Reflecting on Hull City of Culture and the Turner Prize

Reflecting on Hull City of Culture and the Turner Prize

Hull is the success story that nobody asked for.

When it was announced that the city was to be given the title of City of Culture 2017, people who had never been everywhere rolled their eyes. "Was [insert literally anywhere else here] double-booked?" We all rushed to ridicule the quickest. Gleeful character assassinations of a poor defenceless city lit up dormant group chats. It was a nationwide bonding exercise. Hurrah.

But then they went and did a good job of it.

It’s impossible to speak for a city of some 26,000 people, but anecdotal evidence does really suggest an unlikely job well done. Friends from Hull are, on the whole, excited about the music events and theatre, the installations and public art, their redeveloped dockside and their new bars and brunch spots. It’s “on the map". Southern friends have visited.

In support of, or as part of, or in tandem with, the year of culture, the Turner Prize has taken up residency in Hull's Ferens gallery. It may venture out of its parent organisation and home - the Tate - every other year, but it's still a significant booking for the city that doesn't have the strongest reputation for contemporary art.

Hurvin Anderson's work is the first you encounter in the exhibition. On a Saturday afternoon in October, the gallery is packed. The large canvasses are covered in flora and fauna, bold blocky shapes, cyans and pinks.

The Birmingham-born painter has two clear areas of exploration; the natural world rendered dense and graphically, and the interior world, where he exercises a distorted sense of perspective and space.

Pieces from Anderson's 'Is it OK to be black?' 2016 series are on display. His oblong-ified barbershops have iconic black political and sports figures where photos of hair models might normally be, using the familiar space as a territory to consider race, representation and community.

Elsewhere in the city, away from the marble, columns and symmetrical architecture of Ferens, a different flavor of art is happening. Humber Street is s wind-blasted side street right on the dockside. Its clean lines and gins bars and not-yet-lived-in-feel are a clear giveaway that it's the epicentre of the urban regeneration wing of Hull City of Culture's activities. Gentrification? Probably. But it's not as clear-cut as that. To the untrained eye it does actually *whisper it* seem to be "for everyone".

Visitors to this dockside quarter and locals and weird art kids and trendy teenagers and dads with prams and mums with coats all gravitate to Humber Street Gallery which is hosting 'A Portrait of Hull', featuring work by photographers Martin Parr and Olivia Arthur.

Parr's work looks at the city's culinary output. It doesn't sound very inspiring on paper, but with his wry eye, Parr document's Hull's spectrum of food offerings in a way that is curious and uncritical. He doesn’t play the greasy spoon cafes with offers written in marker pen on florescent cardboard for laughs. The same goes for some beautifully indistinguishable deep-fried golden patties and the owner of a shop called ‘Stack it High – Sell it Cheap’.

Neither are his photos snarky about the proprietors of craft breweries, specialty coffee shops or bakers of doughnuts. In fact, when you get up close to a pie or a doily or a jam tart, it's hard to tell the difference. Artisanal or 'authentic'? It doesn't matter in Parr's food universe, it's just a celebration of nice stuff and weird stuff and comforting stuff and people being happy about it.

Back at Ferens and the Turner exhibition, Lubiana Himid combines a comic sense of pantomime with more conventional forms of storytelling to give a voice to hidden parts of black history. She paints over the adverts in the Guardian with caricatures and motifs that expose an uncomfortable, not-so-liberal undercurrent in the paper's headlines.

Her cut-out figure installation ‘A Fashionable Marriage’ – is part satire, part set design. She parodies William Hogarth’s ‘Marriage a la Mode’ in contemporary fashion. Created in 1986, Thatcher and Regan take centre stage, rendered daft, flat and farcical in her illustrative style.

In another series, she paints images of slavery on fine china dinner sets. Her style is playful, yet you’re never in doubt about the magnitude of her message. He paints figures and faces as timeless. One of her paintings depicts the story of a slave ship in which all but one passengers went blind due to an infection, but the clothes they wear, the augmented shape of the ship’s interior, seem contemporary. Inviting, even. There’s no tangible pain in any of her pieces, but the viewer's hand is led to make those intellectual leaps so skillfully, you think it’s you who is being clever, instead of her.

Next, we encounter the work of German artist Andrea Büttner. She gets under the skin of some fairly chunky emotions by exaggerating them to a degree where they become distorted and confrontational. She repeats the image of a hand-drawn cloaked beggar nine times; each time the line figure exhibits a different shade of vulnerability. She mounts sensually expressive paintings on hi-vis, wall-sized backdrops.

Her work gets down into the nuances of painful feelings by blowing them up to an unflinching scale. In a piece that looks like a school project - typed up paragraphs and photos taken from history books - we see a fragmented documentation of atrocities and the mass displacement of peoples. Repeatedly, the innocent and the shameful are forced together by her faux-naive hand.

Back at the Humber Street Gallery photography exhibition, Olivia Arthur takes a solemn look at the city’s extra-curricular activities. In black and white, she contextualizes the people of Hull. There’s break-dancers, body builders, pre-pubescent Elvis impersonators. The settings are spare bedrooms, languid back gardens on sunny afternoons, skateparks.

The subjects look head-on to the camera, and save for the odd details, they could be almost anywhere. Zig-zagging through the centre of the exhibition space on a low table there are desolate industrial scenes, installations, docksides, mosques and in-between lands.

Arthur’s work - like that of her co-exhibitor Parr - is sweetly, subtly unifying. If there’s any backlash against what the City of Culture has brought with it, it’s not present here. You might expect battlegrounds and reluctance and apathy. But if there is any it's well hidden.

From this dockside location we're reminded that where Hull sits on our map it looks out to Scandinavia. With its historical links to Northern Europe, it's an unexpectedly connected city. An with it's City of Culture status no doubt following on from the successes of Liverpool's Europe-wide reign in 2008, Hull doesn't really need reminding about the merits of looking outwards and thinking progressively.

Filmmaker Rosalind Nashashibi's work is next door. She’s a Sheffield Hallam Graduate, which seems unusual but there’s no reason why it should. Her two films are worlds apart, exploring the types of relationships that exist in a domestic, familial space and a distant, hostile one.

‘Vivian’s Garden’ is part documentary, part re-enactment of the enclosed life mother and daughter Vivian Suter and Elizabeth Wild. The Austrian/Swiss artists live together in a house they have built in Guatemala. Under Nashashibi’s direction, they reenact episodes from their life, creating a certain uncanniness. Their mother-daughter relationship acts as counterpoint to the colonial relationship they have with their environment and their Guatemalan staff. It asks: 'who is looking after who?' in every direction.

‘Electric Gaza’ is set in the politically charged territory of its name. For Nashashibi, ‘charged’ is the operative word as she explores the bristling, concentrated violent tensions of this tiny, incredibly significant part of the world. Her artistic hand is has a light touch. A giant black orb - perfectly uniform and crisp against a Gazan back-street – slowly grows as the film comes to an end. It’s a pregnant, sad, and leaves the film, like the place it depicts - unresolved.

If it's possible to bundle up the hundreds of pieces by the four artists in to some sort of unifying mission statement it might be this: The 2017 Turner Prize exhibition is a half-guided tour of historical and emotional truths, told with wit and sensitivity.

For Hull though, it won't matter too much who is named winner on the 5th December. Nor should it. The two things don't have to be bound up in each other's destiny for it to be of interest. They are - as much as it would be nice to make a neat resolution here - different stories.

So do go to Hull, and see the exhibition, and then divert your attention to the edge of the frame, away from the establishment art prize, and there’s something fizzing. Something that was probably always there, but we just needed a nudge and an excuse to catch it.

It might just be a buzz, but if we’re lucky - it might just stick. 

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