Somerset house is a key venue for creative practice housing some of the UK’s most ground-breaking exhibitions including Photo London, Björk Digital, Museum of Innocence, Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick, Film4 Summer Screen and the London Design Biennale. It is an established centre for critical debate and discussion, which has been around since the 18th century, and the venue’s forthcoming exhibition explores artistic and stylistic representations from the north of England. Whilst the prevalent cultural tropes suggest London is the major creative capital, this exhibition seeks to unify the regional divides across innovative practice. From the mills and factories of Leeds and Manchester to the docks of Liverpool and Newcastle, northern cities were once powerhouses of commerce that propagated the economy. However global shifts in production processes and the advent of the technological age, has seen these labour-driven enterprises fall redundant.
Combined with the detrimental effects of this divide, northern England has experienced widespread hardship. The cities’ struggles and faltering progression towards healing are conditions that foster creative thought. In turn, the show considers the subtle differences between regions, highlighting how and why they remain a source of inspiration. Through a spectrum of artistic interpretations, we are asked to consider; if place is a state of mind, is there one identity?
Photography, film, fashion and other multimedia artworks evoke various interpretations of British identity. Infinity (2017) a specially commissioned film by Doncaster-born photographer Alasdair McLellan (b. 1974), investigates how places call upon specific childhood memories. The artist revisits sites of his youth and establishes dialogues about the realities of life in northern England. The work enhances the understanding of how the social and cultural landscape provides fertile ground for creative endeavours. Corinne Day (b. 1965), a self-taught photographer, alters fashion image-making by introducing biographical and documentary elements. The ground-breaking pieces created waves of discomfort in their ability to challenge the status quo. Known for forming close relationships with her subjects, Day has produced a range of candid and intimate portraits. Diary (2000) is a personal record of her life and friends which enters into the privacy of young lives, laying bare the intricacies of growing up.
Similarly, Shirley Baker (1932-2014) engaged with the everyday world and ordinary people as a social documentary photographer. Women, Children and Loitering Men (1960-1970) provides insight into the urban decline of late 20th century Britain. It focuses on the societal impact of the slum clearance programmes in Manchester and Salford. Whilst operating under a rubric of reconstruction, the demolition of housing estates and workhouses generated poverty and dissembled communities. Gritty depictions of deprived working-class, inner-city areas evoke the tensions surrounding post-industrialisation in the wake of Thatcherism. The explorations of post-war culture allude to compassionate and acute observation and define a humanist vision. Baker’s photographic encounters engage with the plight of her sitters with warmth and empathy. When asked about her signature style Shirley remarked: “Despite the many wonderful pictures of the great and famous, I feel that less formal, quotidian images can often convey more of the life and spirit of the time.”
By contrast, Nick Knight encourages fashion to engage with moving image in the digital age, one prominent example being his work with the aforementioned Icelandic musician, Björk. SHOWstudio.com, an award-winning fashion website founded and directed by the vanguard artist, promotes visionary online content. Following the success of a major project on skinhead culture, Knight continued to challenge the international preconceptions of what is technologically possible. As such, the far-reaching resonances of British style and culture are highlighted by innovators further afield. From Belgian-born Raf Simon’s parkas to Hacienda-inspired designs by American artist Virgil Abloh, the north has a wider, and perhaps unprecedented impact on the fashion world globally.
Other featured artists include: Mark Leckey, Jeremy Deller, Raf Simons, Paul Smith, Peter Saville, Stephen Jones, Gareth Pugh, Glen Luchford and Jamie Hawkseworth. North: Fashioning Identities takes place from 8 November until 4 February. For further information visit: www.somersethouse.org.uk.
1. Photograph by Alice Hawkins, Derrin Crawford & Demi-Leigh Cruickshank in The Liver Birds, LOVE magazine, Liverpool, 2012.