An Easter weekend glide through Nottingham on our narrowboat, to catch up with close friends who recently moved back here, has reminded me how much I like the city where I went to university and where my football team continues to inflict pain on its loyal fans.
Boating took precedent over visiting old haunts on this trip, but a witty exhibition at the Nottingham Contemporary gallery made up for missing out on a pint and a game of pool in the Happy Return. And the renovated industrial splendour of this former lace-town shone through from my vantage point at the stern of the Silver Lining, rather than the social decay of news reports and Jake Bugg songs.
Not that societal breakdown was entirely absent from our trip, indeed it was a key theme of some of the best pieces in Nottingham Contemporary’s ‘Somewhat Abstract’ exhibition, which collated seven decades of works from the British Arts Council Collection. Not least, Mark Lewis’ silent propaganda film celebrating Southwark’s Heygate Estate, a social housing project apparently full of Le Corbusier-inspired architectural beauty and children playing sport outdoors, and yet now slated for slum-clearance demolition.
Contrastingly, Paul Graham’s 1984 series of photographs of soul destroying DHSS offices was a reminder not only of how Thatcherism put 3 million people on the dole, but that places built for the poor often appeared designed to wring out any last hope of a better future. Interestingly, Graham’s photos were never intended as ‘art’, but were commissioned by the Greater London Council (GLC) for use in a campaign to improve the quality of unemployment services.
According to the ‘Somewhat Abstract’ programme, seven Turner Prize winners are on display in the exhibition. I can only vouch for one, but laughing at Jeremy Deller’s playful poke at capitalism used up the time I might have gone hunting for the other six. ‘From Karl Marx at Christmas’ features imagined seasonal greetings from the father of socialism, involving musings on how the single-minded pursuit of private property has reduced human beings’ multifarious senses to just one – “the sense of having”.
Carlos Noronha Feio continued this theme in ‘Matter of Trust’, a small room containing three multi-drawered cabinets each hiding a variety of international alternatives to money, from the a nineteenth century Birmingham Labour Exchange token, to the Tesco Clubcard.
I’m guessing that all the above featured on the “Somewhat” side when the curator was seeking works to balance both sides of the exhibition’s title. I was less enthralled by most of the works that were firmly on the “Abstract” side of the equation, with one exception: my favourite piece of all was Cerith Wyn Evans’ cheeky translation into Morse Code of a John Cage muse on environmental pollution, via the medium of an ornate blinking chandalier. Classy!
So even though Selectadisc’s sad demise makes it impossible for me to walk down Market Street without a lump in my throat (especially on what was Record Store Day), and each return visit to Rock City in my forties wipes away a bit of the nostalgic gloss of the many lost nights there in my twenties, now there are at least two very good reasons to return to Nottingham: good friends and a cracking gallery.