Travel & Popular Culture



I, Object – The British Museum, London

12 January 2019

This high profile exhibition with an accompanying radio series is the result of Ian Hislop and the Museums department curators ‘Search for Dissent’ in its respective collections. Unfortunately this has led to what feels a random collection of objects having the staid environment suck a lot of the life out of them. I imagine for instance that the demonstrations against Trump’s misogyny were powerful but taken out of context the pink woollen pussyhat just looks like a hat on a mannequin.

In a reversal of the shock of the new maxim some of the more ancient items fare better with less to prejudice the viewer. An early example of kicking over the statues saw the head of Augustus in a case many centuries after the Sudanese army cut it off and put it under some steps to walk on. The omnipotence that it was meant to convey was destroyed but with this final act of humiliation actually preserving it the gimlet eyes seemed to be almost twinkling with defiance. In a move which would have been well outside this comfort zone sticking the hat on Augustus in a Dadaesque fashion might have restored the subversion in both.

That the line between artefact and art is well and truly crossed by Yang Yongliang in Phantom Landscape III only highlights what a useless dichotomy it is. Here digitally manipulated images give the impression of a silk screen print that is celebrating the Chinese wilderness before closer inspection reveals urban structures rather than trees. With China beaming back pictures of the far side of the moon and talking like they are planning to put it on Rightmove this makes it one of the more vital exhibits. The industrial smog which stops people in Beijing from seeing anything of the actual moon just one more layer of peculiarity.

On earth space was at a premium in an exhibition which had been set up in such a small corner of the building that seeing some of the exhibits was tricky. So much so that standing at one of the two listening posts with a selection of music which seemed to have no connection to the museum but was designed to encapsulate rebellion was a welcome relief. So much so that the warp speed journey from Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat to the East German punk scene which saw Namenlos get Stasi interest and an eighteen-month prison sentence was put on repeat while waiting for a gap.

One which when it appeared near the splendid work of Georgian caricaturists like James Gillray or George Cruikshank was worth the wait. Gillray’s fat royalty and over flowing chamber pots illustrate the timelessness of toilet humour while the imitation banknote with a pound sign as a noose that Cruikshank used to protest against the death penalty still seems daring. If his acceptance of a £100 bribe by George IV to tone it down sounds like a sell- out it may be prudent to consider the risks these people were taking rather than the views of someone complaining about shuffling around museum exhibits. What is really objectionable and possibly beyond satire is having the exhibition sponsored by CITI Bank and having to look at their logo as you go around.

Perhaps unsurprisingly money features quite a lot. From the printing of the word ‘SEX’ next to the Queen’s head in the palm trees on a 50 Rupee note in the Seychelles to putting ‘STAY IN THE EU’ on a twenty-pound one it gets the message around. The latter seems no more rebellious or profound than a ‘Take Back Control’ placard and with virtually every target from royalty to religion seeming liberal in nature it can feel like the collection is playing to the gallery. Surely some arresting and broadly right of centre protest material could have been found as the restricted view coming from here plays into any sense of grievance.

Objects which take shots at a cast of authoritarian states do feature some of the aforementioned Communist lunacy with a plate which turns one of Gorbachev’s earnest Soviet slogans into a ‘Say yes to vodka’ order that his successor followed with an old style quota like discipline. Strangely affecting was the French clog or sabot which gave its name to sabotage when used by workers to interrupt production in the Industrial Revolution. In comparison the likes of Have I Got News for You can seem little more than an amusing distraction which the powerful see as preferable to us really putting the boot into the machine.

The scale and the inclusion of some Nigerian doors from the 1924 British Exhibition is impressive. Getting the hand carved images of colonialists on motorbikes being mocked by the locals into such a supposedly august environment being particularly appealing. A tactic which Banksy employed when he managed to display his ‘Post-Catatonic’ carving in the British Museum for three days before they noticed. Displaying it again and in this context seeming to show they are not above laughing at themselves but making it the last exhibit before the gift shop was either postmodern irony or complete cluelessness. Similarly the display of a ‘seated god’ that was bought from the Yemen and turned out to be the figure of a straining man on a toilet seemed to be saying that yeah we get it daddy-o. Selling a souvenir of Peckham Rock for £3.99 tipped this delicate balance and only confirmed the Dad dancing protest feel of the whole enterprise. 



COUM Transmissions: Humber Street Gallery, Hull

3 March 2017

If you thought the City of Culture was a bit middle of the road, then nearly fifty years after the event COUM Transmissions have returned, to literally put some bollocks into it. An exhibition of their work at the newly opened Humber Street Gallery ranges from silly to graphic but from a Hull centric view shows them to be more Reeves and Mortimer than S and M during their time around the Fruit Market.

Returning to the city after time in a commune where people shared clothes and tried to avoid any sort of routine, Hull University drop out Genesis P-Orridge hoped to create something similar in the Ho-Ho Fuhouse. From the first warehouse to 8 Prince Street, what is now an attractive part of the city was then a little less salubrious place to launch their “Street Actions”. Between 1969 and a move to London in 1973 a collective which also involved Hull born Cosey Fanni Tutti performed Dada inspired street art in gold gas masks near Burtons and set up an unfortunately prescient border control checkpoint in Ferens Art Gallery.

Gigs with no instruments or that used the idea of Duchamp’s bicycle wheel to play on usually led to people walking out or COUM being told to go. Entering a folk contest with the Woody Guthrie baiting title of “This Machine Kills Music” probably got some aran sweaters in a twist, while a “John Smith from Bridlington” may or may not have performed on a surf board balanced on buckets of water.

With a statement of intent at the exhibition which maintains that “None of this group are musicians” and “The whole project is a confidence trick” COUM cultivated this air of contrariness. If the game of bluff and double bluff sounds familiar, then P-Orridge out punked punk by reacting to its three chord doctrine by asking why you needed to learn any. Most fantastical is while the Spring Bank Arts Centre rejected the idea of a Xmas musical they did appear on Radio Humberside during a Winston Spencer Churchill Supergroup period. Having said all this, I would much rather listen to the Ramones.

Concerned letters from the Arts Council and the ludicrous porn style text which accompanies Cosey Fanni Tutti’s appearance in a magazine and formed part of the “Prostitution” show at the ICA in 1976, are there for consideration. This marked the point they became Throbbing Gristle and in a way that might have been intended, a picture of P-Orridge which almost morphed him into Alesteir Crowley. Meanwhile the cover photo of “20 Jazz Funk Greats” must have inspired the afore mentioned Reeves and Mortimer’s Mulligan and O’Hare.

Following the ICA the Tory MP who gave them the best sound bite ever in the “wreckers of civilisation” was arrested for indecent exposure. Even after all this time some of this still makes for uncomfortable viewing but it’s good to have your preconceptions challenged. I justified taking a quick picture of the logo as being in the spirit of COUM and an eternal school boy but shied off a London one for fear of looking like Sleazy from the collective. If nothing else the amount of pubic hair on display should make people think. Wall paper art this isn’t.

Its subtext may have been about how an artist or indeed everyone has to sell themselves but the sex itself never goes out of fashion. With a sex offender in the White House cracking down on abortion and an access to ever more graphic porn putting some daunting expectations on young people the roles and hang ups we have been indoctrinated with seem relevant. On a Monday morning in Hull it was good to hear a millennial getting irate about P-Orridge wrapping himself in cling film and a slightly older man saying he felt “sick”.

The gallery itself is a pleasant space down Humber Street which is in danger of feeling a bit St Stephens shopping centre: here’s an officially approved area for your cultural experience with a designated space for street art probably imminent. After the risks and lives they have experienced it would seem churlish to wonder what a younger COUM would have made of this as it’s still taken this group of pensioners to shake it up.

Humber Street Gallery until 22nd March

Art Shaped Box

1 August 2016

According to Hemingway “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night”. I had more tweaked it’s nose and ran away but sleeping above one of his old haunts meant I was entitled to a lie in. This meant that following guide book orders and getting to one of Madrid’s trio of world famous art galleries for opening time was unlikely. Similarly I could think of other things to do than troop round them all twice. Time for a kind of speed dating attack which we might as well call “Death in the Afternoon” for the purposes of tying the opening paragraph up.

First on is Reina Sofia’s collection of contemporary art but in reality all roads lead to Picasso’s “Guernica” on the second floor. Once there I pack into room 206 with the rest of the philistines trying to glimpse an unobstructed square inch of canvas or grab a crafty selfie with a square horse. Completed for the 1937 Paris Exposition its depiction of the bombing of the Basque town by the Germans during the Spanish Civil war drew attention to the atrocity but from my aesthetic viewpoint was doing very little. Indeed I must confess to not seeing the appeal in the little fella at all. As the late great Caroline Aherne might have asked Dora Maar: “What first attracted you to the most famous artist in the world Pablo Picasso?”

Leaving the almost deserted environs of the rest of the gallery via the traditional route I was treated to a gift shop of almost Premier League football proportions. From fridge magnets to expensively framed prints and all points in between there seemed to be nothing that the “Guernica” couldn’t be plastered all over. From contentious art to a cushion cover in short. I prefer the splendidly named Javier Arce’s felt tip rendition on paper which can be crumpled into a ball as it seems to symbolize how these rarefied spaces dilute potency.

Thankfully it’s a short walk in thirty odd degrees for my next date in the mother of all Madrid’s stately art homes. The queue outside the Prado is stretching around the building so the Paseo del Arte ticket I bought earlier comes in well handy for shaving about an hour off my time. Feeling suitably smug and having decided to avoid scenes from the Bible or people in wigs I head straight for one corner of the ground floor to give Goya’s work the once over.

I am with the Chapman Brothers when it comes to Goya and whilst I haven’t managed to make a career from him did expect his Black Paintings to do it for me. Confronting them with an agitated woman whispering “I don’t see the point in any of this” to her companion wasn’t the scenario I envisaged but it’s Painter from “The Fast Show” wailing “Black” before a meltdown quality only enhanced my viewing experience. Performance art at its best

Some art is so powerful it can transcend any environment and the fourteen pictures hacked from the walls of Goya’s “House of the Deaf Man” certainly manage this. Moving into the property on the outskirts of Madrid at the age of 72 the disgust for humanity which was shaped by his experience of the Napoleonic Wars and reflected in his “Disasters of War” series is if anything cranked up a notch here. Perhaps it was concerns about his sanity or having no intention of exhibiting the work that liberated him to produce images of such visceral intensity as the pre Freudian “Saturn Devouring His Son”. Even so I would be lying if I didn’t say that even amongst all this the possible outbreak of “onanism” in “Two Women and a Man” hadn’t caught my eye. If you ever stop laughing at a man masturbating in an art gallery your time is up I always say.

The smile was soon wiped off my face by establishing that “The Garden of Earthly Delights” had been moved into a temporary exhibition of Bosch’s work and now involved a whole new ticket rigmarole and a three hour wait I wasn’t about to countenance. This was particularly disappointing as I was looking forward to sharing my first experience of the picture anecdote. Oh go on then.  I was off school at my Grandma’s pretending to be ill and being spoilt in the way which was as good as it got in the world of a six-year-old when a piece on Hieronymous came on one of the two channels on television. I can clearly remember the foreboding this caused and an all is not right with the world sensation that never went away. 

Clearly distressed I attempted to console myself with the image of the Prado information desk descending into an overheated tourist hell but still missed the entrance to the Thyssen gallery as I mistook it for a car park and added valuable minutes to my time. Once inside the gallery it was up the stairs to the first floor for Edward Hopper’s “Hotel Room”. Being slightly less stuffy than the previous galleries enabled a quick reflection on this study of solitude in solitude. The look of his pictures has been appropriated by a thousand noir films whereas the house in “Psycho” was taken wholesale from one of his works. Maybe it is the cinematic connection which caused me to call him “Dennis” during one drunken conversation.

With scant regard for time I couldn’t resist looking in on bad boy Goya’s portrait of King Ferdinand the something of Spain. Looking utterly gormless and with the accoutrements of power restored by the British from the French looking like they might envelop him it is difficult to believe Goya isn’t ridiculing the monarchy. This over a century and a half before Jamie Reid stuck a safety pin through the Queen and the stakes were a little higher in Goya’s day.

Now Baroness Thyssens greatest hits collection and less austere surroundings made for a more enjoyable experience than the other galleries but the blurb informing us of the importance of sharing these works didn’t sit so well. The concept obviously not extending to the wealth necessary for the best part of a billion-pound art collection accumulated by her deceased “resident” of Monaco for tax purposes husband. Given the commission for a portrait I’m not sure what sort of job Goya would have done but know what I would hope.

Anyway that’s me done in a time of under four hours. I am not sure what the ultimate alternative to the gilded cages and shrines to money which jar with the art is but if you want to give my personal best a run for its money pick your targets and get in and out as quickly as possible. Just prick the pomposity and contradictions in the mainstream art world because after all there is a city out there just waiting to be assaulted. 

Suited & Booted


13 November 2015

Everyone should hear “you're not wearing that” from an outraged parent at some stage in their life. From teddy boys to punks and football casuals this meant you were doing something right but few mothers have the opportunity to change your clothes to something more acceptable while you were away at work. Welcome to the world of Hull's trawlermen and the distinctive fashion which contributed to them being dubbed Three Day Millionaires.

Currently being celebrated by the “Suited and Booted” exhibition touring Hull the flamboyance of the outfits in a place which is seen by many as a dour northern city is immediately striking. Individual suits from the imagination of trawlermen being left to be brought to realisation by one of about a dozen outfitters in colours such as powder blue with crescent moon pockets and silk linings. The trousers had a depth of waistband which put the Zoot Suit in the shade and while they got narrower over time their beginnings in the mid 1950's saw them described as flapping “like at sea”.

The decision to wear a tie rather than the open neck look Grimsby trawlermen favoured more than justified by a contributor on the video which accompanies the exhibition conjuring up a vision of Simon Cowell. The outfit was finished off with square toed shoes which were jokingly explained as meaning you could get nearer to the bar.

This glamour is in sharp contrast with everyday reality and no doubt a big reason for it. Working 18 hours a day for three weeks at a time in the perilous conditions of the North Sea meant the need to pack a lot of life into 72 hours leave won the trawlermen their nickname.Before the homecoming however their families pressed shirts and often collected some of the suits owned by each man from the pawnbrokers after putting them into hock to keep going. At least one would escape this fate as part of putting on a show would see trawlermen getting on and off ships in a suit.




Without much reason to learn to drive men would hire a taxi for £5 a day to take them shopping for the likes of the “Hessle Road pink coats” associated with their wives or on trips to Beverley. Sometimes it was to go from pub to pub but it is Rayners at the top of the main street to the docks which features most prominently in folklore. In order to save time pints were pulled and put on the bar half an hour before opening time at 11. One trawlerman on the exhibition video speaking fondly of the yellow silk in the vents of his jacket arms which were “great when reached for pint”.

My grandfather worked for the gas board and he arrived home on Christmas Eve with an enormous fish over his shoulder and no explanation after drinking in the area. I worked with with an occupational health nurse at a factory which employed many of the women of Hessle Road and she recalled the somewhat worse for wear state which followed many of these riotous periods. Meanwhile the men would put the remainder of their money into charity collections or even throw it into the road for children to collect rather than take it back to sea.

A police officer who worked the docks area said their outfits made trawlermen easy to recognise and ship owners would take money from them if a glut in the market meant they didn't make enough. In the 1970s the Cod War over fishing territories off Iceland finally put payed to the industry but not before one final tragedy when the disappearance of the Gaul in 1974 meant the loss of all 36 crew.

With such a precarious existence and a society which emphasised conformity the Three Day Millionaires style was a very particular type of defiance but one which seemed to draw inspiration from the westerns and country music beloved by many of the trawlermen. As a soundtrack to the exhibition the use of “Hurt” by Johnny Cash is telling and its refrain of “Everyone I know goes away in the end” even more chilling than usual. A more lighter epitaph for this way of life and one the trawlermen must have relished comes from the stir the Three Day Millionaires caused when they went to Liverpool and people thought they were pop stars.


Touring Dates :

History Centre - 6th -29th January

Holy Trinity - 30th January-27th February



Dismaland Bemusement Park


13 September 2015

Going into the station at Bristol Temple Meads a ticket inspector wondered why I was was going to Weston-super-Mare as “nothing will be open”. Deflating or a wonderfully apt start to my bank holiday at the Dismaland Bemusement Park? Surely Banksy's reach doesn't extend this far. With the ominous looking Shoreditch types on the platform I braced myself for a volume of post modern analysis audible back in his old stomping ground of Stokes Croft.

Thankfully upon arrival at Weston and the lengthy queue of people already standing in line it became apparent that there were too many people for the Late Review audience. Indeed some criticism of Dismaland on the internet seemed to focus on it attracting the “wrong” type of crowd. People who might not be rooting for Corbyn or think Shephard Fairey is a character in the fairytale castle being somehow evidence of Banksy “selling out”. Since its nadir with modernism there is nothing the liberal art elite seem to find more off putting than the plebs gatecrashing the show.

Guardian critic Jonathan Jones missed the point spectacularly by maintaining that funfair's are more “subversive” than Dismaland. While the old farts were contributing to plans for a Thatcher Museum designed to challenge the one supported by David Cameron by highlighting her friendship with dictators and paedophiles ( to join in) children were collecting postcards in Darren Cullen's Pocket Money Loans shop. If a small percentage go on to question their roles in a system designed to pacify them with mortgages or jobs in the army to pay it then nothing could be further from the truth. Or after prompting such a strong reaction if they flick through the programme and read about the Museum of Cruel Objects. I certainly wasn't confronted with Israeli companies marketing designs along the US- Mexico border as “field tested” on Palestinian people at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Not since punk has there been a bigger counter cultural movement than street art and this felt a bit like its “God Save The Queen” moment. Now getting Daily Mail readers hot under their starched white collars is always good but the recurring theme of this theme park is even more pressing. From Tammam Azzam recreating Klimt's “The Kiss” on a battle scarred building in Syria to the work of cartoonist Mana Neyestani who was imprisoned by our new best friends Iran for his cartoons the spectre of the refugee crisis loomed large over the former Tropicana lido.


However crude the new art establishment think Banksy's work is the pond where people steer model boats full of refugees up to the white cliffs of Dover is disconcerting and all the more visceral for it. Pot shots at Disneylands celebration of capitalism like Mickey Mouse enveloped by a snake or putting The Grim Reaper on the dodgems to a soundtrack of the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” made me smile. This combination making criticism sound like the keyboard solo on a prog rock concept album. Indeed parts of Jones review were immediately put on the Dismaland website in a way Malcolm McLaren would have been envious of.

Perhaps the talking heads agonising about the death of music as a life changing force could look elsewhere or conclude that having the Sleaford Mods rather than Oasis scheduled to play Dismaland means there will always be a pulse. Jones waxing lyrical about funfair's like an adolescent Morrisey and making references to Tod Browning's “Freaks” made me wonder when he ever went to one. Hailing from Hull I can assure him the days of Jim Rose style bacchanalia or edgy, rebellious youth in “strange, wild places” disappeared under a welter of health and safety legislation and complete hopelessness a long time ago.

One of the security staff who wasn't in Dismaland role decided to tell me how much easier the British were to herd from one place to another than the Greeks. Why the Greeks I don't know but they have had a lot on recently and whether the subtext was that we should be more like them in our response probably wishful thinking. Mindless fun is great but combining it with Banksy's hope that people will be encouraged to “consider, not just consume, to look, not just spectate” is at least as relevant as ever. Working as an entertaining and thought provoking day out is hard enough but when visitors create experiences and really participate in their own amusement Dismaland will have its ultimate vindication.

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