October 04, 2019

Leaving Bury

Is there a certain symmetry in the coincidence that my first module of study at Loughborough Art College (back in 1980) was the History of Architecture and the last exhibition I curated in Bury was ‘Architecture Now’? Probably not. Although not widely shared, my health, especially last year, was not so good and so I have decided that now is the time to move on from Bury after 26 years. I will finish at Christmas, but I have no more shows or commissions in the curatorial pipeline, so there you have it, Architecture was my last Bury show. Thanks to Sarah Hardacre and Maurice Shapero for making the last show a pleasure to curate.
I think I can leave Bury satisfied with my achievements. 
Although I came up with the proposal for the Irwell Sculpture Trail in 1993, 

I conceived it in its full form when I arrived in Bury and proceeded to bid for £2.4 million from the National Lottery - at the time the biggest lottery award in the UK. In 25+ years I have worked on more public art commissions than I can remember. The first commission Logarythms (now long gone), by Pauline Holmes and the last was Graham Ibbeson's memorial statue to Victoria Wood unveiled in May this year. In between there have been commissions by Ulrich Rückriem, Lawrence Weiner and Maurizio Nannucci

Ed Allington’s titled vase was threatened with an oppositional 500 signature petition before it was even installed in 1997 and this year, as I leave, the local campaign has been for it to be restored as a much-loved Ramsbottom landmark.

I commissioned Ron Silliman's first (and as far as I know only) public artwork in 2011.

The 2016 installation of Auke de Vries' magnificent space-capturing sculpture at Burrs Country Park is last commission about which I am personally very proud to have facilitated into the world.

I’ve lost count of how many exhibitions I’ve curated. Before ‘Architecture Now’ I curated ‘Foreigners’ of which I was mighty proud. I was also responsible for the first ever exhibition of the Moomins in Britain. I led the refurbishment of Bury Museum, the creation of the Bury creative studios and the creation of the Sculpture Centre in 2014.  
 In 2012, I conceived a different way to organise international exhibition touring and subsequently led a 6-venue ground-breaking tour of the History of British Art across China. Until my health started playing up this visionary stuff and expertise developed in China led to regular presentations on the global conference circuit, getting me speaking gigs around the world from Taipei to Tokyo, Dusseldorf to Beijing, Siena to Chengdu, Seoul to Banya Luka.

I never tired of the commentary from Art Monthly about my other great achievement, the Text Festival: “According to Foucault, the singularities that serve to rupture and renew normative discourse always emerge from the interstices – in other words, where nobody is looking. Almost certainly nobody was looking in the direction of Bury for the emergence of this significant project…”. I originated, programmed and curated Text Festivals in 2005, 2009, 2011, and 2014.
 Through these ground-breaking moments, I have curated more than 30 exhibitions, commissioned numerous new works, gallery based and public art, publications and performances. It was important too for me that I facilitated creative collaborations and friendships connecting vispo, conceptual, sound, digital, sculptural, literary practitioners across the world and I think those relationships may be the long-term legacy of all the work. Funnily enough as the curator, I have rarely been in a position to participate as an artist in the dialogues beyond the Text, so I look forward to the opportunity of being free from my institutional position. The Text Festival also leaves a legacy of the Text Archive, including text works from all over the world, with the subset of one of the biggest collections of works by Bob Grenier. 

Although I've curated loads of festivals across artforms, my main regrets are that I didn't get to create the contemporary music/sound art festival I really wanted to; and I was just about to launch a new concept called 'The Radical Museum', but that coincided with my health packing in. I guess someone could still invite me to develop this somewhere, but the museum world is notoriously timorous so that won't happen. It feels like I've done a lot and I can leave proud of what I achieved; I thought I’d feel more let down about all the other projects I proposed but that were blocked, such as the John Pawson designed Ulrich Rückriem marketmuseum proposal in Radcliffe or a visionary globe-shifting approach to culture opening up of the UK-China Silk Road, but now I’m leaving, it doesn’t matter so much now.
Parallel to all this art malarkey, I wrote 5 books of poetry, Vertigo, 50 Heads (pdf available here), Reykjavik, The Soldier Who Died for Perspective and The End of Poetry. I’ve also exhibited my text works in various galleries from Reykjavik to Melbourne. So, retirement from Bury means an excited return to my personal projects. In the first instance, I will be writing a new theory of Poetics, finish my first poetry collection (Dyer) since 2010; and publish a collaboration with Maurice Shapero investigating poetic and architectural space/form/ideas. There’s also a couple of novels knocking around which won’t write themselves.

February 24, 2019

Architecture Now

Due to illness, it's two years since I curated a show. So it's quite exciting to work on the forthcoming 'Architecture Now' show, opening at 2pm on Saturday 9th March at Bury Sculpture Centre. Originally, I started working on this as a response to the appallingly poor quality of new 'architecture' in Manchester (about which I will write in another blog after the show opens). But I quickly rejected the idea of a polemic show in favour of something more about architectural thinking as art. So the show blurb reads: 
'Throughout history, architecture has been the creative form most closely entwined with symbols of power. In a society where building is mostly profit driven, architects create our living environment and work to accommodate this imperative. Faced with challenges of climate change to failing public housing, the tension between good architecture and bad building has never been starker. Globally there is new energy emerging in community place making and creative green solutions, can architecture respond to the challenge?'
‘Architecture Now’ features installations by Manchester architect Maurice Shapero and feminist printmaker Sarah Hardacre noted for her work investigating class and women’s experience of the built environment.

Exhibition runs 9th March to 29th June.

July 06, 2018

On returning home

Family issues have required me to return to the Isle of Man, where I lived from 1966-1979. It has changed a lot but still has a geography of memory and poetry....

Ersatz Memphis

Your old school only with extensions, of stiff joints, 
Smeared and running down, draining, creaking gulls, salt grime 
sticky, blown dry, of corrosion to that pretender syndrome. 
Newness equals something quintessential like the early eighties - 
ersatz Memphis 
Of a bad idea bankrupt in poor locations, dregs. Sacrificing First 
Nation hate sanded & mouldering to resentment that corporal 
arrogance aspires only to commissioner syndrome. But linger
Nice skies and fresh air and concrete of pebbles and small stones 
cracking and damp 
With salt
   like the Latin for ‘flying buttress’ 
   Normal distribution is to American churches as vinyl
   over slate and stone is to Old haunts – 
there and gone with scaffolding in beautiful geometry with only
Spring further on.

April 01, 2018


It's not much in the horrific circumstances of 16 Palestinians killed and more than 1400 injured yesterday, but I thought I'd republish my 2005 poem 'Israel': 

0. homotopy equates to autoimmune disorder:
to transform every figure into a Compendious Book on Guernica
by incidence and effects enshrine pernicious anemia around anthropic argument:
verb sensitive to assumption reports exogenous acts of God – operations
run their inquisition. All the texts submitted and accumulate authority
to help run their Inquisition moving a negative quantity
from one side of the equation to the other side
with changing its commutation all the same. These so irretrievable.
The overstaid fraction, so irretrievable, overstaid, auxetic, coloured by pungent ahistoricism; unsettling sonorities webbed over the other ideas report adverse events
and deterred from becoming expert witnesses no human conjecture is involved,
a physical transportation, curfewed to prove its own consistency
to a basic telomere assumption, without realising inverse geometry penetrates both ways, blood poisoning on statistics, with fanatical odds,
analogy admonition against misinterpretation, restoration and uncompensation.
With significant outside support apostasy equals the pun of impenetrability
according to looking at this dead baby.
The underachiever anomaly applies even with the Name change
where it is the last word in law: 1

March 03, 2018

Marianne Eigenheer

I discovered this week that the great artist and my friend Marianne Eigenheer has passed away. Marianne has been a constant support in the work of Bury Art Museum since 2006. We met that year in Reykjavik at an Alan Johnson exhibition at Safn. We actually met at the exhibition, but it turned out when we started talking that her first encounter with me had been earlier. She was walking up the main street and passed my hotel. My first time in Iceland, I was wondering how warmly one needed to dress. The hotel room window only opened ajar, so I pushed my arm out to test the temperature and Marianne, below, was fascinated by this hand inexplicably waving in the air from an upstairs window.
In Bury we have shown (and have in the permanent collection) her beautifully poetic line drawings, and her video-drawing “Dancing Chairs and a Walking Woman” originally in the Irony of Flatness in 2008 and again as part of the Foreigners exhibition last year.
Marianne was endlessly well connected in the art world and I met a lot of interesting artists through her. Her generosity of spirit was a defining characteristic. She was a great support of young artists. Each year her house in Basel filled with artists and curators staying over to see the Art Fair. I did it twice. She attended every Text Festival in Bury, offering support and connecting it to other actions and developments around the world.
I remember going to Wiesbaden in 2009 specially for the opening of her drawing show at the Galerie Hafemann; at the time I think she felt that the artworld was rediscovering her, the phenomena of older women artists being re-evaluated and celebrated. 
Her last activity at Bury was as the senior artist-mentor at the Bury Summer School in 2014. She worked with the participants to create an imaginary Bury Biennial 
As part of this, the last thing we did together was a panel discussion in Bury Sculpture Centre.

I see her work every day - 2 large drawings adorn our bedroom and 2 etchings from the 1970's hang in the bathroom.

Although we stayed in contact, this was the last time I saw her. Her work was more and more in demand, there more shows and more attention from younger artists whom she loved to support and help. She was diagnosed with cancer but continued to work. Even as late as November last year she was excited about a big drawing success in a show at Kunstmuseum Basel. I last spoke to her in January when she talked about being so tired but hopeful of getting back to work soon. 

February 19, 2018

Irwell Sculpture Trail Tales (2) – Ed Allington

In the first IST blog, I mentioned how the National Lottery Assessor, Mike Sixsmith, who recommended we receive the funding to build the trail, observed that we hadn’t bid for enough money to achieve the scale of its ambition. My previous experience had been with projects of up to about £15,000. When describing the aim of commissioning internationally significant artworks which would put IST on the world stage, I had guessed that such commissions would cost about £80,000. Mike and I were standing in Ramsbottom Market Square which was one of the highest profile sites on the whole trail. He really like the site and thought it had massive potential for a sculpture but, like with other key sites, he observed that such a location would need nearer to £250,000. It was this conversation that prompted the significant increase in the final lottery grant referred to in the last blog.
Because of the high visibility of the sculpture, we created a selection panel of local councillors and organisations supported by arts expertise. A long list of 27 artists was created by the arts consultant Bev Bytheway and the panel narrowed it down to a shortlist of 5. One withdrew. So the remaining four submitted proposals. The London-based sculptor Ed Allington was very keen to win the commission – as I recall submitting 3 or 4 possible designs. The panel chose the Tilted Vase.
The Vase draws its inspiration from the legacy of the Industrial Revolution in the valley. The classical shape reflects the Georgian architecture of the square, while the manufacture of it points to industrial heritage, built in sections and bolted together to look like a machine or the steam engines operating on the railway a few hundred years away. Bronze and Steel.

As often happens with public art, a controversy followed. The design hadn’t even been released when an angry local person decided that a sculpture was a bad idea. The Square's current condition was a couple of scraggy rose bush plots and a small graffitied shelter at the back used by drunks and young people with nowhere to go. The angry person started a petition against ‘the’ sculpture and got 500 signatures in a week. But, except for the panel, no-one had seen the design, so it was a petition against sculpture on principle. Next phase was a public consultation, which on the evidence of the petition we expected to be bloody. A public meeting was convened at the Grant Arms pub which overlooks the site. On the evening I chaired the meeting (with some trepidation expecting hostility). Ed Allington sat beside me. I recognised faces in the 50+ audience that were vocal opponents of the sculpture. The event started, I introduced the plans for the Sculpture Trail and this and other sculptures proposed for Ramsbottom; Ed introduced his practice, other commissions and then explained the design. Then I threw it open to questions from the audience. A woman stood up and said: ‘Well, I like it. Ramsbottom needs this to make the centre of the town attractive to visitors’. This was a shock; even more shocking was that the next and the next stood up and said the same thing. It turned out that the vast majority of Ramsbottom actually liked and looked forward to the sculpture being installed! After that, the petition was never mentioned again.
A few months later, Ed was ready to install. The converging roads to Market Square were closed (quite a big disruption to local traffic), cranes manoeuvred into place, barriers, police, crowds, men in hard hats. The huge bronze arrived on a flat-bed truck. Straps were attached and the crane lifted it into the air – a magnificent sight. It hovered over the foundations, ready to be lowered, when one of the Council engineers asked Ed: ‘when did you pour the concrete into the foundations?’ At this point all hell broke loose. Ed’s team had poured the concrete 2 weeks before; within this was located a chemical bolt system which would bond the sculpture immovably to the ground. But technically the chemical only works if the concrete is 3 weeks old or more. At this a general chaos erupted. It couldn’t be installed. I got a phonecall from the then Chief Executive (my overall boss) angrily wanting to know who was in line for sacking; the Lisson Gallery which represented Ed rang threatening legal action against the Council for stopping the installation. The vase was re-lowed onto its truck and driven away to a yard for storage, everything was taken down, the crowd drifted away. Against a background of recrimination, a disconsolate Ed and I ended up sitting in the Grants Arms with beers. I told him that when it all came down to it, all he and I wanted was for a great sculpture to be standing in Market Square, nothing else mattered, we should ignore all the noise and just reschedule and get it right. And that’s we did. The vase returned a few weeks later and was installed without incident. The site works around it were completed and the water was turned on.  
This project (my first really big commission) was a real learning experience. The first lesson of public art I would say to would-be project commissioners is never install a water feature. The issues of public health & safety, freezing, children adding detergent to make it bubble, pumps, electric supplies, etc., make it the most complex long-term maintenance commitment. As it is, the vase has not poured water for about 5 years for technical reasons; but these are being sorted out specially to coincide with the 25th Anniversary so it will be turned on this Spring. Sadly, Ed Allington died last September.

February 13, 2018

Irwell Sculpture Trail – 25 Years of Public Art (1)

This year is officially the 25th Anniversary of the Irwell Sculpture Trail  (IST). It’s a funny feeling realising that you have been working on something that long, provoking, inevitably, the urge to reminisce. As anyone who tried to study the Text Festival, before Susan Lord stepped in to establish the Text Archive, will know I am notoriously disinterested in past projects – as John Peel used to say: “The last song isn’t as interesting as the next song”.  Someone wanting to know about the IST can look at the website, visit the sculptures or, if studying public art, make an appointment to see the historical files. But there are very few people left who can tell the stories behind the IST and the artists, and actually only me left still able to recount the tales of the 40+ artworks plus supporting community projects, temporary works and exhibitions, and ultimately also the creation of the Bury Sculpture Centre in 2014. The first sculpture I curated was by an artist called Pauline Holmes who made a beautiful (no longer extant) work with logs in Rawtenstall and
the latest was Auke de Vries magnificent untitled sculpture at Burrs Country Park last year. The next (later this year) will be the memorial sculpture of Victoria Wood by Graham Ibbeson. So, this starts an occasional series of blogs recounting an anecdotal history of sculptures in the Irwell valley.
The first thing to say is that this 25th Anniversary isn’t commemoration of IST’s inauguration - I have actually been working on IST since 1993. I had just arrived at Rossendale Council as the new Tourism & Arts Officer, when the Councillor responsible for Tourism came into my office and told me that he wanted me to organise Sunday markets at newly opened Rawtenstall station to encourage visitors arriving on the East Lancs Steam Railway to get off the trains and spend money in the town. The idea of me organising Sunday markets was abysmal. So I had to think of something quick that would achieve the same result without me wanting to kill myself in the first month of the new job. At the time there was one sculpture on the roundabout beside the station, celebrating the town-twinning with Bocholt in Germany. A few days later while washing some dishes, it occurred to me that a small sculpture trail around the station could be used to guide visitors to point of interest in Rawtenstall. I started identifying sites for sculptures with John Elliman in the Planning dept and realised that almost by accident the locations were on the Irwell Valley Trail. So that’s how it started in Rossendale. A few months later I was shopping in Manchester and saw a street sign pointing to the Irwell River; blinkedly working in Rossendale I had only recognised the river there. Suddenly I realised that, as rivers do, it ran all the way down to Manchester. I wrote from Rossendale to Bury and Manchester with the proposal that they commission art on the path too and together we could create the longest public sculpture trail in Europe. I had no idea if that was true, but we’ve been saying it ever since!
In that period, I commissioned 3 or 4 artworks (some of which no longer exist) and Bury commission a couple. I moved to a job in Bury which coincided with the launch of the National Lottery. With that pot of money available, I coordinated the 3 local authorities plus then Lancashire County Council and a handful of Environmental agencies (most of which have been abolished now) to bid for my vision of an environmental art trail running 30 miles from Bacup at the source of the river to Salford Quays. This is why this year is the 25th anniversary – it commemorates the year we started commissioning in earnest with an operating budget of £4million (£2.1million from the Lottery). We didn’t bid for that much money originally – it was much less; but when the lottery assessor came, he said that I wasn’t asking for enough money to achieve the scale of vision I was describing. He didn’t have to submit his judgment straight away so he gave me 2 weeks to rewrite the bid. In that 2 weeks I wrote 26 new documents and the money flowed. I doubt you can do that in today’s bureaucracy –  Lottery funding was more wild west then!
The other interesting anecdote about the bid itself came, when one morning the Councillor mentioned above came to my office to congratulate me on the success of the bid. I pointed to the documents still laying on my desk, and told him I had not yet submitted it. But he told me that the Secretary of State for Heritage/Culture had announce on Radio 4 that the Irwell Sculpture Trail had been awarded the grant. It took a little time to work out what this was about. It came down to politics. I discovered that the Secretary of State, Virginia Bottomley MP was scheduled for an interview on Radio 4 during which it was obvious that she was going to have a hard time justifying the Lottery’s first major grant being £50million to ‘elitist’ Covent Garden Opera. Her bureaucrats were charged with finding something she could point to that was ‘up north’ and ‘for the people’. To the system’s shame, they had not funded anything of the kind, so her briefing had to talk about something that fitted the bill and gloss over that it hadn’t actually been approved yet.
Anyway, on Saturday 17 February, the Sculpture Centre hosts an IST retrospective celebration of the work of Brass Art (Chara Lewis, Kristin Mojsiewicz and Anneke Pettican). Brass Art have a long history of working with Bury Art Museum and did their IST From the Tower Falls the Shadow in 2002.
(More IST artist stories in the next blog)