united hares of blackburn
I must have been 12 at the time. Benetton came out with some coloured jeans and for me, a young girl obliged by culture and era to wear only skirts, this meant Smashing the System. It signified war against the oligarchy of the parents and catholic teachers, it meant diving into a new age, full of hope and anger. I wanted them, I wanted jeans. I wanted freedom. I wanted to run away from the dogs.
Little did I know that like me, all the other girls wanted jeans. I wanted to be different but I found myself invisible among all other girls wearing jeans, all looking the same. Being different would have really meant wearing mother's chosen skirts!
The feeling I felt experiencing Jamie Holman's new exhibition Transform and Escape the Dogs, in Blackburn until 3 November 2019 was of rebelliousness against rebelliousness; me gasping for air like when I was 12: the need to contrast, the fear of being misunderstood, the craving to be heard, the end of an era. My time was pinpointed by the Red Brigades with their bombs on the right, and the Iron Curtain and its silence on the left. I needed belonging, I needed to feel recognised. For Lancashire, that meant the end of the mills and the beginning of the narrative of (ex) working-class culture, groping in desolation.
I then grew up and I learned that identity is not found in craved jeans, or black hoodies, punk music, or green parkas and trainers. We grow up and we leave things behind. We learn to accept our ever-changing uniqueness and our freedom from the need to belong to an indoctrinated troop, manoeuvred by an invisible puppeteer. I would find somewhat sad if I would still dress now as a New Romantic and I would still listen to Duran Duran. In the end, Benetton made its money out of young girls like Ernestina, Lucia, and me: that was acceptable in 1980, and Oasis were good in 1996. We grow up, we evolve, we embrace endings, and we leave the past behind.
Unity is strength, some people say. In gatherings, you can also easily get lost, disappear, never take responsibility, and never grow up.
Looking at the exhibition I felt pulled into a world I hoped was no more. But then I look around, in the streets, and all I see is anger, I breathe blaming, I pick up fear at every corner.
Whether on tv in a well-researched documentary or in the streets, black hoodies, weed, benefits, poverty and homelessness imperant. The blame-game against the intelligentsia is still narrow-minded, badly informed and blindly abiding by a borrowed ideology without any personal inquiry, just for the sake of belonging and a laugh. Blackburn, a former mill town, lays south of the Ribble Valley, in a land of circular reasoning. Those hares (or are they dogs?) haven't changed the world but still gather to remember the good old days, zigzagging. Hares and dogs, as penguins and sharks. A population stuck in a Freudian genital stage, searching for direction and scared of endings.
This leaves me with a sense of bitterness that I hoped I misunderstood when I went to the opening. Hence, I went back today, alone; I looked and felt.
I like Jamie. I like what he does and how he does it. I like his research, passion and the protection he feels for this land. This whole project stems from the witches in Pendle, hunted and transmuted for survival, through James Sharples and his stained glass at Blackburn College and University (of which Holman is Head of Art), via the Industrial Revolution and to end with the raves. So we can then understand the archetypal symbolic concept of the hares, the beautiful and ecstatic glass as a homage to Sharples, the banners as labels of a sought identity fluttering in the wind, and Hope and Joy. I was transfixed by Hope, on that reinforced glass, a memory of windows in industrial spaces and still... slanting as the back beam of a loom, hiding behind the beater.
Maybe this exhibition really works because I left sorry and discomforted. I admired the beauty and cleanness of the objects and could feel Jamie's heart into the preparation and installation, his desire to inspire. I have learned to recognise his precision and fastidiousness: from the beautifully printed brochures to the elegant curation. And then, all of this is mediated by the provincial blackburness: that vibe that's somewhat sloppy, not precise, the finding excuses, the lack of depth, and shrugging it off: when I asked the invigilators what the exhibition was about I have been told that everything is written on the walls, followed by silence. When I went with a friend to visit Dissident Vogue in May, my friend was told by the invigilator that she didn't really know what this is all about. Part of me believes that Jamie deserves more than silence. I am not so sure if Blackburn needs more than "what this is all about".
The mystification of an installation. As an art student, I will be forgiven if I say that I would have personally moved the invigilators' table to a more inviting position so to amplify the sacrality of the installation because of the west-facing stained glass (so irreverent), the martyrdom of the witches and the ritualistic hypnotic dancing.
And I was left feeling perplexed and bewildered by the exhibition and the stark dichotomy between on one side the population drenched in a melancholic obsession with an industrial past now long gone, and on the other side the total lack of interest in any form of culture and growth that is not defined by the Self.
As much as I am convinced that Jamie deserves more than silence, I am also doubting Blackburn's lack of hope. Jamie, me, and the town; and the memory of Sergio Leone: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Cowboys and Indians, establishment and rebels, and the bitterness of a reality that hurts, in a town where libraries and museums follow some uncomprehensible opening hours. Blackburn, some questionable strategies and its fear of leaving the past behind.
I am also wondering how much of this is mediated by me by the political situation we are living now in, and how I am moderating this exhibition through a lens which is definitely not British and not nostalgic. And of how much hopelessness I have picked up in the street.
I am left to wonder if a creativity focused on the Future could help, when finally grown up we don't expect anything anymore from any establishment and we just go and make it: a Future based on personal responsibility and mutual respect. In the end, this is what I have been repeated at the opening: Jamie creates opportunities, creates the space, for anyone. What are we going to do with it?
On this Wednesday afternoon, I am now outside: born a dog, ostracised as a European hare, invisible; sympathising for both dogs and hares, but not wanting to belong to either of them.
Jamie Holman's *transform and escape the dogs* is in Blackburn till 3 NOV 2019.
Now go and see it.
© mtomat 2019 - written on 23.10.19 - no reproduction without permission.