Liverpool 1 - Holly Johnson returns to his home city in search of Art and isn't disappointed
For me, there was a cultural coin to flip while growing up hip in working-class Liverpool in the Sixties. On one side was the head of Bill Shankly, erstwhile manager of Liverpool FC, and on the other was the Fab Four. Alongside comic books - the Beano, the Dandy, Bunty, and the American import Superman - Sir Peter Blake's cover for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was my first brush with the visual arts. Pop Art! Later, on a school outing, I was dragged round the Walker Art Gallery, funded by Liverpool's historical economic heyday as one of three points of the slave trade triangle, to view serious pre-Raphaelite masterpieces - pictures with a Technicolor sword and sandals, Hollywood men in tights viewed through the eyes of a child of the Sixties.
Football and all things sportive won hands down with most of the other natives, but it wasn't for me, unless you count ice-skating. Andy Warhol and the controversy around David Bailey's documentary about Warhol's Factory filled with Super Stars ignited my interest. AW's Trash was my first X-rated movie in a dirty mac brigade cinema near Lime Street Station. During the Sixties, music was somehow joined at the hip with art and ended up in the Cavern Club. Even through to the late Seventies, art students would form bands and drop out. This spawned a healthy but competitive new wave music scene across Matthew Street at Eric's Club. I even dropped out just before I dropped in to do an art foundation course, choosing to travel the world fronting Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Almost half a million other Liverpudlians had the same idea, and left to escape mass unemployment and a flood of cheap heroin during Thatcher's reign of terror.
In the Nineties, live music made way for the Ecstasy-fuelled DJ culture at the Liverpool superclub Cream, which has now closed its doors. Once a venue for youthful rebellion and a reason for university applications by the score, it has ended up as something they now call a "youth brand". While visiting my home town in 1999, I was asked to introduce Tracey Emin, who spoke at a huge party to celebrate the first Liverpool Biennial at St George's Hall. "I've heard that Liverpudlians are fucking great dancers, I wanna see you dance," she shouted over DJ Jarvis Cocker's soundtrack. Something was definitely happening here.
I managed to slip a video piece into the first Biennial - to be played every hour at an art cafe in the Independent strand (for UK artists, as opposed to the Interna-tional strand, a higher-budget, Municipal Gallery-hosted event curated by Lewis Biggs, who left the Tate Liverpool to do the job). My film was Disco Heaven, a disco-struction of the pop video, featuring Boy George as Leigh Bowery, and other looky-likey, Studio 54-era luminaries.
When I was invited to exhibit at the second Independent, I held out for the Hanover Gallery, a recently closed commercial space in the Rope Walks district of Liverpool. My show, "The House of Hanover", is a golden jubilee street party seen through a filter of influences, from Andy Warhol, Jamie Reid, to Peter Blake - a celebration of printmaking techniques that I've practised over the past year at the Royal College of Fine Art. And there's a series of my Liverpool Maritime paintings thrown in for good measure.
The morning after the opening of "The House of Hanover", where Tea Bag Catering served slices of Battenburg cake, Bombay mix and pre-mixed G&Ts, and feeling like Bilbo Baggins just back in the Shire, I strode off into the city centre, the sun cracking the flagstones, in search of Art.
My first destination was the top floor of St John's Precinct. I was greeted by Angela Dorrer, the charming German girl who bakes Art Cookies ("Dough is shaped in the mouth, baked and then offered as cookies to be eaten"). I then followed the Path of Love and met Pop.ac, another charming German artist who uses adhesive stickers to create his work. Consumerism and anti-consumerism is the current catchphrase on the art scene - a catchphrase repeated so often that my eyes glaze over like pineapple turnovers decorated with objets trouves and corporate logos and baked by third world children out of uneconomical GM grain. I was scared by Christopher Draeger's split-screen, real-life plane crash video installation, amused by Sharon Stonier's automaton sheep. I especially loved the collage paintings by David Hoyle, who in another life was performance artist The Divine David - a celebration of the male image in fashion and advertising over-painted with a raw line of graffiti.
Suddenly I came across a black curtain, which I brushed aside, and was greeted by a petite, elderly but very lively woman, who could have been the quintessential Liverpool grandmother, on her way out. Would she offer to read my tea leaves? Was her name Mrs Beige?
"It's lovely in the dark," she chuckled, as I peered at the model skyscraper city in a mirrored chamber. The curtain fell back into place and the buildings in Andy Willets's miniature city glowed from within and multiplied in the mirror. It was lovely, just like the lady, a vision in beige, her gold crucifix, sovereign ring and large hooped earrings glinting in the dark. She must have wandered up here looking for the market stalls, I thought, for chicken breasts and half a pound of Cheddar, and got more than she bargained for.
My next stop was to the John Lewis department store to see the beautiful Donna Berry's shop-window installation, Read Between the Lines, about the different trends in modern lifestyle and interior decoration, completely rendered in toast (yes, white bread, toasted).
I walked up to the window and looked down, and there, to my surprise, was Mrs Beige, marvelling at the Toast Mantelpiece and Hearth.
"Isn't this amazing?" said Mrs Beige. "Look at all these people walking past this work. They have no idea that it's not just a half-finished window display."
She went on: "At the last biennial, I was attracted to a piece in one of these windows that was an outfit, in beige, but with a design. When you get to my age, you become more interested in beige. When I realised that the design was actually a series of nipples and arseholes, I was horrified with myself that I was so attracted to it in the first place. This particular artist was obviously interested in human skin. It was amazing. Some of them have such imagination."
It became clear to me that the biennial was having an effect on Liverpool's citizens, that it wasn't just an empty ploy to bid for City of Culture 2008 status. Even posh art critics from the Sunday supplements had a good time on the streets, outside of the usual art cathedrals of the Tate and the Walker, where the "John Moores 22" exhibition showed its deeply superficial slick and monumental works.
It was high time to go and visit my mum up by Penny Lane. I'd been so preoccupied with hanging my show I hadn't yet been able to. I rang the doorbell and waited. Mrs Johnson opened the door and there she stood, looking really well and dressed all in beige.
Holly Johnson's "The House of Hanover" is at the Hanover Galleries, 11-13 Hanover Street, Liverpool L1; for information on the Independent Biennial 0151 236 8006; for the International Biennial 0151 709 7444 or email@example.com. Ends 24 November