Memories of a ‘Ghost Town’: the George Shaw exhibition in The Herbert Museum, Coventry, UK

Dr Anton Popov, University of Warwick MYPLACE team member, on the new exhibition by Turner Prize nominated local artist George Shaw at the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery in Coventry, and its particular relevance to the work of MYPLACE.

For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE

This was originally posted on the MYPLACE blog. Follow MYPLACE on Twitter here

On 18 November, the George Shaw exhibition ‘I woz ere’ has been opened for the public in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. Among those invited to the exhibition launch event on 17 November were a number of VIPs (from different art councils, Coventry City Council, etc) but also many ‘ordinary’ people from Coventry and its Tile Hill aria in particular.  A Turner Prize nominated artist, George Shaw was born in 1966 and grew up in Tile Hill, a predominantly white, working class and rather poor area of the town. He left home in 1986 to do his formal art training in Sheffield, but he stayed in touch with the place through frequent visits to his parents who continued to live in Tile Hill. What was left behind is the place and time from which he grew out as an artist – something which is material and, therefore, perishable, but also social – being embedded in the fabric of everyday relationships between people in this neighbourhood in the late 1970s-erly 1980s. The exhibition is an attempt to come back to that time and place on the Tile Hill housing estate, to remember what is forgotten, or as George Shaw put it ‘to paint what you don’t remember’.

The key theme of the exhibition and George’s works presented there is memory. The visitors from Tile Hill many of whom were people in their 40s, 50s, or even 70s were looking at the paintings of pubs and social clubs which had been demolished for some years as a reminder of the time when they were young. I heard phrases like ‘I remember the stuff we were doing there…’. One man told me pointing on the painting of the pub ‘New Star’ with excitement as if he had just met an old friend, ‘It’s flat now there, know, this place’s gone.’ Two elderly ladies were talking to each other while looking at this painting and almost touching it with their fingers pointing on different part on the building depicted as if they were looking at the old photograph of a family home and remembering what flowers or trees used to grow in which corner of the yard.

In his speech before the opening of the gallery for visitors, George, however, warned an audience that his works were not photographic representation of the past but rather pictures from his imagination that represented the places to which he felt connected. In a way this was his way of saying ‘I was there’ (hence the title of the exhibition), to add his mark to the walls that are already heavily covered with graffiti in the places… which are not there anymore. Therefore, these paintings access the past and memory through emotional engagement with the special realm of the urban landscape. In our brief conversation, George said that for him memory is not textual but emotional, something which you can feel and painting is the way to do it. When he was painting these places the details that he did not remember (did he forget them, or were they there at all?) started emerging. These details are essential for his memories but before they materialised through the bodily work of painting they were not there. For me this captures perfectly the sense that social memory is a sensorial process which might be expressed through text, narrative, image, sound, etc – representing the past, the meanings of which are socially constructed. But it also has to be felt emotionally and therefore awaken physical responses of your body, becoming part of your bodily experience. It is this emotional and sensorial nature of memory that makes it possible to connect paintings representing George Shaw’s memories of growing up in Tile Hill in the 1970s-80s with other individual recollections of that place and time or even with recollections of other places and other times. Looking at George’s paintings of dilapidated garages on the town outskirts, I suddenly realised that I was familiarising this strange landmarks with my own memories (something which I was not aware, or remember, before) of hanging out around old sheds and garages in my ‘block’ in the 1980s in Krasnodar, Russia. As children we were attracted to these secluded places (in the rather busy centre of the big city) covered with strange graffiti, old domestic stuff and litter.

In their attention to details and implicit presence of the social context, the works presented in the exhibition are very ethnographic.  The paintings are devoid of any human presence in them, but yet one can feel that something is going on there, which makes sense in this particular place and time. George often depicts the ordinary places as if they were just left by people (residents, random passers-by, adolescents socialising there, children rushing to and from school). This interest in memories of ‘ordinary’ brings his paintings closer to ethnography with its preoccupation with building insightful interpretations of the everyday, mundane and ordinary. One of the paintings presented in the exhibitions ‘Details of untitled’ is particularly striking in this respect. It shows the part/corner of the red brick wall with a very violent splashes of paint on it. In his comments to this painting Shaw writes:

‘I used to see these paint incidents all the time when I was growing up. They always struck me as being very violent or the gesture of violence or a symbol or drawing of a violent thought. They appear in tucked away places or in the old places that buildings have appeared around. Such places hang on to their savage and brutal origins before time and drag half-innocents into a magical alliance involving ritual and transformation. Participants would no doubt have returned home with telltale signs of gloss paint on their clothing or hands – shame on a shirt sleeve or shoe – to be ignored most likely, excused, forgotten like the thousand tiny crimes of all our growing up. The getting caught was always the real blunder. How many of those tiny crimes grow up with us, becoming the tragic horrors we read about or have the misfortune to meet. Of course like most violence it has a beauty all of its own…’

This almost ethnographic contextualisation of landscape and its meanings with violence as part of it (broken-in garages, violent graffiti on the walls, secluded paths, and piled old furniture on the edge of the wood) sometimes is interpreted by observers as a reference to the particular period in the UK, and more precise Coventry, past. The 1970s-80s is the period which in British history is associated with the name of Margaret Thatcher and radical transformations in the social, political and economic life of the country. With economic recession at its background, the conservative government attempted a restructuring of industry that led to closure of many factories, plants and collieries. Driven by the individualist, neo-liberal in its core ideology, the government launched its attack on ‘society’ (Thatcher stated that ‘there is no such thing as society’). The state was withdrawing in different ways its support for the most vulnerable. The tenants of council houses were encouraged to buy their homes in pursuit of the ‘homeowners’ democracy’ ideal. The social tensions grew resulting in the deterioration of inter-racial relations and popularity of far-right groups and movements such as the National Front, and street violence (in which police took active part) manifested in racial riots and miners’ strike in the early 1980s. The Falkland War, to some extent was instrumental for the government to resurrect an ‘imperial nostalgia’ in response to the public discontent with the economic and political climate. Thus in his recent article Stuart Hall defines that period as an ‘authoritarian populism’ (Hall, S. (2011) ‘Neo-Liberal Revolution’,Cultural Studies, 25 (6)).

This atmosphere had been captured and expressed in the music of the Coventry Ska band The Specials. Perhaps their most famous 1980 song ‘Ghost Town’  (it is sometimes seen as a song about Coventry)


(Clip from EMI records official Youtube channel)

raises the issue of the growing violence in the fragmented society of the increasingly deindustrialised British cities. As a true Two Tone band, The Specials were driven by both white and black music heritage and British working class culture. They were essential for the revival of the traditional skinhead scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s (songs like ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’ (1979)) singing about the problems which British society faced including racial violence perpetrated by the National Front supporters and nazi-skins (‘Why?’ (1981)).

The cross-references to the George Shaw paintings and The Specials music are not surprising therefore. Growing up in the 1970s, George Shaw could directly relate his experience of living in working class housing estate on the outskirts of Coventry to The Specials’ songs. Some of his early paintings from that period (before he did any formal fine art training) presented at the exhibition in The Herbert depicted young skinheads and punks as well as scenes of street violence. One or two of these early paintings look as if they were snapshots from the film ‘This is England’, the film which was shot in 2009 but tells the story of a skinhead group in the early 1980s. (The soundtrack to this film includes The Specials’ songs). In fact George Shaw mentioned The Specials and the impact which this band had on people of his generation in some of his interviews (http://blogs.coventrytelegraph.net/privateview/2011/11/exculsive-turner-prize-nominee.html).

At the same time, during his recent appearance on Radio 4 Loose Ends programme, Jerry Dammers (The Specials) talked about George Shaw and how his art (the paintings from 1990s-2000s rather than the earlier works) visually represents what the Specials expressed in their music. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0171yjw/Loose_Ends_12_11_2011/)

In his speech at the exhibition launch, George Shaw said that as a kid he saw The Herbert as an opportunity to encounter a ‘real culture’ beyond watching TV and listening to The Specials. Ironically, he has his first single exhibition in this museum on its first floor exactly above The Herbert’s history galleries where The Specials and Two Tone music are displayed on the permanent stands (see photo above). This brings me to my final point about the way in which memories and representation of the past and particular periods of history are transmitted and, at least partly, shaped by museums. In agreement with Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Scott points out that the museum displays of culture require deliberate ‘fragmentation’ of ethnographic objects as they are detached from their larger context in order to be later ‘reconceptualised’ through the recreation of the absent context but within a theoretical frame of reference which provides viewers with explanations, comparisons and historical background (Scott, J. (2002) ‘Mapping the Past: Turkish Cypriot Narratives of Time and Place in the Canbulat Museum, Northern Cyprus’, History and Anthropology, 13: 226).

The Herbert is a museum of the people of Coventry and it represents a particular vision of these people and their city’s history and culture. Thus the current George Shaw exhibition can be interpreted as a celebration of something which people of Coventry are proud of. Together with The Specials and the Coventry City FC FA cup victory in 1987 (both stands are situated side by side in the history galleries, and the 35th anniversary of the Coventry City FA cup victory was mentioned by several VIPs in their speeches at the launch event), the work of a ‘Cov kid’, George Shaw, is something which put Coventry on ‘the map’. The Coventry accent, so to speak, here is particularly important. After all the exhibition is a collection of the paintings from the artist’s different series on which he was working during last 15 years, but it is framed by the above mentioned early works and a series of very recent watercolours commissioned by The Herbert especially for this exhibition, acquiring its historical context which links the artist’s biography with Coventry’s (in fact, rather, Tile Hill’s) history.

At the other level, ‘I woz ere’ represents a political position of The Herbert; that is to promote diversity and multiculturalism (something which current government is rather sceptical of, if not hostile to). Therefore, memories of Tile Hill, a marginal area, both in terms of the city’s geography and socio-economic demographics, are put forward and in the focus of this exhibition, and indeed of the museum as a whole. To draw a parallel with The Specials’ representation in the museum’s historical galleries, the extract from filmed interview with members of the band on the growing inter-racial violence in the UK in the early 1980s is demonstrated there on a monitor placed under a big “Coventry Colliery Miners’ Wives Group” banner together with other short clips about the people of Coventry in active political participation (see photo below). Interestingly politicians present at the launch event (in this case the representative of the city council) formulated the purpose of the George Shaw exhibition as to ‘bring the people of Coventry together at this difficult time’. Perhaps it is too naïve to expect that paintings representing personal memories of the vanishing places would fulfil such an ambitious political task. However, George Shaw paintings being contextualised within a particular historical and cultural perspective can be an invitation for reflections on why and how society has changed. To some extent it provides the space for ordinary people to voice their memories which might or might not resonate with the ones of George Shaw. I heard, for example, how en elderly man was saying to his much younger friend, looking at the drawings of skinheads, ‘At that time many kids were dropping out…’

The Herbert museum is Warwick University’s partner within the MYPLACE project’s ‘Interpreting the past’ work package. Our colleagues in the museum are very enthusiastic about the project and proactively search for possibilities to explore how historical memories influence the young people’s political participation and civic engagement. The George Shaw exhibition presents a great opportunity for us to address the issue of memories of the 1970s-80s as the ‘difficult past’ in both the local (Coventry) and national (Britain) context. The exhibition contains the watercolours which George painted during one of his most recent visits to the area. By his own admission, they represent the places which used to be familiar but now almost alien. Maybe because of this they are  more document-like than his more memory-based paintings. These watercolours, however, document the presence of the same anger and violence and frustration manifested through burned down signposts in the park, expressive graffiti, decaying furniture in the woods, etc. On one picture, an empty road corner can be identified as a site of the ‘New Star’ pub – one of four pubs in the area that have vanished since 1986. It would be interesting to see what young Coventry people would make of these memories of the ‘ghost town’ – memories of disappearing places, stories and ways of living.

Posted on January 22, 2012, in Comment, Reviews, Staff and Students and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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