Send us to Coventry! How the Turner Prize and a touring trash can put the city on the map | British city of culture


SShortly before midnight on January 23, 2020, security cameras outside Coventry Cathedral detected two ghostly figures making their way through an angel in the West Screen, one of the most beloved works of art from the city. There was nothing to steal from the cathedral beyond a few books in a collection box. But within seconds, one of the 66 angels and saints who had guarded the main entrance since his dedication in 1962 was irreparably shattered.

Coventry is a resilient city, used to picking up and dusting itself off. When its Daimler factory closed, with the loss of a key local industry, it was requisitioned as an arts space; when Ikea closed its doors more recently, it was designated as the new home for the Arts and British Councils art collections. But the city’s determination is perhaps most poignantly embodied in the New Cathedral itself, which was built alongside the ruins of the old one.

The glass panel depicting the Angel of the Everlasting Gospel by John Hutton was shattered during the break-in. Photography: David Peter Rowan

The idea of ​​commissioning a new building, and leaving the old one as a monument to peace and reconciliation, was launched by the provost in 1940, just a month after an 11-hour air raid so devastating that the Nazi propagandists invented a new verb, coventrieren: raze a city. It was to be a work of art in all its parts, with stained glass windows by John Piper, a monumental tapestry by Graham Sutherland and sculptures by Jacob Epstein. Engraver John Hutton took 10 years to develop the unique engraving system that allowed him to grind and sculpt the diaphanous figures of angels in his 70-foot-high west screen.

The broken angel now lies shattered in a cellar in the basement; Replacing it with a replica would have been neither possible nor desirable, says Dean John Witcombe. But, coincidentally, the heist coincided with preparations for Coventry’s inauguration as a 2021 City of Culture, so the idea sprouted to commission artists to respond with new temporary works of art, including the first will be installed in November. In a beautiful piece of historical symmetry, it is the work of Anne Petters, who was born in another catastrophically bombed city, Dresden, one of the first of Coventry’s 26 Twin Cities.

Coventry is the UK’s third cultural city, after Derry in 2013 and Hull in 2017, in an initiative designed to boost the culture and economies of ambitious but neglected cities. While the title doesn’t come without cash up front, it carries the promise that it will grab attention, investment, and tourists along the way. A £ 2.4million overhaul of the Daimler Powerhouse arts center, where the UK’s first forklift was created, is one example.

There is no doubt that it was a blow to inherit the title as the world entered a pandemic, admits its creative director Chenine Bhathena. The start of the year was delayed from January to May, and some prestigious events had to be canceled. It took some time for locals, who were barely venturing out of the lockdown, to understand why two marquees had appeared in an astroturfed garden in the city center, although in late summer the lager beer was flowing afloat and the world’s biggest spiegeltent was rocking at the bar musical The Choir of Man.

Bhathena and her team responded to their unprecedented challenge by reaching out to Coventry’s own communities, building on their image of themselves as residents of a caring, collaborative and vibrant city, which has an average age of five years below that of the UK as a whole, speaks 120 languages ​​and has hosted more Syrian refugees per capita than any other city in the UK. These qualities were in effect on a Friday evening in early September when members of two dozen different faith groups gathered around trestle tables for a picnic in a local park, before opening their doors to all for a weekend. end of faith broadcast on BBC His songs of praise on Sundays.

Jo, 91, spoke proudly of the rumor that his church, once a prison, was where Royalist soldiers were ‘sent to Coventry’ – not executed, but subjected to silent treatment – during the English Civil War . At a nearby table, young local actor Jack Gardner asked his impromptu dinner mates about their favorite event of the year so far (Answer: The Brightest Moon, a six-foot-tall moon installation, which they had helped weave for a performance at Daimler’s power station commemorating the city’s firebombing).

The brightest moon.
Spirit Blitz… The Brightest Moon explored the air raids that devastated Coventry. Photography: Andrew Moore

The next day, Gardner would reappear as a troubled teenager, discovered by three worried friends sleeping in the streets under the ugly ring road that surrounds the historic city center, in one of four walking shows organized by the Royal Shakespeare Company in some of its less familiar streets. . A trail of Coventry blue ribbons – a tribute to the city’s medieval dyeing industry – joined churches, mosques and gurdwaras for a weekend that ended with a ceremony of light. It was not a flashy fireworks display designed to wow foreigners, but a solemn procession of 500 torches carried by the locals, for whom months of planning and preparation had offered a light through the darkness of the lock.

Spiegeltents are now closed until spring, but the Belgrade Theater is buzzing with preparations for an arts and homeless festival. Highlights of a busy eight-day schedule include a new musical, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency, with music by Boff Whalley of Chumbawamba, telling the true story of a wacky “real estate agency” created. by poet Heathcote Williams in West London in the 1970s to find accommodation for squatters.

Meanwhile, along Warwick Row, south of the city center, a series of life-size portraits will appear on white poles, like boards of estate agents. Like The Brightest Moon and the Faith weekend, this work – titled Agency – is just the end point of a process that took months of creativity. Thousands of ‘assisted self-portraits’ have been taken by homeless people with disposable cameras, under the direction of artist-activist Anthony Luvera, whose only instruction was to take their picture in a location that meant something for them. Mick pictured himself near the house where he was born, Robyn chose the old city walls, while Ken, a wheelchair user, documents street views on hard-to-walk routes. The portraits will be accompanied by a gift journal documenting the process.

'You wouldn't believe what we found'… Rob Hamp's Art Can Be Rubbish Too project.
“You wouldn’t believe what we found”… The Art Can Be Rubbish Too project by Rob Hamp

The theme of art and social awareness will return to the Coventry Biennale, whose development is inextricably linked to the city of culture. As founder and director Ryan Hughes explains, its first edition opened by chance in 2017, just as the City of Cultural Scouts scoured the country for the next city to be anointed; his third was made possible and refined its scope and focus, with the support of Bhathena. “Our challenge for Ryan was: what makes this different from all the other biennials? ” she says. How would that also complement the Turner Prize exhibition, which is one of the big shots of the year, and opened at the Herbert Art Gallery last week?

Hughes’ response was to qualify it as a “social biennial”, specializing in “socially, politically and critically engaged artistic practices”, in the tradition of a city whose art school pioneered the idea of ​​l concept art in the 1960s. Among the artists to be challenged was Rob Hamp, who sent a trash can on day trips to seven seaside destinations, in the company of children from local youth groups , then brought them back and analyzed the contents. The results will be displayed in Art Can Be Rubbish Too, at the Old Grammar School. “On top of all the layers and boxes of fish and chips, you wouldn’t believe what we found – one trash can even had a wedding ring,” the artist explains.

The aim was to document and expose the huge coastal litter problem in the UK, but also to show something of the soul of Coventry, says Hamp, who grew up in the nearby town of Rugby but had l used to cycle around town as a teenager, attracted to his brutalist. its architecture and its clubbing culture (an exhibition of its role in 2 tones was a city of culture flagship of the summer).

“The trash says a lot about Coventry,” says Hamp. “He’s a clerk. He goes on and gets the job done, and never gets as much credit as he should. This show happened because some crazy guy stole a trash can in Coventry and used it as a goodwill gesture. You need a crazy idea to make young people realize that crazy ideas make things happen. It might not be too fanciful to say that it speaks for the entire City of Culture project, which has brought together something bright and new from the fragments of a shattered era.


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