I’m older than you, mate
The oldest building in Liverpool city centre is celebrating its 300th year in 2017, having built on its scholarly origins to become an academy of rabid creativity in one of the most happening places on the planet: A. W. Wilde speaks up in praise of The Bluecoat.
Pre-jarg Moncler, post-incendiary bombs, mid-swinging 1960-something; two men stand with their backs against the city looking out across the river to somewhere else. No beginning and no end, the sky defo nebulous, tethered to the end of their noses and just above the Mersey. The wind – yeh, the wind we all know, with fish and chips on its breath – it shoves in gusts and leaves without goodbyes. That wind is on-the-rob. It steals the words of the taller man before they reach his friend’s ears.
Rico shouts, “I can’t hear you Adrian.”
“It’s happening,” says Adrian, his beard blowing this way and that, his hand pointing back at the city. “It’s all happening here Rico. It’s all happening now. And it’s not fucking happening anywhere else.”
Adrian’s words, taken by the wind, carry over the Three Graces, echoing through the streets, awaiting argument. None comes. Not a peep.
“But what are we going to do tonight?” bellows Rico. “TONIGHT?”
They walk past sailmakers, across cobbles varnished with rain and workloads and past fire-scarred buildings, as the crow flies on the same path as stolen proclamations. Adrian looks at Rico – not by any stretch of the imagination a handsome man, a mismatched face of wormhole pores, inconsiderably assembled, a face that’d look right in the back of a spoon – and Adrian says, “there’s a Happening tonight at the Bluecoat.”
“Lots of people, lots of art: our revolution.”
“A Buddhist monk in an act of self-immolation? That Peel fella from the radio station? A poet in potent flow? Polyrhythmic drum patterns and hundreds of girls in short skirts?”
“Yes. All of that – and more.”
“Are you sure?”
“No,” says Adrian. “I forgot to book the monk. If I’d have known I’m living in one of the most exciting periods in history, I’d have taken more notice.”
THE BLUECOAT is 300 years old this year. In a digital age, one where history turns over hourly, it is an almost unwieldy amount of time to consider. Nowadays people only count to 100 when Likes are involved. Or hostages. Few galleries can lay claim to such longevity and few polymaths can preside over such a magnificent sundry as Adrian Henri. A poet, painter, musician and much more (a great encourager, an instigator of creativity in others and himself), this benevolent spirit intertwined his history with that of the Bluecoat, providing Liverpool with an embarrassment of riches and a place in which to display them. It was – and remains – the jewelry box in the centre of town, a building that has outlived and withstood the ravages of bombs and the wars waged by property developers. It was there when any man, woman or child was a walking war memorial and it’ll be there after duplex developers have been dicked-off.
From The Singh Twins to Mark Leckey, there are plenty of artists on show in Public View – the exhibition that runs the length of its 300-day programme of anniversary events – who share simpatico with the Bluecoat’s ideals, but few are as ‘Pudlian as Henri: son of a Mauritian refugee, a bard-like Nina Simone, his poetry remains raw and imbued with visceral bite, gifted with the flâneur’s eye that’s able to see great beauty where others saw little. If your parents didn’t pay for your school fees, you’ve probably studied the Mersey Sound, the anthology in which he featured alongside lyrical accomplices Roger McGough and Brian Pattern, which remains hugely popular and is never ever out of print. Henri’s art was executed with a defiant wink, his confidence buoyed by being at the centre of an artistic scene that was the centre of the world’s creative output. The art critic Jonathan Jones readily acknowledges Henri’s place in the avant-garde and Liverpool’s singular way of expressing modernity. The paintings themselves – Omo packets, unmade beds and uncooked meat – all speak of human interaction: the everyday exchange. “It’s happening,” said Adrian, “it’s all happening now. And it’s not happening anywhere else.”
Survival: it’s natural to consider its nature when 300 years’ worth of birthday cards are standing upon the mantelpiece. The Bluecoat has been many different things to many different people at many different times. In fact, it has had to be in order to keep opening creative doors, their own new automatic ones included. The full breadth of events planned for the 300 days are a great illustration of this eclecticism, one with inclusiveness at its heart. On any given day, any one of us could take part in sociological debates on how we live within the city and how the city lives within us, under the stewardship of Sociologist-in-Residence Dr Paul Jones. We can become a part of the building’s fascinating history by taking part in My Bluecoat and contributing our own stories of relationship to it, a Heritage Lottery Fund-supported project. Or we can indulge in the rest of Public View, which brings together a sample of the work of 100 artists who have previously exhibited at the Bluecoat (Yoko Ono and Jeremy Deller among them). There’s art for the inquisitive minds of children, which plays and romps upon the building’s origins as a charity school. There is dancing. There will be paint and installation.
From inside its walls, many hobbyists have left with a kernel of an idea and thoughts of a new creative endeavour; some have printed upon silk screens. In the garden, others have heard immigrant songs and strummed along in their head, appreciation of the other enriching all the time. All of the region’s highly regarded artists have had their first significant shows at the Bluecoat, and still they return in rude health having had successes over the waters. This role as Great Encourager is as valuable to the national consciousness as it is to individual spirit. In austere times where regional galleries face precarious cliffs, you wonder how many people share this view or appreciate how important this is. Giving people a platform for greater things – artists and audience alike – is not a rarefied luxury but a fundamental societal right. Adrian Henri understood the art of communication was an act of ubiquitous populist importance. And his definition of ‘populist importance’ remains superior to any other being trotted out today. Here’s to him and the next 300 years.
Public View runs until 23rd April, with a variety of other exhibitions and events running throughout the year that celebrate The Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary. On 5th May, Bido Lito! are hosting Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Records at The Bluecoat in celebration of counterculture – the event is free to Bido Lito! members.