The Lives of Others at Derby’s Format Photography Festival

By David Welch

At home I’ve got an old, disposable camera which I have never had developed. It dates back to my student days and no doubt it would make me cringe if I ever discovered what was on it. The pictures are probably as far removed from art as it is possible to be – and yet they mark a distinct point in time and an insight into an ordinary life.

I was reminded of this camera when I read about the work of Thomas Sauvin, who is just one of the photographers whose work will be exhibited at next month’s FORMAT International Photography Festival in Derby.

As befits a former industrial city like Derby, the theme of this year’s festival is Factory: Mass Production and it’s an idea that resonates in the age of digital photography.

Sauvin, who is French but lives in Beijing, explores the fascination we have with other people’s photographs in his exhibition Beijing Silvermine. He has collected thousands of negatives which shed light on the lives of Beijing residents in the years after the Cultural Revolution up to 2005. These images not only document the sometimes quirky but often uneventful lives of people they also give us an insight into the massive socio-economic changes that have taken place in China during this period.

In a similar vein, Notes Home is a collection of postcards which have been sent by factory workers from holiday destinations like Skegness and Morecombe. The technicolour images of the British seaside recall impossibly hot summers of ice-creams and fun, while the messages on the back give us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people.

Reflecting the festival’s theme of mass production is David Welch’s Material World which asks us to think about our compulsive desire to consume. One of his pictures depicts a huge tower of cardboard boxes balanced precariously in a shopping trolley. Online companies like Amazon make it easy to buy almost anything with the click of a button – but perhaps seeing those boxes piled high might make us think twice about how wasteful it can be.

The festival opens on 8th March and runs until 7th Aprill. The exhibitions take place in a host of venues across the city, including the Quad, Derby University and Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

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Celebrating the elaborate costume of China’s Miao community

miaoNottingham’s Chinese New Year celebrations got underway earlier this month with a dazzling display of textiles at Lakeside Arts Centre.

The exhibition, which is curated by Xuesen Zeng, is an homage to the embroidery of the Miao community, who live in south-western China.

The Miao people, who are cut off by the mountains, have no written language so they use highly elaborate garments as a way of identifying their heritage and beliefs. As you might expect, the ceremonial costumes are particularly impressive, for example the wedding and festival dresses are made up of many layers and ornate silver jewellery.

Like many artisan techniques, China’s rapid industrialisation could signal a decline in Miao craftsmanship. Increasingly, people are now working long hours and do not have the time to hand stitch these beautiful clothes. Moreover, if members of the younger generation do not learn these embroidery skills, they could be lost forever.

The exhibition, which is in the Wallner Gallery, runs until 10th February. Entry is free. For more details on the Chinese New Year celebrations in Nottingham visit the Lakeside Arts Centre website.

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Abigail’s Party: More than just kitsch comedy

Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party is one that is so ingrained in modern culture that it could potentially be reduced to clichés – cheese and pineapple sticks, garish décor and Donna Summer.

But although these may have raised a few wry smiles from members of the audience at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, there is something about this suffocating suburban world that still resonates today.

Of course, we do not actually see Abigail. She is the teenage daughter of middle-aged divorcee Susan who is a guest at Beverley’s party across the road. So while we might wish we were at Abigail’s party, we instead find ourselves in the company of Beverley, her estate agent husband Laurence, their neighbours Tony and Angela and Susan.

The main characters are all ghastly in their own ways. Beverley flirts disgracefully with Tony and criticises Laurence even as he lays dying at the end. Laurence thinks of himself as an expert on art and says he likes olives but admits he has not read the Dickens on his shelves. Meanwhile, the quiet, sullen Tony is about as cultured as a broom; not only that but we also see that he is racist and emotionally abusive he is towards his wife.

What makes this production so successful are the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – facial expressions, the sidelong glances and the excruciating awkwardness of the situation. Tony looks bored with the conversations about how wonderful Beverley’s kitchen is, while Susan clearly feels uneasy throughout the whole dismal event. There are moments of pure hilarity, such as when the two couples dance with each other’s partners: while Beverley and Tony dance in a passionate embrace, a very awkward Laurence and Angela do a strange, non-contact jive before Laurence formally shakes her hand.

During the course of the play we see the nuances of British middle class played out in the harshest of environments. The characters compete with each other and are often downright rude, while the fraught marriages of Tony and Angela and Beverley and Laurence unravel before our eyes as the alcohol strips away the social niceties.

This production, which is directed by Lindsay Posner, is made all the more convincing by the wonderfully retro set design which includes clashing brown patterned wallpaper, huge house plants and cut glass ashtrays.

Abigail’s Party is on until Saturday. For tickets see the Theatre Royal website.

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A head for heights: Exploring Poland’s Tatra Mountains

Mnch

Mnch or ‘Monk’

“Lie back and relax”, our mountain guide Piotr said to me as I teetered at the top of the mountain on a fluorescent green rope.

“Easier said than done,” I thought to myself through gritted teeth, peering down and imagining myself falling head first onto the jagged rocks below.

I was about as far from relaxed as was possible. Not only am I a novice at rock climbing, I’m also petrified of heights. So rather than taking Piotr’s advice, I dangled inelegantly like a conker on a string and tried to cling onto the rocks.

My partner Alastair and I were climbing in Poland’s Tatra Mountains near the holiday resort of Zakopane. Piotr had picked us up from our guest house early that morning and we had driven up a winding mountain road flanked by densely-needled pine trees and traditional wooden chalets.

Our ascent began from an eerie, desolate car park just inside the national park. Piotr told us that during the communist years little thought was given to conserving this area’s natural beauty and a busy main road had cut right through it.

We stopped briefly at Morskie Oko, a clear, icy lake whose name, suffused with folklore, means ‘eye of the sea’. From here we could see the mountain we were going to climb: Mnich (or ‘monk’) which stands at just over 2,000m above sea level. A steady hike took us to the part where the only way up is with ropes.

mountain

Alastair and me at the top of Mnch.

After an energy-boosting lunch of sandwiches and chocolate, along with some sugary cinnamon tea and a spicy sausage supplied by our guide, we began to climb. Piotr led the way, expertly picking his way up the rocks like a squirrel, while Alastair followed confidently behind. I, on the other hand, was decidedly more wobbly. And it didn’t help that as we were climbing, clouds had started to surround us, making it feel like we were in a smoky cauldron.

But when we reached the summit, the cloud cleared, revealing spectacular views of the brilliant blue Morskie Oko and the valley below which, as a mere hiker, you would not get to see. Still, I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when my feet were planted firmly on the ground again, with the thought of dumplings and a cold Żywiec in front of a blazing log fire to keep me going as we made our way down.

 

 

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Review: I Is AnOther at New Art Exchange in Nottingham

How do you define Jamaica’s cultural impact on the rest of the world? Its music, of course, has been hugely influential, along with its food. But the small island’s contribution to fine art is rarely considered; it is simply not on the radar of many western critics. This is despite the fact that artists, both those living in Jamaica and those who have moved to other parts of the world, are creating a rich body of works which reflect its post-colonial identity.

In the year Jamaica celebrates 50 years of independence from British rule, Nottingham’s New Art Exchange celebrates some fine examples of the country’s art in the second part of an exhibition called I Is AnOther, which has been curated by Rachael Barrett and which runs until Saturday.

The life of a Jamaican immigrant living in Birmingham is vividly portrayed in a series of paintings by Hurvin Anderson. In Peters 2, he uses primary colours to depict a barber shop. In the 1950s many newly arrived Jamaicans set up these shops in attics as a way to make extra money and meet other people from their community. But the image Anderson creates is remarkably devoid of people; instead he concentrates on the space itself which perhaps reflects the community’s attempts to create an identity in a place that would be out of sight when stood on the street.

In Chicken Wire, part of the Country Club series, Anderson portrays a tennis court from behind a wire fence in Trinidad. The straight lines of the fence cut across the angles of the tennis court with the viewer placed firmly on the outside, hinting that this aspect of Caribbean life, which is aimed at tourists, is something outside his own experience.

Western art collides with Jamaican art quite literally in The Afflicted Yard. Strewn among the debris of filthy rum bottles and old televisions is a piece of wall bearing a stencil painting, Balloon Girl, which was created by Banksy when he visited the island.

In a bizarre series of events, Peter Dean Rikards – the artist behind The Afflicted Yard project – decides to unmask Banksy. He also persuades a group of people to remove the slab of wall with the picture on it, telling them that white people will pay a lot of money for it. The fact that they have not heard of Banksy somehow renders his art useless; they are ripping it apart because they have been told it is worth a lot of money not because it has any aesthetic value for them. However, this also hints at the fact that money is also the dominating force in the commercial art world.

In Packaged Rites, Ebony G. Patterson remembers the 73 people from the poverty-stricken Tivoli Gardens community in Kingston who were killed by the police and army. Printed on bright, bandana-like fabric, the faces of the dead are obscured by scarves. These people have no identity yet they have been immortalised on highly individual pieces of fabric. It is significant too that Patterson uses textiles – a traditional folk medium and something that is wrongly considered to be inferior to ‘high art’.

Picture above shows Packaged Rites by Ebony G. Patterson (From New Art Exchange website)

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Evening of entertainment by students from Nottingham University

Students from Nottingham University’s many arts societies gathered on Friday evening for a one-off event of dance, art, music, comedy and entertainment.

Along with an exhibition featuring arts and crafts by student artists and members of the community, there were performances from a diverse cross-section of the university’s arts community. Some of the highlights for me was a glorious introduction to improvisational comedy from members of Improv (these guys could give some of the comedians on Radio 4 a run for their money), along with the live music from the very charismatic Cheshire Cat.

The idea behind the event was to link up members of different arts organisations so that they could pool their skills on future productions. It also aimed to raise the profile of the university’s theatre company New Theatre as well as being a fundraiser for its upcoming production of George Orwell’s 1984, which opens on Wednesday.

Organiser and third year student Martha Wilson, from New Theatre, said: “We felt that the theatre can be a bit exclusive so we wanted to introduce people from different arts societies and get them talking to each other. It’s a good meeting point and I’m happy that we have so many people here tonight.”

1984 is directed by Bridie Rollins and it is produced by Martha Wilson. For tickets see the website.

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Rebel without a Cause: Exploring Arthur Seaton’s Nottingham at Lakeside Arts Centre

There’s something about Arthur Seaton, the rebellious anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, that has endured through the decades. Sat at his lathe in Radford’s Raleigh bike factory, he counted down the hours until it was the weekend, working hard only to ensure he had plenty of cash to spend on booze and smart Teddy Boy clothes.

Nottingham, like many other industrial cities in the 1950s, was on the brink of a seismic social change. Following the austerity of the war years, there was a surge in demand for consumer goods (like bikes) and teenagers leaving school with no qualifications could look forward secure employment with Raleigh or the nearby Player’s cigarette factory – something that would be almost impossible for a young person today.

It was also the decade when the first signs of a youth culture were beginning to emerge. Arthur did not want to settle down to start a family at his age and he describes his own parents as ‘dead from the neck up’. He wants to dance, drink and have affairs with married women rather than take on responsibility.

Arthur’s world is explored in a new photographic exhibition which opened at Nottingham University’s Lakeside Arts Centre at the weekend. This thoughtfully curated exhibition combines commercial photography with journalism and social commentary as well as stills from Karel Reisz’s film adaptation of Sillitoe’s novel, much of which was shot in Nottingham.

We are given a glimpse into what life was like in the Raleigh factory, along with recorded personal testimonies from the people who worked there. The long, tedious hours spent at the machine were punctuated by raucous nights in the pub, day trips to Skegness organised by the company and the excitement of the annual Goose Fair.

During the 1950s, Nottingham’s hard-drinking culture attracted national attention – just like it does today. Two journalists from the Daily Herald were asked by their editor to visit Nottingham and find out about the nightlife that inspired Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and some of their photographs form part of this exhibition.

Neither the book nor the film makes any attempt to sentimentalise working class life in urban Nottingham. The warren-like slums of St Ann’s, Radford and Lenton were over-crowded and rife with gossip. Towards the end of this exhibition there are images depicting these houses being cleared to make way for new developments outside the city, notably the Clifton estate and were seen by many, including the residents, as heralding a new era of clean housing with indoor bathrooms and large, open spaces.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which is free, runs until 10th February. For details, including opening times, see the website.

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Review: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The riots that swept through London, Nottingham and other cities in the summer of 2011 left many questioning what had happened to the next generation.

Some said that the rioters were criminals who had taken the opportunity to grab material possessions while others pointed to communities full of young people from chaotic homes without any hope for the future. It is against this modern backdrop that a new stage version of Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is set.

In this production, brought to Nottingham Playhouse by Pilot Theatre in association with York Theatre Royal, we hear Prime Minister David Cameron say that the acts committed by the rioters is ‘criminality pure and simple’ – and the play’s antihero, the defiant Colin Smith would no doubt agree with him.

Although Colin did not take part in the riots himself, he is later sent to a young offenders’ institute for stealing a cash box from Greggs in a playful nod to the Silliitoe’s novella which was published in 1959. Inside the institute Colin’s talent for running means he is soon noticed by a well-meaning official from the Home Office, who encourages him to take part in the upcoming cross-country race against boys from a public school. He is even allowed to leave the institution to go on long, unsupervised runs in the surrounding countryside. The race an opportunity for Colin to make a success of his life, find favour with the prison governor or even, as the Home Office official suggests, stick two fingers up to those public school boys.

But Colin is not interested in other people’s agendas. He doesn’t even run because he wants to win a race: he runs because this is the only time he is free from the heavy burdens he carries on his shoulders. The questions about Colin’s future are never resolved and there are no obvious solutions. It is only when he is running that he is able to live in the present and enjoy some kind of clarity.

In the play, the internal monologue of Sillitoe’s text was brought to life with an imaginative set design. Each scene was projected onto a 3D backdrop which enabled scenes to be transformed in quick succession, mirroring the protagonist’s fleeting thoughts. We also see Elliot Barnes-Worrell, who excels in the role of Colin, running on a treadmill,which gives the narrative a driving energy. His running and his thought patterns are intersected by scenes from his troubled background – but there is also an unadulterated joy in the physical sensation of running: the ‘Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, crunch-slap, crunch-slap’.

My only slight disappointment was that the play did not appear to be set in Sillitoe’s native Nottingham but instead in an unnamed London borough. While many young people in Nottingham emulate the slang of their London counterparts, it would have been great to hear some local dialect – and possibly a reference to the Broadmarsh Centre rather than the Westfield.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is on at the Playhouse until Saturday. For tickets visit the website.

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Review: Bones at Nottingham Playhouse

“I had this pet rabbit once. I used to hold it tight ‘til my knuckles went white. I held it tight so it couldn’t run. But it did. It dug itself out of the mud round the yard. I would have dug my way out and never come back if it wasn’t for her.”

Anyone who has spent time in Nottingham will no doubt recognise the central character of Jane Upton’s play Bones which was shown at Nottingham Playhouse last weekend ahead on its nationwide tour.

Inside a shabby house, nineteen-year-old Mark (played by Joe Doherty) delivers a terse, dramatic and engaging monologue which left the audience at Nottingham Playhouse on Friday night feeling liked they had been punched in the guts.

Produced by Fifth Word, this is a play in which the sense of deprivation hangs heavy in the air; at the beginning Mark tells us how much he wants to murder his baby sister, referring to her as ‘it’. His mum is a drug-addled prostitute and he has little escape from the claustrophobic world of living on an estate.

The only possible respite comes from Mark’s memory of a holiday in Skegness with his beloved grandfather and mum. He remembers going to the beach and drinking bottle after bottle of Panda Pop; but even as he reminisces about this time the reality of his mum’s addiction becomes heartbreakingly apparent.

Upton is a Nottingham native and her experience of growing up in the city shines through in the street names and references to Nottingham Forest. But the nihilism of poverty gives it a universality, underpinned by Doherty’s compelling performance.

Bones was a sell-out at last year’s Ednburgh Fringe Festival. It will be performed at Create at West Notts College in Mansfield on 10th October.

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Review: Berberian Sound Studio is one of this year’s finest films

Right from the start of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio we are immersed in a bizarre and claustrophobic world which soon unravels into one of violence and paranoia.

Set in Italy in the early 1970s, we are introduced to a Gilderoy, a middle-aged sound engineer played by Toby Jones who has been tasked with providing the sound effects for a sinister film called the Equestrian Vortex.

The film is produced in the trashy but violent and sexually charged giallo genre and although we are given a brief glimpse of it through the opening credits – which are shot in black and blood red – it is brought to life purely by the sounds manufactured in the studio and the story board which is both clinical and horrific.

At first the sound effects raise a wry smile; there is a marrow being dropped which emulates the sound of a body crashing to the floor and stems being pulled from radishes to recreate the sound hair being pulled from the witches’ heads.

But soon the rotting vegetables start to pile up and mimic the ‘putrid corpses of witches’ which are discovered in the film. Later Gilderoy, with a murderous glint in his eye, relishes stabbing cabbages to create the sound of a body being mutilated, its veined flesh looking strangely human.

At one point, Gilderoy questions the extreme violence he is supposed to evoke through sound. But the engineer, who even sleeps in a small room in the studio, quickly becomes aware that there is no respite from this subterranean world whose corridors resemble a mortuary. The outside, referred to briefly with the mention of cocktails on the terrace, bears little resemblance to this dark, windowless place which is prone to power cuts.

The violent themes of the Equestrian Vortex are mirrored in the studio, with women bearing the brunt of this ill-treatment. Tellingly, director Santini treats his dog better than the actresses who create the blood-curdling screams for the film. By the end, even Gilderoy becomes involved in this abuse, using his technical skills to create a high frequency sound to assert his power over an actress who does not conform.

Berberian Sound Studio is beautifully shot, compelling and wonderfully sound tracked; it is without one of the finest films I have seen this year. It is on until Thursday at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema.

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