Constellations: Northern Soul explores the new displays at Tate Liverpool
As we journey around our digital world, we are well used to following links and making connections between subjects that we might not otherwise have explored. For those of us who are fatally inquisitive, even if just as a means to procrastinate, this endless hop, skip and jump from subject to subject has its dangers.
I know I’m not the only one who teeters permanently on the edge of the bottomless Wikipedia rabbit hole. But at its best, this hyperlinked navigation of knowledge offers a world of free-ranging possibilities in contrast to more linear modes of thought.
In this context, Tate Liverpool’s ongoing Constellations exhibit makes perfect sense as a means of displaying items from its permanent collection. Rather than building displays around art historical movements, chronological sequences or individual artists, the celestial metaphor allows curators to make temporal leaps and traverse national boundaries as they follow themes and ideas within a single room.
The premise is simple. A number of individual works from the Tate collection are selected, then ‘constellations’ of related works are assembled around them. The connections may be obvious or tenuous but, as a conceptually coherent means of displaying works across the collection’s full depth, the results can be enlightening and surprising.
Constellations was launched in 2013, occupying the bulk of Tate Liverpool’s free-to-explore spaces. As the individual displays are changed on a rolling basis, even regular visitors will often have something new to see. The ‘trigger works’ around which the current displays are built include pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Joseph Beuys and Louise Bourgeois, but it was the unveiling of two new constellations that prompted me to take a trip to the Albert Dock recently in order to gaze into Tate Liverpool’s art-speckled firmament.
The first of the new displays gravitates around the painting Industrial Landscape by L.S. Lowry. Painted in 1955, it is immediately recognisable as a view of mid-20th century industrial Britain with its factory clusters still belching smoke, unaware that within three decades they will be red-brick corpses and within four they’ll be renovated by Urban Splash.
Although apparently rooted in a grimy reality, it’s actually an imagined landscape of terraced streets, hunched figures, slag heaps and hills, and with its clashing perspectives and distant arched viaducts, it is a decidedly dreamlike view of the industrial North – vaguely reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico’s brand of surrealism, but via Salford.
In keeping with the Constellations concept, the Lowry piece isn’t used as an excuse to explore anything so obvious as British social realism or painters who have inspired hit records, but instead is an opportunity to think about employment and the lack of it, industrial processes, urban landscapes and so on.
There’s Andreas Gursky’s Chicago Board of Trade II for example, a huge photographic work from 1999 that turns the incomprehensible tumult of shares being traded into a dense, vividly coloured swirl of commerce. In their brightly coloured blazers and with their vibrant visual clamour, the brokers could hardly appear more different from the stoic matchstick figures of Lowry’s world, but they all take their place on industry’s historical production line.
I also find myself drawn to Kiluanji Kia Henda’s series of eight photographs documenting a sculptural construction. Called Rusty Mirage (The City Skyline), the monochrome photographs show welded metal forms being manoeuvred into position against a featureless white sky. While the sculpture is clearly nothing more than a criss-cross of tubular steel, it reads immediately as a contemporary urban skyline. There’s no hint here of smoking chimneys, but this is still the world of work, of round-the-clock economic output.
The room also includes works that connect with themes of class, exploitation and activism. For all its political unsubtlety, I particularly enjoy Boris Taslitzky’s painted sketch The Strikes of June 1936, a relic of France’s pre-war Popular Front. And with the local cultural milieu in mind, its heaving proletarian masses engaged in an act of celebratory solidarity remind me of a less psychedelic version of Adrian Henri’s The Entry of Christ into Liverpool.
The second new constellation at Tate Liverpool is grouped around George Grosz’s 1916 painting Suicide. The visual contrast with the almost monochrome Lowry painting is startling; this piece is predominantly a deep, velvety red, the paint seeming to congeal like violently spilt blood.
Painted during the First World War just after Grosz had been discharged from the army on medical grounds, the picture seems to jerk and spasm like a dying man. There are corpses, stray dogs, a hollow-eyed prostitute, and a prototype W.C. Fields character waiting to abuse that clammy flesh in return for money. This is a morally lifeless realm, empty of optimism or goodwill but full of the grotesquery and misery that Grosz felt characterised the world.
Suicide is a wartime painting but it isn’t a representation of war, and some other works displayed in the same room often seem to follow narratives that focus on the parallel universe ‘back home’, away from the front.
There’s Picasso’s Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle of 1952, a domestic still-life to all intents and purposes but one whose angular starkness springs directly from the artist’s response to the Korean War. And there’s Phil Collins’ photographic series showing young Serbians affected by the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s. Resisting the apparent naturalism of wartime photojournalism, Collins presents his subjects as languid daydreamers, a world away from being either warriors or victims.
In a similar vein, I also find myself deeply fascinated by the posing punks captured in 1976 by Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon. Again, the photographs shun journalistic styles in favour of self-conscious stances for the camera, and although taken in scuzzy London dives, the influence of inter-war Germany – George Grosz’s era with its strutting Weimar cabarets – seeps through the silver halide. It’s fascinating too to see the swastika appropriated so freely by these starkly-lit Brits. While it’s generally acknowledged that the early punks appropriated it simply for shock value, the intervening years certainly haven’t diminished its disturbing power.
There is plenty more to experience and think about in this room, with disturbing humanoid forms by Sarah Lucas and Vlassis Caniaris hinting at the sexual and physical effects of war and moral collapse. There’s an early-90s caricature of squabbling world leaders by Tim Rollins which shows John Major, François Mitterand, Bush senior, Mikhail Gorbachev and the like as characters from Animal Farm – although perhaps they now seem rather benign bunch by today’s standards. And there’s one of Bob and Roberta Smith’s playful painterly placards declaring Make art not war.
If there’s a weakness to the Constellations concept, it’s that sometimes I find myself yearning for a little more exploration of a specific subject, hoping that the next work I view won’t enforce a conceptual leap across decades, across continents. To be fair to Tate though, this strand is far from being the only thing on offer here, and the gallery certainly hasn’t abandoned more focused modes of presentation. The deeply thoughtful Yves Klein show on the top floor is testament to that.
Even there, however, the gallery opens up an intellectual wormhole that it’s a pleasure to crawl through, as Klein is paired with the less well known Edward Krasiński. A ticket for the former gains you entry to the latter, and while I found the Klein show predictably fascinating, Krasiński’s work knocked my brain for six.
And that’s the thought I’ll leave you with. If you want to know more about an artist who, for me, was revelatory, simply approach the internet rabbit hole. And jump in.
Constellations: Highlights From the Nation’s Collection of Modern Art is an ongoing exhibition at Tate Liverpool. Yves Klein and Edward Krasiński run until March 5, 2017. More information: www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-liverpool.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.