Review: North: Fashioning Identity, Somerset House

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Somerset House is a pretty big draw around this time of year, what with its ice-rink and huge Christmas tree in the Courtyard, so, if you’re heading this way anyway, make time to see this excellent exhibition exploring contemporary artistic and stylistic representations of the north of England.

With a variety of photography, fashion and film, this small show explores how the realities of life in the north of England, especially that captured in the mid-20th century, continue to influence new generations of photographers, artists and designers.

Whether it’s the familiar, enduring images of women in hair-rollers and scarves, dirty cobbled streets, or sheets hung out to dry on washing lines in back yards, or the legacy of Madchester and icons such as Ian Brown and Shaun Ryder, “the North” can be instantly conjured up in the imagination, though it lacks any precise definition, groups together many disparate communities, and has been reduced to clichés.

This show is smart enough to acknowledge this and sets out both to acknowledge the tropes but also bring out those familiar themes to consider why these regions, or representations of them, remain a source of inspiration and still so idealised today.

For all the film, installation and fashion on display, for me it is the photography that is the highlight. The walls are covered with a blend of fashion and social documentary photography, which I adored – especially the latter.

Eric Jacquier’s black and white image of Gino’s café, of an overweight mother sitting opposite her little boy, is a beauty, as is the collection of classic photos from Tom Wood’s Looking for Love collection of young men and women out on the town at pubs and clubs.

Then there’s John Bulmer’s Curlers and Chips, 1965 of women with curlers in their hair munching down chips that is the literal representation of many people’s idea of the North, which is perfectly hung alongside its modern equivalent – Alice Hawkins’ The Liver Birds from a shoot she did for LOVE magazine in 2003, not of models, but of two fashionable young women she saw as she was shooting there, friends arm in arm with each other as they were walking down the street, curlers in their hair and their make-up perfectly applied.

And all this is contrasted with the cultural tourism of the fashion shoots in the same locations, such as Tim Walker’s 2008 Vogue shoot of designer-clad models on cobbled streets and in front of washing lines, and Elaine Constantine’s grimace-inducing shot of Karen Elson, in head-to-toe designer clothes walking through Manchester city centre with locals deliberately encouraged to crowd around her.

Though it’s never explicitly stated, there is the sense that this show is pointedly looking at the glamourisation of hard lives here and I think this is perfectly captured in the film and associated photos of Kate Moss being palpably uncomfortable in the real-life settings for her photo shoot in Blackpool for Corinne Day in 2000.

As with so much about Britain, this is about class. It’s condescending stuff from the fashion mags in the South, but it’s also a clear demonstration that the North remains cool – an area, an idea, that not only continues to inspire and fire up youth culture, but also a wave that others feel the need to hijack and ride for their own ends.

But it’s also clear that it’s an area that, as the title to this show suggests, has a clear identity both in the visual element of its cities, but also in terms of fashion and music. And it’s that identity, that difference, that the South, it seems, always wants a bite of.

I really enjoyed this show and it’s terrifically curated but, oh, what I would have given for it to be bigger. I wanted more! There is so much to explore here. I would love it if we could one day have a bigger show exploring representation and misrepresentation of “The North”, and its profound cultural influence. Will that happen? I’ve no idea. After all, this exhibition is already a wider version of one which ran at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool earlier this year.

Nevertheless, though this is only a small show, it hits all the right notes. Fascinating and enjoyable.

Somerset House, London, to February 4, 2018.
Admission £7 (concessions available).

Image Credits:
From Preston Bus Station, 2010-2015 © Jamie Hawkesworth
Gino’s Coffee, Leeds, 1969 © Eric Jaquier
Derrin Crawford and Demi Leigh Cruickshank in The Liver Birds, LOVE magazine, Liverpool, 2012 © Alice Hawkins, and 9. Curlers and Chips, Yorkshire, 1965, Sunday Times Magazine © John Bulmer
Karen Elson, 2005 (c) Elaine Constantine

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