King Kong in Leeds

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King Kong bellows silently outside the Henry Moore Institute on The Headrow, Leeds. It’s January 2017 and it’s freezing and the big lad is starkers, so it’s understandable that he’s a bit disgruntled. That, and someone seems to have nicked his wedding tackle. Though, as I said, it is very, very cold.  I’ve always found the genetically over-sized primate to be a sympathetic figure. In his battles with Godzilla, I’ve always rooted for the big ape. And when I consider his treatment in the original RKO film from 1933, didn’t he have every right to be angry? Who did the filmmakers think our sympathies should lie with? Did they think that he should have performed without protest for his evolutionary betters? I’m sure there were some who’d love to have piloted one of the planes that shot him from the Empire State Building (I know a few – twats to a man). But I’d have been on Kong’s side. Albeit keeping a bit of distance.

This Kong, by Nicholas Munro, was originally commissioned for the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation’s City Sculpture Project of 1972. Here’s some spiel from the Henry Moore Institute:

‘Sculpture was talk of the town in Britain in the summer of 1972. It was being interrogated, debated, written about and photographed – and regularly appeared in regional and national newspapers, often with damning criticism and complaint. This was down to the City Sculpture Project, a hugely ambitious public sculpture scheme that supported the commissioning of large-scale works… For a period of six months, between March and November 1972, sculptures were installed in eight cities in England and Wales. From Nicholas Monro’s over five-metre tall statue of King Kong in Birmingham, to Liliane Lijn’s revolving cone in Plymouth and William Turnbull’s six-part stainless steel sculpture Angle in Liverpool, these works all reimagined sculpture’s relation to the city and the urban viewer.’

March to November 1972… when Marc Bolan was in his pomp and David Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This was also the six months that saw chess become a national obsession as Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played for the World Championship, the Second Cod War between the UK and Iceland and the terrorist attack at the Summer Olympics where Mark Spitz cleaned up in the swimming. Dirty Harry and The Godfather were in the cinemas – as was Carry on Matron and Carry On Abroad. Even in the exhibition’s black and white photographs, Britain in 1972 looks a cooler, better designed place.

The cities that originally housed the sculptures were Sheffield, Liverpool, Cardiff, Southampton, Cambridge, Plymouth, Birmingham (home to Kong) and another that I’m struggling to find listed on the Henry Moore Institute’s (HMI) website (the site’s paucity of information will become a theme). The Leeds exhibition at the HMI brings together what remains of the works that were commissioned (other than Kong and William Turnbull’s Angle, the other 1972 exhibits now seem to exist only in photographs and models), and drawings for some that were submitted but not taken up. Personally, I can’t see any difference in quality between those that made it and those that didn’t, but then, as now, as always, it’s not what you know… As I often find (such as at the Hepworth in Wakefield) there is more aesthetic quality in the way these pieces are displayed, than there is in the actual exhibits. It’s all beautifully done, and I especially liked the artist’s graphical/tech drawings, annotated in ink and old school typewriter, with rudimentary photographic mock-ups (there was no Photoshop in 71/72) – the Sky’s Edge proposal behind the Parkhill Flats in Sheffield was a favourite – and the newspaper reports. But when it comes down to the installations it’s the usual collection of metal tubing, concrete and RSJs, held together with reinforcing spikes and spot welding, that resembles the B&Q stock yard. Most of the exhibition fails on the simple test posed by the question: ‘Could I have done it myself?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then it’s a case of ‘move along, nothing to see here’. With all of the exhibits there was none of the mystery of creation. There was no moment where I thought: How did they do that?!

That said, I was struck by how a shape or angle can convey a sense of culture and place – the contours of Bernard Schottlander’s ‘Untitled (Red)’ (that stood outside The Crucible in Sheffield in ‘72) somehow looking Japanese. And I liked the vox pop recordings prompted by Garth Evan’s installation in Cardiff (I’d like to tell you what it was called, but I can’t remember and if there is information on the Henry Moore website, it’s well hidden… It’s all Kong! Kong! Kong!) that were played alongside some of the exhibits, bringing the original idea for the exhibition (and a moment in time) to life. In the five minutes or so that I sat and listened to the voices from 1972, the reactions were universally negative. The very fact that Evans went out to record the responses indicates to me that he was expecting people to be either angry or bemused. Which makes his motivation ambiguous at best, and perhaps even deliberately and perversely obtuse – which, in the Oh no, Yoko… school of installation/performance art is a discipline in itself. Where any reaction is better than no reaction at all. Maybe.

Kong is the only figurative piece. If I put my bullshit/A-Level Art essay filter on for a moment, with his broad, powerful shoulders and big belly, the silent scream, not to mention his lack of genitalia, shirtless in the cold weather, he is the perfect analogy for male working class disenfranchisement/unfocused aggression/emasculation and as such, the best representation of ‘The Spirit of Brexit’ in public art that I’ve seen…

That’s not to say I don’t like Munro’s Kong, because I do. But is it ‘art’ any more than the Kong who greets customers and passers-by outside the ‘Kong Adventure’ climbing wall in Keswick (my boxer dog Bertie weed up his leg once)? The used car dealer who bought Munro’s Kong when the original 1972 exhibition closed wasn’t daft –  browsing the web for any mentions of the 1972 exhibition and it’s Kong that gets all the press (not even the Institute’s own web site lists all of the 1972 exhibits in one place). Because a big gorilla draws people in (which is why they dragged the original Kong from Skull Island to New York in the first place), unlike say, ‘Work for Arundel Gate, Sheffield’ (a column built with nineteen identically shaped boxes and nineteen identical horizontal planes, height: 5.9 metres) by Kenneth Martin. I bet Munro’s Kong helped flog some Vauxhall Chevettes and Rover P6s (one lady owner) back in the day; whereas I can’t see Martin or Schottlander’s works helping to shift many old bangers, full service history and a complimentary full tank of four star, or not. And something tells me that William Turnbull’s six-part stainless steel sculpture Angle struggled to find a buyer after the exhibition closed (none of the purchase options – not even Kong’s, hence the car dealership gig – were taken up by the councils that exhibited them) – though I’m sure Harold Steptoe (the penultimate series of Steptoe and Son airing as the exhibition opened) would have been happy to take it off his hands.

I think Munro should have been more ambitious and come up with a design/mechanism where Kong would be attachable to the side of a building, so that, for instance, when he was exhibited in Leeds, we could have seen him with one hand gripping the top of Cuthbert Broderick’s Town Hall clock tower, the other hand curled into a big fist, raised defiantly to those looking up at him from below. Make him inflatable, perhaps? As impressive as he is, I think my idea would have topped it. As he stands, mute and frustrated, Munro’s Kong is not a threatening presence, bless him, despite his bright red eyes. Not like the slightly sinister, pagan rabbits (hares, apparently) of Sophie Ryder that tip up in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Everyone loves Kong. Every right-minded person sympathises with him… Though, I might observe, that his slightly occluded position (the War Memorial outsizes him from the road) has saved Kong from the attentions of late night drinkers, who in smaller towns where his appearance would be more of an event in the local press, he would have been a bigger pull, and attracted (for better or worse) more attention. Certainly, a few miles down the track in Barnsley someone would have seen the big lad flexing his muscles in the street of a Friday night and taken him on.*

* See the above comment on Brexit.

Continuity

‘Martha, My Dear’ is a Paul McCartney song from The Beatles’ White Album (1968). Martha was – and indeed, in a way, still is – Macca’s Old English Sheep Dog. This is because Paul calls every Old English Sheep Dog that he has Martha. This ensures immortality for his furry best friend. For Paul, that is.

At least two Marthas have been boys.

RCA Secret 2016: Yokels need not apply

RCA Secret 2016.jpgIf anything exemplifies the London centric ethos of the British art establishment it was this year’s Royal College of Art Secret postcard sale, because, for the 2016 exhibition, the RCA managed to make the event not only secret but also excluding. The way that the 2016 exhibition was organised said to me: “If you live outside London or its commuter belt, this is not for you”.

In previous years, devotees of the event have studied the images the week before sale day, diligently noting down the numbers of their favourites, before agonizing and compiling them into some kind of order of preference. Then to the only sale day on Saturday – into London, the long queue, chatting with fellow pilgrims, anxiously looking at the various screens which show the images, indicating which are sold and which are still there to be snapped up. Finally to the desk, and working top to bottom on the list of painstakingly arranged numbers until landing on one that is available. Money paid, it’s downstairs to pick up the purchase, which is wrapped in tissue paper and placed in an envelope. Only then to find out who the artist was.

But not this year.

For 2016 the option to buy started on the day the exhibition opened – the Sunday one week before the traditional Saturday sale day, and continued all week (provided you could physically attend the show in Kensington) while retaining Saturday as the only point when the cards could be taken away and the artists would be revealed. But this meant you’d have to make two trips to the Royal College of Art – one to choose and purchase your postcard and then another to collect it. Work commitments and financial constraints mean that for many, myself included, who live any sort of distance outside London this is just not feasible. “Well, why not come down on Friday morning, bright and breezy, buy a card, stay the night in the Big Smoke, maybe take in a show, enjoy the luxuries of electricity and running water, and then pick up your card the next day?” I hear you London Sophisticates enunciate in beautiful Received Pronunciation. Good idea. But by Friday morning there were only 190 postcards remaining out of the original 2000, so what are the chances you’ll get any of your favoured picks? Slim to bloody none, I’d say. “So why bother, you Northern Monkey?” Why indeed.

Jean-Patrick Manchette / Fatale (1977)

A disappointing (existential?) plot, with brilliant writing. The main hooks from the story come from its unpredictability. The plot arc follows the lead taken by its characters – it is dysfunctional. The protagonist is a widow who becomes a hit-woman, she kills her latest target having fallen in love with him (possibly), then bumps off all her clients in revenge for the killing she’s done… As you do. Imagine Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black but the bride had poisoned the wedding cake that killed the groom, and then went on to slaughter the caterers because they made the original cake. Sort of. The detail and panache of the writing carries you forward. The slender size gave me the sense I was reading something artistic and cerebral – pretentious twat that I am. The final, bloody confrontation had the vengeful excitement of a Spaghetti Western, which was then concluded with Manchette’s characteristic (arty?) obtuseness.

David Peace’s introduction adds bugger all.

I love the cover of my copy from Serpent’s Tail.

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Shooting an Elephant

Baulking the trend of preserving and promoting existing glories and unique original features, the interior of the Victorian-built Elephant & Castle pub on Westgate in Wakefield has been destroyed. They’ve done to it what Meg Ryan did to her face – fucked it up with an unnecessary makeover. My own disorientation, then disappointment and finally anger were about the only genuine things to be found in there since my last visit. The gas mantles, the smoked glass and the old bespoke tables have been dragged out and skipped. All the walls have been knocked down to impose one large unwelcoming space, and the bar – with its brass elephants and the name plaque to a dead regular – has been ripped out and shoddily re-fitted. It is now a nowhere place with wanky attempts at trendy/boutique décor done on the cheap using the Argos catalogue as an ideas base. Homogeneous, anonymous, empty. When I visited its hollowed out space was frequented by aggressive-looking men in their mid to late forties, with their shirts hanging out of shapeless jeans, their bodies packed out with anabolic steroids, online Viagra and full of domestic fury (displaying what’s known as the ‘fuck or fight’ response to modern life), and women of a similar age baiting their relationship hooks with fake tans and ostentatious décolletage. And the beer was shit as well.

The Victorian tiles on the exterior have been retained. For the time being. Who knows what they’ll do next? A neon cock and balls above the door, perhaps. They might as well. A sad and slightly horrifying place. Like Meg Ryan’s ridiculously vandalized face. Once again our cultural heritage has fallen foul of thick bastards.

Visited the evening of Saturday 5th March 2016