Its grim oop North (but I wouldn’t want it any other way)December 13, 2007
Whilst oop in Huddersfield and with a few hours to kill on Saturday morning I made my way (in the relentlessly pouring rain) to the Huddersfield Art Gallery, housed in an old Georgian (I think) building that also contains the town’s library. My main reason for attending the gallery (apart from the fact that there is absolutely nothing else to do of worth on a wet Saturday in Huddersfield!) was to catch the two installations linked to the Contemporary Music Festival shown there.
I didn’t expect to see much else of interest in the gallery’s everyday collection, but then I had forgotten that I was in Lowry country here, and I was really pleased to see a couple of his paintings hanging around the corner from an awful display of Contemproray Pakistani art. The above painting is called Huddersfield and was painted in 1965.
I’m not sure what it is I enjoy about Lowry’s work. He doesn’t tick any of the usual boxes that trigger my interest in a painting. There is however some kind of homely, warm feeling about his work that I enjoy a lot. This painting reminds me a lot of the St Ives school of painters that I have closely studied from time to time, the childlike friendliness of the painting reminding me of Alfred Wallis, the dodgy perspective of Ben Nicholson. Above all there is a resounding Englishness about his work that probably doesn’t translate so well abroad. (I don’t know, Brian?) This painting perfectly captures the charm of a Northern English industrial town, and whilst I might make jokes here about the grim, murky qualities of Huddersfield it certainly oozes its own deep-seated character that I find impossible to not be charmed by. The Lowry above somehow portrays this perfectly. Although forty years old the town is still there in the painting, the colours, the activity, the people. Finding this little gem put a smile on my face for the rest of the weekend.
The two installations linked to the music festival shown in the gallery were created (separately) by Michael Prime and Janek Schaefer. I have seen Michael Prime’s work Ha! Where have all your mushrooms gone? before, though I struggle to remember exactly where. (Maybe the Sonic Boom show at the Hayward Gallery a while back?) It consists of three tanks containing live mushrooms growing, each with biosensors attached. When you walk near to a tank a further sensor detects your presence and begins to translate the natural biorhythms given off by the fungi into electronic sound, buzzes and gentle drilling noises. As more than one person wander around the installation the sounds come and go in quite interesting patterns, but I have to say that after the initial novelty of hearing mushrooms make music had passed there wasn’t much of lingering interest for me here.
On CD Janek Schaefer has generally speaking managed to underwhelm me on almost every occasion I’ve heard his work. Its not bad in any way, just not that interesting either. I didn’t get my hopes up too high then for his installation piece entitled Extended Play: Tryptich for the Child Survivors of War and Conflict. However I quite enjoyed this installation. Schaefer set up nine old gramophone players in the space, arranged into three groups of three. He then wrote and had performed a piece of music for piano, violin and cello and pressed each of the parts onto separate vinyl discs so that each of the three groups of players had one machine playing each of the instrument parts. The players were each modified so as to play continually, returning the cartridge to the start of the record each time it ended, but a hidden sensor in each machine detected the presence of someone stood close to it and stopped the player until the person moved away.
The music itself was a mournful, somewhat minimal piece of music, reminiscent of Feldman’s later works, though not so remarkable in itself. The interesting part of the installation however came as the individual players stopped and started at random intervals as people came close, causing the different instruments to shift in and out of phase with each other, creating more of a mass of sympathetic sounds rather than one structured composition. I must also admit I had great fun alone in the gallery that rainy Saturday morning hopping from machine to machine trying to impact the overall sound as much as possible, or at least I did until the somewhat surly looking security guard came along and looked at me as if I was a lunatic….
I hope that Schaefer resists the temptation to ever release a recording of the Extended Play material, as separated from the installation it wouldmake for a pretty uninteresting listen, but here I quite enjoyed its impact. One thing, the installation was designed according to Schaefer to be “a contemplative, emotional, optimistic & uplifting experience of continuously unfurling sound … a bitter sweet tribute to the child survivors of conflict and war.” I would agree that it achieved some of these aims, but I certainly didn’t find it particularly uplifting. Reading the associated notes in the gallery certainly caused me to reflect on the carnage caused by war, but I have to say it left me feeling somewhat depressed and pessimistic about the state of the world today.
When you’ve been brought down to earth by such a sombre experience walking out in the rainsoaked streets of Huddersfield town centre probably isn’t the best medicine to give you that quick pick-me-up, but I found some solace in wandering around noting some of the more amusing shops in the town centre. Hidden amongst the many discount stores and cheap booze off licenses can be found Jack Fulton’s World of Frozen Value (I’m not sure why that’s funny but it is!) a shop called Fartown with a hand painted sign that really accentuates the Fart part of the name, and a hairdressers again with a handpainted sign, this time called Headquaters. Please note, it wasn’t Headquarters as that essential letter R was missing, perhaps deliberately, but I quite like the idea that the sign was misspelt so they changed the name of the business…. Unfortunately my photos of these shops didn’t come out as my camera battery died, but once I switched to my camera phone I did manage to take this last pic, possibly of the most oddly titled store of them all… poor Ivor, that’s all I can say.