bloomberg new contemporaries 2009, cornerhouse

I have realised recently that I'm often just as struck by the mood or feel of an exhibition as I am by the individual works themeselves. This was particularly true of my recent whistle-stop tour of Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2009 at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

Now in its 60th year, New Contemporaries is made up of work selected from open submissions of work by the UK’s art school undergraduates and postgraduates. As such, there's no doubt that it's a difficult show to engage with: often controversial and often contested. This year's offering, selected by Ellen Gallagher, Saskia Olde Wolbers, John Stezaker and Wolfgang Tillmans, is no exception, even amongst the Manchester blogging community. For example, whilst Manchester Photography hails it as “THE Manchester show of the year so far” and for the Art of Fiction it is a “diverse, considered show”, runpaintrun characterises it as “the equivalent of a biggest vegetable competition at a country show. There is only so much you can be impressed by a marrow, how ever bloody big, shiny and perfectly formed it is.”

Now, I have to say I can appreciate where runpaintrun is coming from on this one. There’s no doubt that the quality of artworks in this show varies wildly – sometimes they’re experimental, sometimes controversial, sometimes intriguing, and sometimes just a little bit underwhelming. But for me, a visit to New Contemporaries is somewhat different from a visit to any other exhibition. It’s about a mood, an energy, an overall narrative. At the end of the day, New Contemporaries is a graduate show - albeit one of a very sophisticated kind - and as such, I enjoy it for the multiple directions it points me, the possibilities it offers for the future. It’s often a bit rough and raw around the edges and usually there’s a few works that I really can’t stand, but there's always something that stands out: this time, for me, it was Frances Blythe's melancholy and slightly spooky photographs of suburbia. What is more, amongst this thoughtfully-curated jumble, something rises to the surface - vitality, energy, and however misplaced it may be, an unabashed and strangely infectious optimism about the future of contemporary art.

[Image: Susanne Ludwig, Passing Church. Feasibility Fantasies via Cornerhouse]

mostly truthful

I had a lovely time reading at the launch of Mostly Truthful at Lancaster Liftest on Saturday. I must admit I expected it to be a little bit nerve-wracking as opposed to enjoyable, but in the end it proved to be an altogether very pleasant experience. It was great to be back in Lancaster, in the pleasingly familiar surroundings of the (albeit newly refurbished) Storey Institute and the audience were fantastic, but most of all, I really enjoyed the opportunity to hear my fellow writers, Jane Routh, Adrian Slatcher and Kate Feld, reading from their work.

Editor Sarah Hymas describes Mostly Truthful as "Flax's first adventure into creative non-fiction ... a vibrant collection of voices that represent a slice of now, of us being on the brink, as always, of change."

You can download the anthology, which also has an introduction by Jenn Ashworth, for free from the Litfest website here.

Creative Tourist's Top 25 Art and Culture Blogs

I’m pleased to report that I survived reading at the Manchester Blog Awards on Wednesday more or less intact. In fact, I had a great evening: I managed not to fall on my face getting either on or off the stage, and cleverly avoided being in any of the photographs of the event. Hooray!

Once the reading was over, I enjoyed catching up with Manchester pals, listening to Jenn’s tantalising reading from her new novel Cold Light, and generally making the most of the evening’s celebrations, though unfortunately I had to disappear just after the winners were announced to catch the train back to Lancaster. I’m afraid I didn’t win a prize this year – the Best Arts and Culture Blog Award went to Ella Wrendorfs of the excellent runpaintrunrun.

The other winners were the mysterious Lost in Manchester, for Best City and Neighbourhood Blog; Words and Fixtures, for Best New Blog and of course, the wonderful My Shitty Twenties, which was the deserving winner of not one but two awards – Best Writing on a Blog and Best Personal Blog. The full list of winners, including the judges' comments and the runners up, can be found here.

Creative Tourist, who sponsored the Best Arts and Culture Blog category this year, also announced at the awards event that they would be launching their list of Top 25 UK Arts and Culture Blogs later in the week - and yesterday I had a lovely surprise in the shape of this.

To select their list, Creative Tourist used a number of different measures to assess the popularity of a blog, including Technorati inlinks, Bloglines citations, Google readers numbers and Alexa data. The final 25 includes some fantastic blogs like We Make Money Not Art, Amelia’s Magazine, the Frieze blog, Jonathan Jones at the Guardian, Art in Liverpool, The Culture Vulture, and the FACT blog. It also includes (at number 16)… Follow the Yellow Brick Road!

I even have a jaunty yellow badge to prove it - check out that sidebar action.

In the Library

I'm spending a lot of time in libraries recently: from the amazing British Library where I'm spending most of my weekends, working on The Dreaded Dissertation, to the wonderful Barbican library, which keeps me in books to while away my daily commute.

Browsing the library shelves recently, I came upon an old favourite - an essay by the theorist Walter Benjamin entitled "Unpacking My Library". This essay is Benjamin’s hymn to his book collection, which for him becomes a “dwelling… with books as the building stones”: a home within a home into which he can disappear.

I too am a book collector. I haven't got many books here in London, but it's nice to know that back in Lancaster, they are all there waiting for me: my foundation stones, the books that built me up brick by brick. There are the vintage hardbacks with their faded paper jackets, their nostalgic endpapers, the titles arching across their spines in romantically twirled letters – Dimsie Moves Up, Dancer's Luck, Cherry Tree Perch – or dashing capitals – Underwater Adventure, Smuggler’s Cove, The Secret of Grey Walls. There are the 1970s library cast-offs with their laminated pastel covers, still shedding loose pages, tattooed with the marks of someone else’s felt-tip pen. There is that familiar rainbow of well-worn Armada paperbacks, unravelling my own past along their ragged spines: dog-eared Famous Fives and Chalet Schools interleaved with Nancy Drew adventures, priced in shillings and pence. A whole flock of Puffins: Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons jostling alongside Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers; Anne of Green Gables beside Stig of The Dump. They have a musty, archaic smell that for me will always evoke a long-lost world of bicycles and picnics and seaside adventures and plucky heroes and heroines, into which I too can disappear.

Assembled they are a cheerful, dog-eared muddle far removed from the elegant, clean-lined Parisian edifice I somehow associate with Benjamin’s book collection. This construction is infinitely more chaotic: a tiny crooked Nara-esque wendy house built out of disintegrating paperbacks, jumbled with childhood souvenirs, glinting with tarnished treasures that I can only peep at through miniature postage-stamp windows, stooping to catch distant, mysterious underwater sounds. This is my dwelling: a little house (with or without prairie), a secret garden, an enchanted wood.

Perhaps all this sounds a little too nostalgic, excessively dewy-eyed. Some years ago, I remember reading something Julie Burchill wrote in her column for The Guardian, where she derided people like me, the people who grew up secretly aspiring to “a childhood spent talking to the animals on Sunnybrook Farm perhaps, before going to board (sharing a room with Pollyanna) at Mallory Towers and then leaving with straight As to work in Narnia as Aslan’s personal assistant.” The piece was not in fact about children’s books at all, but something else entirely, yet this sentence stood out to me as if it had been highlighted, underlined in bright red pen. Burchill was doing her utmost to make the people she was describing sound ridiculous, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised this didn’t sound ridiculous at all to me. I couldn’t imagine joining Burchill in co-conspiratorial scorn at these deluded dreamers: in fact, if anything, I couldn’t help wondering how any self-respecting child raised on a diet of Blyton and C.S. Lewis could be reasonably expected to hope for anything else?

Today, “escapism” is so often dismissed with derision by writers and cultural critics: the recent tentative suggestion of children’s book author Anne Fine that maybe books don’t always need to be about realism, but instead could be the preserve of hope resulted in a barrage of criticism and condemnation. Yet from the vantage point of my paperback house, it seems to clear to me that sometimes we need to creep under the ivy, through a secret door in a garden wall, or embark on a riverside picnic with Ratty and Mole. We need to retain these happy endings, the loyal dogs and picnic baskets, the mysterious land at the back of the wardrobe. In a world where, as Thomas Wolfe once put it, “you can’t go home again,” maybe we all need a place to escape to, a “dwelling… with books as the building stones” into which we can retreat.

As for me, like Benjamin himself, I’m happiest “among… piles of volumes.” Right now, I have to admit that I really don't mind spending my Saturday morning in the British Library. In fact, I'm happy to be there, because wherever I go, I know that between bookshelves I’ll always find a home from home.

[Image by Arcane via Tumblr]

manchester blog awards and more

I’m half asleep this morning, owing to a whistle-stop journey up to Liverpool and back yesterday, followed by a book launch in the evening, and then a very disturbed night’s sleep resulting from a leaking ceiling. (What is it about me and leaking ceilings anyway? Is it something to do with my Lancashire roots – perhaps my special 'superhero' power is the ability to conjour water from the skies even when indoors?)

However, I just wanted to write a quick lunch-break post to say that Follow the Yellow Brick Road has been shortlisted for the most excellent Manchester Blog Awards once again this year – this time in the Best Arts and Culture category! Thank you very much Manchester Blog Awards!

I’ve been really enjoying making my way through this year’s shortlist, which includes some familiar delights like My Shitty 20s, Cynical Ben, Big City Little Girl, Manchester is Ace and Lady Levenshulme, as well as some fantastic new (to me) discoveries including Manchester Zedders, Justtesting, Lost in Manchester, Forgetting the Time, Words and Fixtures, I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car and ... well all of them really. And I’ve especially enjoyed reading my fellow nominees for Best Arts and Culture blog, which are all excellent.

Here’s the full short-list: definitely well worth checking out!

Best City and Neighbourhood Blog

Best Personal Blog

Best Arts and Culture Blog

Best Writing on a Blog

Best New Blog

The winners will be announced at the Manchester Blog Awards event at Band on the Wall on Wednesday, October 21. I'm going to be reading at the event, which is quite exciting! Find out more and book tickets here.

… and whilst we're on the subject of awards, I was also rather flattered to discover recently that I’d been bestowed the Plashing Vole’s very own special honour (what else but) The Order of the Vole!

Vole described FTYBR as “a stunningly literate and highbrow piece of work which conveys the excitement and variety of the arts world with delicacy and not a hint of the preciousness with so often permeates such affairs.”

Gosh. I am bridling as we speak. Shame there’s no one to show off at: I’m all alone in the office today but for a prawn and rocket ciabatta. Anyway, I reckon that’s not bad for someone who is currently doing a very convincing impression of a dormouse. Thanks very much Vole!

Right, self-congratulation lunch break over. Time to get back to the coalface…