Raising Hull: the party starts in style in the UK’s new City of Culture
Can the city once dubbed the UK’s ‘No 1 Crap Town’ be reinvented with art? Richard Morrison hit the streets to see
If the rest of Hull’s year in the limelight lives up to its first day, we will all be looking at the relocation costs of moving to Humberside. In bone-numbing temperatures on Sunday evening the streets of the gritty old port were packed, the pubs heaving and the mood ebullient for the opening events of Hull’s improbable year as UK City of Culture.
“Have you seen the young people out there?” cried an emotional Rosie Millard, the chairwoman of Hull 2017. “And the oldies,” added John Prescott, one of dozens of Humberside heavyweights invited to the opening.
Admittedly, most of the vast crowd had turned up to see a firework display promised to be “bigger than London’s on New Year’s Eve”. They weren’t shortchanged. Starting at the symbolic time of 20:17 (well actually a few minutes later, but maybe Hull time runs later than GMT), the fireworks didn’t just explode over the Humber in a 12-minute riot of celestial squiggles, they were also beautifully synchronised with a film shown on giant screens round the Marina. Indeed at times it almost seemed as if the fireworks were dancing to the music of the film, as when a shower of golden shooting-stars cascaded while Hull’s greatest band, the Housemartins, sang the elegiac Think for a Minute.
This same canny mix of hi-tech projections and unpretentious homespun sentiments is also the dominant feature of Made in Hull, a sequence of 12 highly evocative installations shown on the city’s main streets and squares each evening this week. They have been curated by the documentary film-maker (and local boy) Sean McAllister. “I’ve worked in war zones in Syria and Iran, but the idea of coming home and working in Hull scared the hell out of me,” he said as he showed me round. Nevertheless, he has produced an arresting set of what arty types call “interventions” across the city.
Dominating Queen Victoria Square, Zsolt Balogh’s We Are Hull, the most awesome of the Made in Hull offerings, has a volcanic soundtrack that seems to shake the pavements, and spectacular images projected on to Hull’s finest civic buildings — City Hall, the Ferens Art Gallery and the Maritime Museum. In some ways it’s simplistic: a cut-and paste skim through the headlines and newsreel footage of Hull’s bleakest days (the Blitz, trawler accidents and so on), redeemed by some of its finest hours, mostly involving two shapes of football.
Yet Balogh’s approach is so epic — one was reminded of Sam Goldwyn’s advice to young film-makers: “Begin with an earthquake and work up to a climax” — that each time the 20-minute movie was played on Sunday it produced a roar of approval. If one important goal of the UK City of Culture is to make the inhabitants of a neglected and sometimes reviled city feel better about themselves and where they live, this film is right on the money.
Some of the other Made in Hull installations touch rawer nerves. Projected on to the Deep — Hull’s vast aquarium that juts into the estuary where its two rivers meet — is Arrivals and Departures, by the Imitating the Dog storytellers’ collective. It recounts what seems to be the anodyne history of how Hull has been shaped by immigration and emigration, imports and exports. Coming so soon after the startling Brexit vote in the city, however, it has a very provocative dimension. Despite enormous investment by the German company Siemens (one of the major financial backers of Hull 2017), 68 per cent of Hull’s residents voted to leave the EU. It’s too late to change that now, of course, but more than once, as I talked to people on Sunday, I heard the words “shooting ourselves in the foot”.
In that context, an installation on Scale Lane in the old city centre is also pertinent. Ironically titled (in) Dignity of Labour, it shows young people reacting, in words, music and movement, to the shock of unemployment in a city that has had more than its fair share over the years.
Yet the main impression conveyed by Made in Hull is not of whingeing, but of the city’s energy and sardonic wit. In a vast concrete cavern underneath the High Street underpass, the video artist Jesse Kanda has created Embers, an invigorating, edgy tribute to the clubbing scene in 1990s Hull that uses contemporary film, three screens and a thumpingly loud soundtrack. It suggests that the clubs — mostly long since shut by stringent licensing laws — were places where disenchanted kids could find harmless release for pent-up emotions as well as a sense of tribal kinship.
Just as noisy, but evoking a different sort of tribe, is an extraordinary installation called 105+dB, devised by Invisible Flock. Using 35 loudspeakers it re-creates the roar of the crowd, and the ebb and flow of emotions, at a Hull FC home match. To be inside this surround-sound maelstrom is overwhelming. A rare goal for the struggling home team is greeted with an eruption of lung-power that can probably be heard in Grimsby.
by Photographer QUENTINBUDWORTH
That installation is echoed, much more delicately, by another of McAllister’s witty wheezes, which is to get the bells in the city’s two main churches to chime the rival chants of Hull’s main football and rugby league teams. Of course, you have to be a local to get the aural allusions, but that’s rather the point.
Local humour is a prominent feature too of the installations set up in empty shops on Whitefriargate. One pokes gentle fun at the enthusiasm of Hull residents for caravan holidays. Another, called Hull’s Premier Inconvenience Store, satirises the local penchant for shop-window posters advertising goods, services and heaven knows what else. “Learn how to paint in your oven gloves,” one poster reads, while another asks “Do your shoes need breaking in?” Enchanted, I tried to enter the shop, but a sign on the door said: “Closed until there is peace on Earth.” Given the plummeting temperatures, I didn’t feel inclined to wait.
Besides which, my eye had been drawn to Hullywood Icons [sic] by Lens based Artist Quentin Budworth , an installation giving 200 of Hull’s residents the chance to dress up and re-create a scene of their choice from a classic movie. The results — by turns charming, hilarious and downright disturbing — are projected on to a building in Silver Street.
With a budget much bigger than expected (£32.5 million, of which 40 per cent came from non-public sources), Martin Green, the chief executive of Hull 2017, will be expected to offer much grander and more profound cultural goodies in the months to come. I was glad, though, that he chose to emphasise the city’s own quirky character and humour in this first week. There’s been much scepticism about Hull’s credentials to be the UK City of Culture, but even more inside the city itself. So it is vital that with these opening flourishes Green makes local people of all ages feel that the year is for them, not just for tourists.
And after that? Could 2017 really be transformational for Hull? Crazier things have happened and the signs are that the cultural jamboree, allied to the £106 million that the city council has invested in smartening up the city, is already paying dividends. From famously being Britain’s “No 1 Crap Town” a few years ago, Hull has been chosen by Rough Guides — alongside such vibrant places as Vancouver, Amsterdam and Seoul — as one of the Top Ten cities to visit in 2017. And why not? Where else can get your new shoes broken in?
From Old Masters to brass bands — what to catch in Hull in 2017
Ferens Art Gallery, from January 13
One of Britain’s big regional art galleries, the home of everything from Canaletto to Hockney, reopens after a £5.1 million refurbishment. It also showcases its new acquisition, Pietro Lorenzetti’s Christ Between Saints Paul and Peter, as well as five of Francis Bacon’s “screaming popes”. Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull photographs, showing hundreds of Hull residents naked and painted blue, also features in the 2017 Ferens programme, as does (from September) the 2017 Turner prize.
Anthony Minghella, Middleton Hall, January 24-26
A retrospective devoted to the life and work of the film-maker who went to university in Hull. Includes screenings of The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain, plus discussions and script readings.
Humber Street Gallery, from February 3
A new space for contemporary art in the Fruit Market district opens with a mix of work including Sarah Lucas’s Power in Woman — plaster sculptures of three women, first presented as part of a show called I scream Daddio at the Venice Biennale.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars, Hull City Hall, March 25-26 (returns only)
Two of David Bowie’s old muckers take part in the first live presentation of his seminal 1972 album.
The Hypocrite, Hull Truck Theatre, February 24-March 25
The Hull-born playwright Richard Bean, of One Man, Two Guvnors fame, has written a new comedy set in Hull at the start of the English Civil War. Presented as a co-production by Hull Truck Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Lines of Thought, Brynmor Jones Library, to February 28
Magnificent touring exhibition of drawings loaned by the British Museum, ranging from Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Dürer, to Matisse, Degas and Bridget Riley.
Brighouse and Rastrick Band, Hull City Hall, January 21
No festival based in Yorkshire would be complete without a brass band spectacular. Here the world-famous musicians from Brighouse and Rastrick join forces with the local heroes of the East Yorkshire Motor Services Band.
Bowhead, Hull Maritime Museum, to March 19
Commemorating Hull’s whaling heritage, the city’s computer artists have created this lifelike audio-visual installation of a Greenland right whale.
Look Up, city centre, from January 8
A series of specially commissioned outdoor artworks designed to “intrigue and inspire”, it features such artists as Bob and Roberta Smith and Michael Pinsky. The spectacular opening work, by Nayan Kulkarni, has been made by workers in Hull’s Siemens factory and will go on show in Queen Victoria Square next weekend.
Mind on the Run, Hull City Hall, February 17-19
Three-day festival of “sonic visionaries”, including Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and St Etienne’s Bob Stanley, celebrating the achievements of Basil Kirchin, claimed as “the forgotten genius of postwar British music”.
Richard III, Hull Truck Theatre, May 4-27
Northern Broadsides staged its first production, Shakespeare’s Richard III, in Hull 25 years ago. Now Barrie Rutter’s irrepressible company returns to the same play in a new production.
Ethel Leginska, Ferens Studio, March 10-12
Exhibition and concert celebrating the Hull-born musician who, in the early 20th century, became one of the first female conductors as well as a renowned concert pianist.