Monday, 11 July 2016

In blue

I'm walking down a busy high street, in an unfamiliar city, dodging people and glancing into shop windows, when suddenly I realise in horror that I am completely stark naked.

At this point I usually wake up, but this time it wasn't a dream. The busy road was Alfred Gelder street and the city was Hull - and not only was I naked as the day I was born, I was in the company of 3000 other nude people.

When I signed up to take part in Spencer Tunick's 'Sea of Hull' installation my main motive was being part of a work of art.  I seemed to have blocked out the naked part until 4am on Saturday morning when I found myself staring at half-naked people around me and wondering what the hell I was doing holding a pot of blue body paint.  My shade of blue (B1) seemed several shades lighter than everyone else's.  It was the consistency of sun cream, so I pretended for a while that I was on a beach somewhere, and hoped I wouldn't have to ask a complete stranger to do my back.*

I have no problem with naked bodies and am actually rather fond of mine, but wouldn't describe myself as a naturist.  This experience was entirely new and I felt anxious, unable to decide whether it was better to be naked on your own amongst strangers, or if it would have been better with friends. The atmosphere was as anticipated; completely friendly, welcoming, and intimate, in a sex-less sense.  But what threw me the most was the utter vulnerability; that came not just from removing your clothes, but from leaving all your possessions in a park, having no sense of time, where you are, or where you are going to be sent next.

Once we were painted and moving the experience became even more surreal.  The combination of thousands of blue people and 4 o'clock in the morning made me feel like I was in some kind of dystopian dream-scape.  Tunick took us through the first installation in Queen's gardens and at this point we were first exposed (sorry) to his rather bossy instructions: 'If you see a hole, fill it!' he boomed over the tannoy, much to our mirth.

The next three took place in various city centre streets.  At different points we were standing, bending and most painfully, lying down to make waves in the middle of the road.  The last was on the new Scale Lane footbridge, an iconic piece of art in its own right.  It could only bear the weight of 800 people but I was fortunate enough to make the cut; sadly this proved to be literally true, as the bridge is paved with gravel which shredded already sore feet.

By 7.15 am it was all over, and we made our way back to Queens Gardens, I was glad by then to get dressed, not because of the nudity, but because Hull at 5am is really bloody freezing.

I've had time to reflect on the experience since then and am no art critic, but found the following things particularly surprising:

 - being nude feels liberating and transgressive, yet during the time when you are naked you are required to be completely obedient.  To orchestrate a piece like this requires vision and planning to a degree that I didn't fully appreciate until part of it, and Tunick clearly does this brilliantly.  But at a point where you are literally stripped down to your essential humanity, you are also being posed and organised; you have no control over your body for several hours.  It wasn't unpleasant necessarily, but it did make me feel a sense of empathy; there are people after all who experience this through misuse of power everyday.**

- we are social beings.  I know this but am fiercely independent, so forget sometimes that we completely rely on being part of communities and need connections and a sense of belonging.  During the coldest point of the night people started to huddle together to keep warm; strangers helped each other with the paint.  I could never have covered some of my back; I couldn't physically reach.  We have to have faith in others to get to where we need to be.

- rising sea levels mean that much of Hull could be underwater by the end of this century.  As we lay on the pavements, making waves with our bodies I thought about this and Tunick's vision of the sea taking over the urban landscape.  This piece of art is playful but also has meaning; Tunick's recent works have been more political, and this too felt like an important reminder of the impact of climate change.

All in all, it was an unforgettable experience and one that touched me on a number of levels.  The paint has finally gone, but the memories will stick around for a long time to come.

The Sea of Hull will be displayed in the newly refurbished Hull Ferens Gallery early in 2017.  Many thanks to my travelling companion Steve Goodfellow who kept me fortified with rum and good humour :)  For more photos from the event click here 

*Luckily a kind lady offered.  Also thanks to the man who told me I'd missed my eyebrows and ears :)
**I was thinking in particular of the horrific stories of police violence against people of colour here.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Closing the circle

The older I get, the more spontaneous I become.  This is odd because I have more responsibilities than ever, but recently I seem to be spending more time doing things off the cuff and generally having adventures.  This week I booked a trip to Denmark and then decided to go to Margate. Neither place had crossed my mind before Monday, but by (very) early Saturday morning I found myself heading to Kent, so-called Garden of England and home to the Turner Contemporary.

Margate seems an unlikely place for a national gallery, until you make the connection between the town and J.M.W Turner (he spent many years there, and the town is the subject of a number of his paintings).   It looms over the far end of the bay, just behind a jellied eel stall which was probably there in Turner's days too.

Platforma Arts exhibition 'Welcome' was the main reason for my impromptu visit.  Since my visit to Utrecht last year I have (literally) looked at art in a whole new way.  I've always been able to appreciate it, but never felt particularly moved or stirred.  It was only when we looked as art being a thing 'that does', rather than something 'that is', that I made the connection.  Art doesn't have to be a passive thing, a piece of history - instead it can be something that brings people together, that builds empathy, makes social change happen.   This is in fact the vision of the Turner Contemporary, 'Art Inspiring Change.' The whole place spoke of action and connection.

'Welcome' brings together art created by, with and about refugees. The first piece is the beautiful 'New Union Flag' by Gil Mualem Doron,which was created before Brexit as part of a project to design a new UK flag (it feels especially poignant now).  The great thing about modern art is that you can interact with the artists; Doron told me it is a celebratory symbol of diversity, reflecting on the UK's colonial past, bringing together individual stories of difference and acceptance of difference.  It is made up of a variety of materials, from Scottish tartan to Indian silks, overlaid with images of refugee boats. I was left pondering the question, what might change for this country, if we adopted this new flag?

The possibility of a new way of interacting with the world continues in Hong Dam's 'The Butterfly's Dream'. Childhood dreams are written on scraps of paper and placed into a Vietnamese refugee boat; the boat is on scales, as the question is asked - how heavy are your dreams?  Will yours tip the balance?  Hong was herself a refugee, who fled Vietnam by boat in 1979 at the age of eight. Her art has been partly inspired by her desire to explain the experience to her own children, who are immersed i(as all children are) in the familiar demands for new gadgets. By connecting the dreams of different children (and adults) the universality of hopes and aspirations becomes apparent.  Once again the commonalities of humanity are revealed; it is often said that humans share hundreds of 'universals' (traits,patterns and behaviours that replicate through time and across the globe); dreaming is just one of these.  This important piece reminds us of the stories that lie behind the journeys of refugees and the capacity for hope that we all share.

Although the other main exhibition, Seeing Round Corners seemed at first unrelated, there were many connections to be found with the refugee art downstairs.  This installation aimed to explore the role of the circle in art, and moved through different eras, forms and media from 3000 BC to the present day, by artists including Barbara Hepworth, Leonardo Da Vinci, Lindsay Seers, Anish Kapoor and of course JMW Turner.  My favourite piece was Seers' 'Nowhere less now', a film that arcs through various narrative spaces, showing simultaneously on two satellite dishes. Different stories are told by speakers, although it is unclear what is fact and what is fiction; it takes you into a dream-like state where the veracity of what you see, or what you are told is immaterial.

Seers work is inspired by Giles Deleuze; a philosopher whose work was introduced to me in Utrecht and has so far been incomprehensible; however the use of two lenses and presentation of multiple truths has helped me begin to understand his writing a little.  I never thought my Margate trip would be the place where I began to let go of the linear and feel free to move more freely between posthuman ideas, but it was - and in this way I have begun to close my own circle.

'Welcome' is in Margate until 11th July, and Seeing Round Corners until 25th September.