ALIZA NISENBAUMTate Liverpool
In a celebrity-obsessed culture, it is a novelty for the rest of the population to be represented publicly in a way that is not gimmicky or overly sentimental. Reality TV in its boom reflected the lives and attitudes of members of the great British public in a distorted, vulgar manner and speedily converted them into a different kind of celebrity. In this exhibition, however, ALIZA NISENBAUM examines the everyday from an alternate angle, her portraits questioning the notion of community and what it means to be ordinary. She begins this socially analytical conversation through older works; representations of working-class communities in Mexico and staff at Brixton train station in public-facing roles.
It is the newly commissioned work, Nisenbaum’s portraits of the City Region’s NHS staff painted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which provides the reason we’re here to review proceedings. The Mexican-born artist painted the two group pictures and 11 portraits of Liverpool NHS workers remotely from her studio on the other side of the Atlantic in the US. During normal times, painting subjects virtually would be questionable, but we all create and communicate in different ways now. We’re so accustomed to alternative methods of doing, a big question is, can we ever really go back? Nisenbaum’s method here could be a metaphor for our times, for all we’ve had to endure, and kept separate from our real, typical lives and the way we approach our own jobs and creativity.
This isn’t the first time the NHS has been praised through theatre or art, of course. The 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, directed by Danny Boyle, featured hundreds of NHS staff as dancers – alongside real patients from Great Ormond Street children’s hospital – in a sequence celebrating the institution. The tribute took place as austerity bit down and was interpreted as a perfectly salient political point to make.
The Nisenbaum portraits of Merseyside NHS staff in contemporary times are different. A popular choice of subject matter, despite our weekly Thursday night 8pm clap for their efforts being cut short when we got our lives back and supported them by eating out instead. Standing on the doorstep in the cold and clapping into the dark of a wintry street doesn’t hold the same appeal. Or maybe we realise nurses and carers can’t keep safe via the miracle of clapping, they require proper PPE and access to vaccinations, a pay rise and free parking at work. So yes, it’s unusual to see paintings of people in well-worn uniforms, devoid of glamour, hung on the walls of a gallery.
The colourful portraits portray exhaustion, thoughtfulness, determination and the pleasurable lighter moments, offering us a glimpse into how such workers emotionally continue in trying times. But still they contrast on occasion with the accompanying written notices and short films, where we feel the real fear felt by each as they returned to respective workplaces each day. Sue the housekeeper’s daughter was scared her mother would die from her day job. Kevin the porter, a remarkable storyteller of his experiences who probably doesn’t realise, tells how he raises a glass of whisky when he gets home after a shift dealing with the death of a child. How he is ever mindful he is the sole companion of so many final journeys. How he never gets used to it.
The film in which subjects are shown their portraits virtually by the artist and enthusiastically feed back to her feels misjudged. But, in its own way, realising that makes one appreciate how each worker represents a host of other people in public-facing roles: those magically transformed into key workers overnight while walking the tightrope of zero hours contracts and minimum wage. And although this exhibition may not be of them, it very well could be.