Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Walking With the Green Man

Nottingham is world-renowned; everywhere you go you can mention this East-Midlands city and people will have heard of the legendary Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. Whether through books, films, television or oral tradition, almost everyone is familiar with the tale of this heroic champion who, along with his motley band of avengers, stole from the rich to give to the poor. However, the modern municipality is much more than a mythical historic site where tourists wander in search of the merry men. Although the presence of the man in green is conspicuous, a vibrant and celebrated community of artists and entrepreneurs also call Nottingham home.

There are half a dozen decent galleries scattered throughout the city centre and more on the outskirts, as well as a host of studio complexes providing space for less established artists and those up and coming in various media. But it isn’t just traditional forms that occupy minds in this wonderful city, nor is this metropolis trapped in its own past, people here are aware of the need for continued evolution in the manner and variety of arts presented.

From spontaneous street performance to dusty alleyway bookshop poetry sessions, from struggling painters temporarily occupying vacant buildings to urban dance musicians releasing their home-grown sounds on independent labels, from iconoclastic conceptual art to experimental theatre and cutting edge cinema showing films from around the globe, Nottingham is a place that embraces the existence of the avant-garde.

On a recent visit I was fortunate enough to meet with friends for lunch on a couple occasions as well as take in some of the local culture and global art on offer in this energetic city. The architecture acts as time machine as one strolls around taking in the sights of a thousand years. Being transported through the ages on an afternoon amble one sees Greco-Roman facades in reconstruction and Victorian terraces that sit alongside Tudor buildings and medieval castles. Like a bizarre jumble of episodes from a travel series the visitor to Nottingham can wander through history simply by walking around the downtown area.

Postmodern architectural structures sit comfortably beside Edwardian shops and ex-council dwellings cuddle up to pre-war mansions now divided into student accommodation. Stately homes and rolling parkland exist just down the street from thriving commercial districts with kebab shops and ensconced next to bargain-bin charity outlets and upmarket fashion boutiques: all the major franchises are here too. Nottingham also has a network of trams that operate throughout the pedestrianised urban area.

Stopping in at the new Nottingham Contemporary Art Museum and Gallery I sampled the lunch fare before going on a tour of the current exhibits. I was impressed with the food and so very glad to touch base with a beautiful and talented friend. Meandering around the various halls I was able to explore the exhibitions at leisure, enjoying both new and archive work.

Naturally, the main attractions were the enormous gallery pieces by the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. My initial reactions haven’t altered much over the past 6 weeks since I walked through the fuselage of the huge American spy plane, stripped to its essential elements and strung with stuffed bats.

In my opinion the piece is more political than artistic, more an attempt at dramatising an episode in Sino-American relations than presenting any unique thoughts on the matter. The bat is meant to represent good luck in China, whereas in the West it is often feared, and supposedly the original plane, which collided with a fighter jet over Chinese airspace, had a bat painted on the tail fin. So what? This is a reference to an actual event. So what? It is really big. So what?

It didn’t cause me to think anything new or leave me feeling moved in any way – is that because I just don’t get it? Or, is it that the details of the diplomatic response to the ‘crisis’ are retold in diagrams and notes within the plane, making me wonder if it is simply trying to teach me something about the history of this event rather than touch me with the resonance of its own original power? It felt more like Chinese state propaganda than intelligently conceived art.

Ping’s superbly realised depiction of the Leviathan swallowing Christ on the cross and the seven little Buddhas that were strung from a fishing line held by an angel was a playful and yet frightening piece of work. However, it doesn’t offer any new or boldly artistic ideas. Yes, the world is caught between a mystical vision of potential as revealed through religious experience, and the economic and pragmatic reality necessitated by daily life in a global consumer society. The tension is evident here and I liked the piece as an allegorical statement of the social contract, but it is after all a subtle reworking of a c.1180 etching by the nun Herrad of Landsberg in her book The Garden of Delights.

Another Huang Yong Ping piece I found wanting for artistic content was Construction Site, the model of a minaret tilted at missile delivery angle surrounded by canvas screens.

The partitions are based on those used during the renovation of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and is apparently intended to suggest the changes structures and religions themselves go through over time as people and their cultures change. Interestingly, the minaret appears to be a replica of those on the Blue Mosque across the square from the ancient Christian cathedral (now a museum) rather than the massively-domed original tribute to wisdom, a fact not everyone will notice.

Once again I found it difficult to grasp any profound intent beyond the obvious, and have decided the artist, and perhaps the various curators (the piece was first shown in Istanbul in 2007) think that with Islamophobia a concern in the wake of recent historical events (as well as the connection Nottingham has to the Crusades, with noblemen engaged in warfare in the Middle East even in the early 13th century), the apparent is enough for most people to accept.

The minaret was centrally located in the huge new gallery space, in a dimly-lit room where Wael Shawky’s film exploration of the geometry of the Dome of the Rock was playing on a side wall. The work by this Egyptian artist is meant to draw similar comparisons of change and structure as Ping’s obscured minaret/missile, drawing upon the location and purpose of the sacred architecture of the Islamic shrine.

I get the impression both these artists feel Westerners need to be educated in ‘other’ ways of thinking and perception. Perhaps this is true of many people in the West, but surely art, if it is to have deeper resonance than mere educational purpose has to expect its gallery-going audience to come to the work with some knowledge of history and culture or at least an openness to the emotional sense of play.

Finally, as if to beat us over the head: the elephant in the room. It is life-size, or in this case, death-size model of an Indian elephant. Splayed across the floor of a room that is also occupied by a replica Chinese street stall, the elephant is a reminder of international market forces that endanger life on the planet – even those giants that fill us with awe and wonder. Prosperity leads to happiness they say, but it has costs, and the loss of life in the pursuit of ambition is another side affect of the business of today’s expanding global economy.

As well as being a major player on the path to industrialisation, this part of England has a history of brewing beer and Burton-upon-Trent, once home to many breweries, still has a couple of the larger ones churning out fine beers and quality ales. Marston’s ales are on tap in many local public houses and well worth trying if you’re in the area. There is also a large Coors factory in the town, and many microbreweries survive in the surrounding hills.

The first known brewery in the region was started at Burton Abbey in 1002 AD after the monks discovered that imbibing processed beer was safer than drinking the local water. 

When the Trent and Mersey Canal opened in 1770 the local brew was able to be transported nationally and became a huge success at home and abroad.

The railways were the next important step and when the Midlands branch opened in 1839 many of the breweries built their own lines to slot into the national network, with Bass owning the largest private railroad in the country. In 1880 there were over 30 breweries recorded in the town of Burton alone. I regularly enjoy a pint or two of locally produced refreshment in the village I usually visit whenever in the UK, and I’m already looking forward to my autumn trip to sample the latest barrels.

I was fortunate enough to have mostly sunny days on my visit back to this region, and I took advantage of the unusually fine weather to get out and about.

Pretty parrots and pleasant pubs sit comfortably alongside calm canals in Nottingham. Derby, it’s neighbouring Midlands city just a short train journey away hasn't really made the most of its river, the Derwent .. the old town was calling though and I had a couple stops to make there before hitting the airport.

One of my favourite landmarks in Derby is Ye Olde Dolphin pub, opened in 1530; it retains the traditional character from the age it was built and people still sit in the back garden under the shadow of the cathedral at lunchtime to nibble cheese and onion sandwiches and sip pints of their best bitter.

Although Derby has its new Westfield shopping mall and Nottingham too has indoor amenities, the flurry of activity in the sunny streets in both places was an indication that on the best of days most people still appreciate the atmosphere that accompanies the natural progress of external spaces. Unfortunately, with the super-structures of engineering that modern shopping facilities now are the mythologised culture of taking from the rich to give to the poor has been replaced with a new attitude, that of wealthy conglomerates bombarding the majority of the people with advertisements for mass-produced consumer goods that supposedly bestow status on the possessor, and the so-called upwardly-mobile attaching ever greater significance to these objects.

These products are often made cheaply in China by under-paid workers, to prop up a failing capitalist system of supply and demand.

As Huang Yong Ping points out so evidently in his art, the continuance of this life-style leads to deprivation and death for more people (and animals and other life forms) than it benefits.

In light of current events in England, with the robbing hoodies (remember the present prime minister suggesting ‘hug a hoodie’ in pre-election speeches?) rampaging through city streets, looting and burning indiscriminately and collecting electronics and expensive trendy shoes in the worst consumer fashion while being confronted with the modern-day sheriffs and their contemporary methods, methinks the Robin Hood of the olde fable, who lived in the green woodlands of the forest with his noble band of outlaws and fought for justice, would be most displeased.

Although my current home is a fair hop from the UK’s Midlands, a piece of me remains in this beautiful and culturally exciting part of the country. I will forever return with a smile and hug for the people I know and care about, and to visit the exhibitions that open so regularly here, sure that there are always stimulating things to do and see. There are people I miss and hope to see again soon, and places to go I haven’t yet been, but that is the journey of life, to keep us travelling toward the things we anticipate in great expectation with a hopeful spirit and to build on those true friendships we’ve made on the road to happiness and fulfilment.

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Even though Robin Hood is a Nottingham based character, who may or may not have actually lived in the manner described in folklore - he might have been a Crusader returned from the Middle East to find his lands stolen by King John (he who was eventually forced to sign the Magna Carta into law) or a lowly thief elevated to saintly status by an angry populace, his declared lover Maid Marian is supposedly buried in Essex. By clicking the link you can read a poem I wrote about Robin and Marian with its only slightly obscure cross-references to a wonderful long-time friend who lives nearby and first took me to visit the landmark.

Poem: In Little Dunmow Church

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