Sunday, 31 May 2009

melancholia, madness and modernity

reader, too long have i tarried in the shadows with those grinning ossified corpses….

after a month of melancholia brought upon by a combination of time travel jetlag and an assortment of the debilitating and unpredictable side effects that only being dropped unceremoniously into a urine tinged red phone box can induce, i seem to have finally emerged with not a little relief into the bright and sweet smelling present of a lethargic, sunkissed manchester.

the past few weeks have been a bewildering grind of confusing and conflicting ideas and information, converging and conflating to produce a space – time vortex through which this poor old edwardian bluestocking has been forced to hurtle back and forth, force fed a virtual tangle of disheartening data on the precarious state of the public realm and the peculiarities of a property developing autocracy as it continues to gobble up the cityscape. truly, as alice herself hinted, nothing makes sense in the contemporary world…

my research-in-progress into the present day, its quotidian practices and its impact on the archaeology of the recent past is becoming distinctly discouraging, downright depressing in fact, and for the first time since my unexpected emergence from my dusty duties deep in the bowels of the museum archives, artefacts all safely wrapped, labelled and preserved, the realities of being a student of now, custodian at large of the contemporaneous, has hit home. this overpowering revelation has of late deepened despite the many inspiring and inventive projects of the friends and acquaintances i have made since delving into the beautiful palimpsest of this city, walking the streets through the eyes of its myriad dandies, flaneuses, mischief makers, artists and activists, i confess to being at a loss to find a place for myself here in the 21st century that doesn’t seem an arcane and fanciful indulgence, a precious waste in a time when every minute counts.

it seems to me that whilst an interest in contemporary everyday practices in the context of the built environment has much in common with the study of the prehistoric archaeological landscape, it is not enough to merely theorize, document and postulate. a more productive, down to earth practice is called for…and urgently. but i am simply not equipped for the pressing and political aspects of this new endeavour and the temptation to retreat to the reassuring realm of the long and desiccated dead has never been greater. never has the trench and trowel of the neolithic seemed so cosy in the face of the careless and wanton destruction of the recent past, the cultural and architectural vandalism perpetually leering from every street corner like a grinning cadaver from each mediocre new property development, or worse still the wilful bulldozing of the rich vernacular of our cityscape even as the effects of the so called credit crunch stymie any actual construction.

old habits die hard and after much grappling with a sorry combination of writing-and-thinking block i finally succumbed to the familiarity and reassuring permanence of the edwardian world of the boffin and bluestocking, of the polymath and the amateur, for some much needed respite in former haunts of londinium – the glory of the bm, the modernist magnificence of the riba headquarters and the fabulous wellcome collection, 'a free destination for the incurably curious'. here amidst the curiosities, shrunken heads and implacable medical implements i eventually found a kind of sanity, in the aptly titled madness and modernity exhibition, and the promise of a possible route through the emerging 20th century and its uncertain journey towards modernity and ultimately to where we are right now.

madness and modernity identifies fin de siecle vienna, the avant garde centre of modernity, as a tumultuous period of transition in which the arts, literature, architecture and philosophy blossomed but also as a city obsessed with the mind. political unrest had left the viennese with an overwhelming sense that they were living in 'nervous times' where anxieties about mental health were allied to fears about the modern city. and here amidst the tower of fools, the madhouses and maladies of the dawn of our own era, the grotesquely distorted limbs and ghoulish pallor of schiele and kokoscha’s withered portraiture, were parallels aplenty to our own distinctly twitchy, pathological neuroses as we enter the 21st.

certainly the unmistakable parallels to my own nervous state of mind were lit up like an electrical circuit, as i try to adjust my own peculiar situation, an edwardian spinster trapped in a tiny red tardis on the edges of a somewhat forlorn conservation area, or living in the mundane landscape of an ‘at risk’ council estate, symbols of an outdated present that we have barely begun to evaluate or make sense of - of a present that, as it hurtles into an uncharted future, threatens to fade away in the face of global transformations that are still unfolding.

returning to manchester in a torrent of unrelenting rain was only too predictable but perhaps in hindsight a hiatus of sorts, a space to absorb these new revelations and bridge a personal time-space compression of nearly one hundred years into six eventful ones that would surely impress even virilio! so it was timely then that a number of invitations plopped into my inbox this thursday, just in time for the meteorological and metaphorical clouds to break in my own private horizon.

first off was a spot of tea with the ever soothing mr barratt who has a flurry of publications due out soon. he was en route to performing at the farewell gig of the manchester poetry magazine the ugly tree at central library and was 'quietly chuffed' (as he put it) at his other well deserved literary recognition by arthur shilling press. i left him to triumph in his lucky shirt for a leisurely walk along the railway arches towards castlefield gallery for the preview of the social lives of others.

against such a balmy setting manchester positively reeked of urban cool, warm sunlit night, clean white cultural space bursting with arty types spilling decadently out into the cobbled glow of the railway arches, under the lego phallic excess of beetham tower. and the show was right up my cobbled alley too - all dead animals, totemic fetishes, elongated antlers, reclaimed tattered penguin paperbacks - and tres busy with all the great and the good out in force for this manchester / london exploration of our contemporary obsession with novelty, production and consumption against the schizophrenia of its inbuilt decay and obsolescence. lurking amidst the assembled detritus of our collective excesses i bumped into the lovely kate feld of manchizzle fame, blogger extraordinaire and 'hub of blogging goodness' (the guardian!), as well as a rare reunion with the erudite dave haslam fresh from bbc breakfast where his vox pop assessment of the city skyline was apparently edited to exclude any mention of phalluses from the delicate sensibilities of early morning viewers...

hilary jack herself, woman of the hour, was a glamorous vision as ever but feeling the strain perhaps in her central role of artist as opposed to curator of the already sadly missed apartment, whilst mr harfleet was clearly reveling in the novelty of a busy gallery opening that for once wasn’t in his own home…

later ambling homeward in the company of the razor tongued lonelady, herself in reflexive mood, following the mammoth task of forging her first album from a homemade studio in a rotting segment of a dilapidated ancoats mill, hewn (to the casual observer) from the tattered remnants of whatever mangled artefacts were to hand along the canal or under the brooding gasometer, we pondered the pros and cons of living in a city at once in love with its many mythologies yet woefully blind or at least nonchalant to the vicissitudes of its ritualised landscape -at once defiant city of industrial and technological revolution, social change and non conformism and yet home to unbridled entrepreneurialism, gaudy spectacle and rampant capitalism. two sides of the same coin perhaps this schizophrenia, this modernist madness is what makes the city what it is, is its distinctive usp…

and today as i wandered into the anarchic bustle of the city centre, down oxford rd, through china town, past the brutalist edifices of piccadilly tower and the former bank of England, once home to so much bullion, out into the maelstrom of piccadilly gardens, i was struck with these manifestations of the real life and soul of the metropolis.

piccadilly in all its grimy un self-conscious pandemonium, is the spiritual home of the city, in fact any city. site of the old infirmary and asylum, hub of our transport systems, hemmed in with monuments to every significant era of our civic history from georgian splendour, victorian warehouses, 60’s sci-fi, to post bomb regeneration centrepiece, it’s our largest open green space. here the entire citizenry it seemed thronged together in the first heat wave of the summer, transforming what is ostensibly one of the least attractive spaces in the city, its already grubby tadao ando artwork, its patchy, parched grass and inelegant display of foul plastic urinals into a place of genuine beauty. here in the blazing sun was a cosmopolitan scene as old as time, transporting us back to ancient rome, carthage, mesopotamia, to the kasbahs and markets of all the great civilisations past and present, where people do what they have always done best - make music, sun worship, sit together and relax, chat, picnic, eat ice cream or idly play ball, rollerblade, skateboard, dance, flirt or a heady combination of all of the above…..

in short the city is alive, is transformed by how we use it. let’s use it well and wisely, lets enliven it with our shared encounters, with the untidiness of the lived experience, in the unruly and unauthorized colonised spaces we still have left in the urban landscape.

the city is ours, we only have to claim it….

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