Tuesday, 18 July 2017

True Faith at Manchester Art Gallery


Every time I enter the palazzo-style wonderland of Manchester Art Gallery, tucked off the throng of the city centre on the unassuming Moseley Street, I know I am about to encounter something special, and my visit earlier this week to see the exhibition True Faith ("exploring the ongoing significance and legacy of New Order and Joy Division through the wealth of visual art their music has inspired") is no exception, and is an experience that prompts me to complete a poem I had begun nearly ten years ago.


Curated by Matthew Higgs, Director of White Columns, New York, writer Jon Savage, and archivist Johan Kugelberg, True Faith brings together a range of visual responses to the two groups' work, by artists including Julian Schnabel, Jeremy Deller, Liam Gillick, Mark Leckey, Glenn Brown and Slater Bradley, as well as featuring a wall-length display of the bands' record sleeves, created by legendary graphic designer Peter Saville.

Entering, I am greeted by a hangar-like room streaked with strip lights slanting from the ceiling, casting cold electric glows across the pale wood floors. According to Fiona Corridan, the gallery's Curator of Contemporary Art, this installation, Martin Boyce’s Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours, turns the gallery into an urban park at night*, though with the band's names, and those of some of their songs, printed in template-like letters upon enormous white blocks, and the stray minimalist metal structures laying seemingly at random, could equally be said to lend the environment a look of those iconic photos of the Hacienda, c. 1989 which always look most atmospheric in black-and-white, an impression made only stronger by the presence of faceless mannequins drape on chairs in loose-fitting hoodies.  But now, I am magnetized to the luminescent psychedelia of Glenn Schnabel's Dark Angel, subtitled "Echoes of Ian Curtis." 

Like many others who will visit this stunning exhibition, I am an almost lifelong fan of  New Order and their earlier, tragic incantation.  In those pre-web days, when discovering bands could be an adventure several years long, scouring the shelves of HMV or Woolworths and picking up the trail in fits and starts, often a single at a time, it was New Order I found first. The addictive synths, iconic bass, the cool, stabbed Salfordian vocals of Bernard Sumner, the dark dance melodies of Blue Monday and Perfect Kiss piercing my suburban adolescence like poison darts, the blissful sunshine of Bizarre Love Triangle and the bright, chart-bound pop of later albums sounding to my sixteen year old ears almost impossible to acquaint with the violent post-punk of Joy Division, whose music and lyrics would bleed indelibly into my subconscious, and whose doomed and beautiful lead singer Ian Curtis would be, that long hot summer between leaving school and starting college, a poet close to my heart before I had ever read Keats or Coleridge, De Quincey, Eliot or Baudelaire.


Entering a darkened, hut-like room, I am aware of people perched on benches before a large screen blurred with static. Upon this fuzzy jumble, shapes slowly form, half-defined dark patches and willowy lines waving like a photograph from outer space.  From the speakers come the melancholy waves of Joy Division's Decades, the understated, mumbly vocal drifting like rain across the cold metallic, post industrial backstreets of '70's Lancashire. My initial thought is that this semi-visible display seems a tad pretentious, and stretching the theme. Then, the wiggling shape of wobbly dots on the big, looming screen starts forming into something recognizable, and although the scene is still a haze of fuzz,  it is becoming gradually clear that it is Curtis, his unmistakable rhythm and arresting presence captured at some late gig or studio recording, swaying slightly and with slowly flowing arms, as if reaching out at us, or else drawing further back, looking out from beyond the gauze of a netherworld of introspection, like a face staring up at us from underwater.
The aesthetics of such an exhibit may be endlessly debated, but it moves me greatly, and as the song peters out to its pained, echoic fade, I see middle-aged men, watching beside me, with tears in their eyes.

Through the arch into the next enclosure, I am caught by another of these small cinema-like rooms, and am truly startled now by what I see.  A life size recording of a concert, beams from the screen, the guitars savage and angry, the vocals raw and gritty, the spit-and-sawdust venue dark in Dickensian dinginess, as familiar melodies razor their way from the rough, rioting, strike-sapped 70's to our own age of turbulence and social unrest. It is the closest I will come to seeing Joy Division live, and a moment to embrace.

Returning to the light, I am hooked into a booming, brightened hub of a room, from which enticing disco beats are emanating.  The scenes on this screen are of a different nature - the arty, life-affirming or at times just purely pop-driven videos of New Order singles, most of which I'm watching for the first time, and which together with the incessantly uplifting music pack a Prozac-style punch of euphoria into this echoic little room. All we need is a strobe light and some bottled water, and we could be transformed, here in the middle of a weekday afternoon, into something very different. I feel so extraordinary, something's got a hold of me, and as the urge to move comes over me, my backpack nudging back and forth into the hard stone wall behind me, I can't quite understand why my fellow gallery-goers are not dancing for all their lives are worth.

Bernard Sumner has spoken of how much of the intensity of Joy Division (both musically and lyrically) can be understood as a reaction to the increasingly post-industrialized environments of the region, in which terraced neighbourhoods were demolished in favour of alienating tower blocks, in which the city's canals, once the life blood if its industries, were left to decay, and in which the remnants of war were left unremarked upon:

Thee were underground shelters at the back of the street where we used to play ... It was unfashionable to talk about it (WW2) ... you had to drop the subject... but I didn't think it should be dropped and I think that was where our interest came from...It had been a decade before we were born, not that long ago.*
 The themes of New Order's songs encompass a vast variety of serious subjects, from love to war, Presidential assassinations, child abuse, drugs and death - and, of course, football - but for me there is always something joyous about their music - specifically the singles and especially from the late 80's onwards.  They thrill and delight, and embody an essence at once eclectic and sheer pop.  But I would come to their brooding beginnings, their regeneration in the ashes of Joy Division, last of all, the hard, at times eerie, album Movement buzzing through my ears and captivating me like a not altogether pleasant yet weirdly enlivening drug.  It is an odd chapter in the group's history, in ways a continuation of the gloom of their prehistory, at others hinting at the immersion in technology which would see them cleave a newly defined path in the decade following, and has a wobbly reputation even among band members. "We were happy with the songs, not all happy with the production," bassist Peter Hook would later reveal, "We were confused musically ... Our songwriting wasn't coming together."  And yet, I find this record, released the year I was born, to be a charged release, a kick of  defiance.  Amid the tortured claustrophobia, I hear, in its mazy rhythms, in Gillian Gilbert's ethereal, unexpected vocal, and in those fast, frenetic opening bars and strident first words, a nervous but determined starting gun, a leap of faith, a gateway, a hope.

"Please Do Not Photograph This Exhibit" is printed beside the small glass cabinet, beneath the watchful gaze of an ever-present guard.  Behind the glass, on a sheet of faded paper, black ink is swirled into three blocked stanzas, an almost-scrawl which has the look of hasty inspiration, but is spelt out in big, confident capitals.


I've seen Ian Curtis' handwriting before, reproduced photographically between the pages of a book, but nothing could come close to this, the close-up, smudgy reality, the larger prominence of individual words ("RESENTMENT", "CHANGING,") and the sheer aliveness of this slice of history, plain before my eyes.  But it is the crossings-out which move me most - a couple of words scribbled out, which have me peering close to make out the omissions - which seem to authenticate this groundbreaking document, and transpose it from the stuff of legends to the everyday.  It seems strange that the multitudinous appeal of this wonderful exhibition should be summed up in this one small item, yet distilled within its brief tale of dark black ink is a bridge from another time, to ours, a grasping for life, a golden spark of humanity.  It is a thing of raw sincerity, and after I have looked at it for some moments, re-read the lines, and stopped to take in once again their unaffected, honest beauty, there is nothing left to do but to walk away, in silence.


Punk-drunk, late Seventies, sobering up
in a rainy Eighties dawn, a furious
tragic echo
factory horns whistle 
over ice-maned moors.

It is the sound of demolished back-to-backs
the sound of lonely tower blocks
shivering in sleet,
canals gummed up with toxic froth,
bomb shelters rotting in back gardens,

It is the sound of violence and dark streets,
the sound of Manchester 
before Manchester was fashionable,
the sound of past wars nobody will speak of,
the working class stiff-upper-lip.
It is the sound of England screaming.

Like muffled cries of long-forgotten inmates
huddled in Victorian asylums
or stalking the corridors of cobwebbed hospitals,
narrowing Hells,
of hollow nothingness,
a pre-pop, pre-e, pre daybreak sound,
the sound of hesitant new starts,
nervously, defiantly, 
gritting teeth and getting on with it. 

1. thechromologist.com
2. Source: Deborah Curtis - Touching From a Distance, Faber, 1995
3. Mark Johnson, An Ideal For Living, Bobcat Books, 1984.

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