary school teacher Miss Wotherspoon used to say, “Hill, you’re less use than an inch of string.” Mind you, I was only six, and probably trying to stick Lego bricks or Cuisenaire rods up my nostrils, in an early homage to Erwin Wurm’s one minute sculptures.
What happened was this. I was travelling from my brother’s in Longniddry to my sister’s in Bramhall via Waverley Station in Edinburgh. I had an insanely heavy suitcase. Robin and I had worked out in advance where all the lifts were at the various stations and reckoned I could do it. He got me on to the train at Longniddry, but when I went to disembark in Edinburgh the gap between train and platform was wider than usual and I had to swing the case (Delilah, my trusty Samsonite) out on to the platform. It was so heavy it pulled my over, and my right leg shot down between the train and the platform, while I fell on top of my other leg on the ground. I’ll never forget the look of horror on the face of a middle-aged woman who rushed across the platform to help me up. Anyway, I managed to board the Manchester train, although I could barely walk. As it headed south of the border, both my ankles and feet started swelling and I was worried I’d broken something. Not good when you’re on a multi-city lecture tour. But my sister Ann came to the rescue. She met me at the wonderfully named Cheadle Hulme Station and rushed me to the nearby accident and emergency. After three hours of different tests, X-rays, and sitting in various waiting rooms (wonderful nurses and doctors, from all over Europe, working heroically in an overstretched and underfunded system - how will it survive after Brexit?) I was told I had two badly sprained ankles, but would live to see another lecture podium.
When my old friend Jeremy Diggle returned to RMIT University in Melbourne from the 2O14 Sydney Biennale You Imagine What You Desire, I asked him what he’d liked best. I’d been there myself a couple of weeks earlier and knew it to be - like most biennales these days - full of large-scale installations midway between Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and a children’s fun park. Less white cube and more post-industrial factory space.
“John Stezaker’s collages were wonderful,” Jeremy replied immediately. “Fabulous pieces.” I totally agreed, and will forever be grateful to Juliana Enberg for including them in her pick of artists from around the world. Each work was smaller than an album cover, and often made up of only two photographic elements layered together and sourced from black and white publicity portraits for B-movies. Other elements included faded postcards, often with badly tinted colours, of romantic landscapes.
In the middle of December, at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, I had the privilege of seeing a complete exhibition of these works, and plan to return several times before it closes in June. But the even better news is that 19 of the collages have been gifted to the gallery by his dealer Karsten Schubert, and a further three by the artist. So the Whitworth will from now on be the go-to site for the appreciation of this great artist, as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is the nation’s best go-to resource for the study of Surrealism.
And I’ve just noticed in The Guardian’s weekly “guide” that Stezaker has curated a Paul Nash exhibition Winter Sea for York Art Gallery (until 15 April). I’ve been planning to go to the Yorkshire Sculpture Parkto see Alfredo Jaar’s Revolt and Revolutions/The Garden of Good and Evil, so look forward to combining both events.
A tiny black and white woodcut by Paul Nash used to hang outside my bedroom door in Glasgow. It’s one of my earliest memories from the 1950s. It was a wedding present to my parents. It is of an expansive, surreal landscape and had the imaginative power of a mural, even though it was little larger than a postcard. I still have it in my possession. I’ve sometimes thought of blowing it up photographically to, say, 4 metres by 3 metres to see what it would look like. But I suspect like a Morandi painting, or a Stezaker collage, it will always work best at a very small scale. A tiny window into a vast universe. I will leave it just the way it is.
Stezaker, at 68, is young compared to others currently exhibiting. At London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, the 83 year old painter Rose Wylie is now showing huge canvases in her poetically named show of recent work Quack Quack. Some I guessed to be as large as five metres by four, reflecting the life she experienced in London’s wartime blitz in the 1940s – warplanes flying overhead while dogs chase each others’ tales in city parks, not unlike Hyde Park beyond the walls of the gallery.
A few days later, on the train back from Cambridge where I’ve been viewing Annie Cattrell’s astonishing public art sculpture Transformation made up of 18,000 anodised aluminium tiles that ripple in the wind, for the new Anglia Ruskin science building, I’m listening to a podcast of Phillip Adams broadcast from the ABC in Sydney (the world’s best radio program in my humble opinion). The interview is with The New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe who has researched Arthur Sackler’s heavy marketing of opiods, and before that valium, and the huge death toll that has resulted. The Sackler family’s sponsorship of the Serpentine’s second venue, where Rose Wylie is showing, is being questioned by many in the media and the wider public. It must be hard these days to find a company that is not tainted through oil, arms sales, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, real estate, or general third world exploitation. I once sold a large photographic installation from an open competition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery. This was back in 1988 after I’d made my first lecture tour around Australia. I came back via Los Angeles, Phoenix, and New York and tracked down the couple who had bought the piece which was called Faking It, a large cibachrome print full of fake objects and materials, framed inside a formica grid. It turned out the purchasers were called Mr and Mrs Lewis B. Cullman, and they were the billionaire (“richer than God” as one television documentary described them) majority shareholders of the Phillip Morris Company, known for flooding Third World countries with high tar cigarettes. I lunched with Mrs Cullman in a midtown restaurant on the Upper East Side. She was a fine example of what Tom Wolfe referred to in his Bonfire of the Vanities as an X-Ray. I noticed that she didn’t smoke, but she told me they had at last bought the apartment they’d always wanted at 555 Park Avenue, the triple digit name of one of their most famous cigarette brands. When I created my fictitious Museum of Contemporary Ideas a year later (1989), I named its Trump-like billionaire benefactors Alice and Abner “Bucky” Cameron after Lewis B Cullman and his extremely thin wife. I also situated the museum on Park Avenue. The Cameron’s, however, made their fortune through the Cameron Oil fields in Alaska - almost as bad as tobacco.
Lubaina Himid has just won the 2018 Turner Prize. Described by Mark Brown in The Guardian as “the first woman of colour to win and, at 63, is the oldest winner in the prize’s 33-year history after the age restriction introduced in 1991 was lifted this year.” I saw her, and her work, at the opening in Hull a couple of months ago. Hull is nearing the end of its year as UK City of Culture, the reason the Turner Prize has decamped there from London. It now alternates elsewhere every second year, and has already been hosted by Glasgow and Belfast. Tomorrow we should know who the 2021 UK City of Culture will be. Others in the running are Coventry, Paisley, Sunderland, Stoke-on-Trent, and Swansea. Dundee lost out for the even bigger accolade of 2023 European City of Culture, I’m told because of Brexit. However, it does have the new Victoria and Albert Museum outpost in its stunning Darth Vader-like building by Japanese architects Kengo Kuma and Associates. I can’t wait to see its black-slabbed exterior covered in snow. I remember when the Bilbao Guggenheim opened, it doubled its chances of photo-opportunities when it placed Jeff Koons’ Puppy outside the building. Then it tripled them when a rare snowstorm washed a swathe of whiteness across the new building and the giant floral dog.
On the Saturday before Christmas, I catch the train to Birmingham to visit the Ikon Gallery with Charles and Leah Justin. They are over from Melbourne for a conference, combined with gallery visits in London, Belgium, and Tel Aviv. Charles is already hooked on the McMafia TV series that has just hit our screens.
We spend an hour or so in the Ikon, enjoying the Martin Creed sound work in the lift, but are delighted to find the main exhibition is of the work of Thomas Bock, who was born in Birmingham and trained there as an engraver and painter of miniatures. As the room notes describe he was “found guilty of ‘administering concoctions of certain herbs…with the intent to cause miscarriage’. Sentenced to transportation for fourteen years, he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) where he was quickly pressed into service engraving bank notes. An early commission was a number of portraits of captured bushrangers., before and after execution by hanging, including the notorious cannibal Alexander Pierce.” I was only sorry to have missed the papers given in the gallery two weeks earlier by old friends Jane Stewart, Principal Curator at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery who co-organised the exhibition with Ikon, and Trawlwoolway artist Julie Gough. Both star graduates from the Centre for the Arts in Hobart.
Later, we have a huge lunch in a nearby Wagamama restaurant, and discuss the catalogue essay they have commissioned me to write for their next exhibition, Black and White and Red All Over (28 February to 30 May). It is a monochrome show from their private collection that will include works by Stephen Bram, Magda Cebokli, Craig Easton, Shelley Jardine, Nancy Long, Nakamarra, Daniel Von Sturmer, Yioryios, and two dozen others.
On the train back to Manchester a text drops into my phone from my brother Robin in Longniddry: “In other news, I'm currently reading Jonathan Walker's The Blood Tub: a History of the Australian Army at the Battle of Bullecourt where Sandy Watt was injured. Fascinating, but it makes me realise what incredible horrors he must have gone through.”
Sandy Watt was our maternal grandfather. My mother’s maiden name was Watt and that is my middle name. I and my sister Ann only met one of our four grandparents, our maternal grandmother. Robin met none of them, but if anything is even more curious to learn more. Sandy Watt settled in Sydney during the First World War, and my mother was born in Balmain in 1923, where the family by then had a laundry business (and we possibly still own a parcel of land somewhere in that now very wealthy suburb). But none of this may ever have happened at all. We are still trying to piece together the sequence of events. But we do know that Sandy Watt fought as an ANZAC in Northern France. He was hit by shrapnel when fighting in the trenches and assumed to be dead. He was thrown onto a pile of bodies. Some time later, we also know, his best mate saw his arm move and dragged him out. He arrived back, wounded, at Circular Quay on Christmas Day 1917. Fifteen years later, on Saturday 19 March, 1932, Sandy Watt carried our mother across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on his shoulders. I often wonder if they witnessed that moment when Jack Lang, the premier of New South Wales, was about to cut the ribbon and officially open “The Coathanger”, and he was beaten to it when a man in military uniform - Captain Francis de Groot, - appeared on horseback like the Lone Ranger and slashed the ribbon with his sword. De Groot belonged to the New Guard, a rightwing paramilitary organisation opposed to the leftwing policies of the state government. By a strange circularity, our mother died on Christmas Day 2006.
It was just before Christmas 2016, and the stores on Princes Street were offering 3 for 2 on hats, scarves, and gloves. I bought up big. It was going to get very cold. An email from close chums Louise Weaver and Peter Ellis in Melbourne, some time later.
“42 degrees! We stayed in all day as the wind was ferocious (more than 50 bush fires across the state) – cooler now – but can’t open the windows due to the acrid smoke all about the city…” I sent them some cooling photos of the snow and ice we’ve had across the northern islands of Europe in recent weeks, a prelude to the New Year storms in England and Scotland. The first storm, at its height a hurricane, was called Dylan, and blew past as I was travelling to the wonderful island of Arran on the CalMac ferry with my niece Katie. Was this someone in the Met Office who was a fan of Bob Dylan, tipping his hat to the bard’s great song Hurricane, about the racially motivated false trial and imprisonment of middleweight fighter Rubin “Hurricane” Carter? But when I checked the meteorological website found that this year’s alphabetical list of storms had been chosen from 10,000 suggestions sent in by civilians around the country. Fionn, Georgina, Hector, and Iona, will be the monikers of the next four, ending the year with Tali, Victor, and Winifred, if The Donald doesn’t blow us all up before then, in his own imperfect storm.
The ferry is full of excited travellers, heading across the water for tomorrow’s celebration of Hogmanay. It is warm as a sauna inside the bar where Katie and I grab the last two seats. Everyone is taking off their thermal coats and thick pullovers. Outside, on the deck, where I push against the wind for a few minutes, it is dark and icy cold. I can see how you could get blown overboard. I return to the bar and continue reading The Guardian’s regular feature on how a classic rock song was made. In this edition it looks at The Eurythmics Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). Dave Stewart begins by reflecting, “Annie and I went to Australia with the Tourists, but the band broke up and we ended up in a hotel in Wagga Wagga. I had a little black and yellow synthesiser and was making didgeridoo sounds. When Annie started singing along, we thought: “Maybe we could make weird electronic music?” But you have to have a good video, Dave continues. “I wanted to make a commentary on the music business but also make something a bit performance art – weird and dreamlike. So we mocked up a record-company boardroom in a studio in Wardour Street and put a cow in it, to signify reality. There we were: Annie and I lying on a table, and this cow, which was peeing everywhere.”
On the second half of the page Annie reflects, “Because of lines like ‘Some of them want to use you…some of them want to be abused’, people think it’s about sex or S&M, and it’s not about that at all.” And as for the song’s title? “Apparently, it’s the most misheard lyric in British pop. People think I’m singing: ‘Sweet dreams are made of cheese.’”
Annie Lennox was a few years above my sister at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Both played flute. Halfway between then and now I remember – jetlagged after a long flight from Tasmania via Sydney and Bangkok - staying at the Chelsea Arts Club in London. I remarked to the barman that the woman playing snooker (on the table that dominates the main bar, and under which I’ve seen drunken patrons so smashed they crawled on their hands and knees to get to the toilets) looked like Annie Lennox. “It is Annie Lennox,” he replied curtly, leaving “you fool” unsaid, but I still heard it. “She lives just up the road. Prefers the company of artists to musicians.”
Walking to the Glenisle Hotel on Arran just before Hogmanay, the sky growing dark at 4pm, I’m listening to the Pogues on my headphones and staring across the bay to the first flashes of the lighthouse on Holy Isle. Pladda, the first light I worked on is just out of sight. I think of Paul and Katrina Zika from Hobart, about to enjoy their first Hogmanay in Edinburgh with my friends Kate and Michael. Some of us met up a few days ago in the Fruitmarket Gallery at the Jacqueline Donachie exhibition, along with other old Hobart hands Kevin Henderson and Ronnie and Sheena Forbes. The world, and history, sometimes seems a small and very local place, away from the hubris of Donald Trump and the madness of Brexit.
As the moon rises over Holy Isle, Shane MacGowan - soon, incredibly, to turn 60 and be feted in Dublin - is belting out into my cold ears The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, the Pogue’s great anthem for doomed youth, of young ANZACS returning to Australia from Gallipoli:
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity.
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway…
Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne
Next instalment: February1, 2018
Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne
Next instalment: February1, 2018