Weekend essay
Art
Culture
9 min read

Wonder walls: will Manchester’s creativity save the city?

Manchester newcomer, and new bishop, Matthew Porter is bowled over by the city’s enrichening creativity.

Matthew Porter is Bishop of Bolton, in the diocese of Manchester. 

Looking down on a man walking across a grid of large black and white portrait photographs of people's faces
The 'Inside Out: This is Manchester’ installation.

Manchester is the place to be. So thinks fashion house Chanel. It recently hosted its renowned annual Métiers d’Art show in the British city, billing it as ‘one of the most effervescent cities of pop culture and an avant-garde one, whose bands, spanning all genres, have changed the history of music.’ So thinks the English National Opera, who have just announced that Manchester is to be its new home. And so, think the investors who have pumped £242mn into Aviva Studios, a stunning new arts centre, billed as the most important arts venue in the UK since London’s Tate Modern gallery. 

Cultural mix 

Having recently started as new bishop in the Diocese of Manchester, I feel like I’ve arrived at a time of exploding artistic vibrancy, with the city and region rising to new cultural heights. The mix is rich and potent, edgy and interesting, young and confident, strong and loud. And yet not far from the coolness and affluence it brings there are still many areas of urban dreariness and scruffy social housing, often linked with deprivation and deep poverty, telling a different story of those who feel they’re being left behind, deficient in ambition and lacking in hope. Manchester is a real cultural mix. 

Despite these contrasts, you can’t ignore the fact that much of Manchester is humming. The symbol of the city, the ‘Manchester Bee,’ feels apt and has rightly been revived, for it represents hard-work and industry, something the area is becoming known for again. But it’s a new kind of industry. It’s not the hard factories of the cotton mills but the softer artistic endeavours that are reclaiming the spaces and setting the tone. Astute and celebrated, the Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham recognises and champions this, declaring recently that it’s the creative industries that are now the fastest growing sector in the city. 

As a newcomer to the region, I’ve been wondering what I should make of all this artistic entrepreneurship. Is it good? Is it important? Is it helpful? To help answer these questions I decided I needed to see what all the fuss was about and so I visited the newly opened Aviva Studios. 

 Nestling in the heart of the city, on a riverbank, the venue is located in the renovated Granada TV studios building and provides a vast space for creativity. It’s already the home of the Factory International music label and the Manchester International Festival. I was keen to understand the vision and understand why so much time and energy and money has been invested in such a space. I wanted to know if it really is a landmark space for contemporary arts in the UK, especially in the North of England, and whether I’d be back. 

So, I visited on the first day of the venue’s official ‘Welcome’ to the general public. There’d been a series of soft launch events which included Free Your Mind, a large-scale, interactive hip-hop dance reimagining of The Matrix, directed by Oscar-winning film-maker Danny Boyle. But this was now ‘open to the world’ time. I turned up with grown-up members of my family who work in various creative sectors and who were keen to explore, aware that the warm-up events had already garnered great acclaim from The Times to Aesthetica magazine. We entered and took in the aroma of fresh coffee and the bustle of noise, as a small crowd of diverse ages gathered round a pop-up stage enjoying the creative reading of a children’s story. The foyer stage was transformed every hour into something new: first a space for musicians, then actors, then artists and dancers, all entertaining and encouraging participation. It was fun and vibrant, with an intriguing and inviting family-feel, drawing people in. 

Connective art 

Good art does that. It attracts. It reels you in, not just to observe, but to get involved. I experienced something of that as we stepped outside and enjoyed an installation called ‘Inside Out: This is Manchester’. It was a simple black and white portrait-display of two hundred Mancunians. The large photos were set out in a group on a concrete floor, creating what looked rather like a giant board game. The idea was you walked over them, standing on them, in and among them. So, into the photos I walked, and to my surprise I soon discovered the experience to be visually arresting and intriguingly immersive. After a few minutes of wandering among the faces I stood to one side for a breather. I asked my family  which face they found most interesting, and I pointed out the one that had stood out for me. At that very moment, I noticed that a woman walking among the pictures had stopped at the one I’d chosen and was crouching down. As I looked again, she appeared rather like the woman in the photo. ‘Hi. Is this your photo?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it is’ she replied. ‘I’m Carmen. I’m just here for a short time today and wanted to see it.’ ‘It’s my favourite’ I said, ‘It’s a really great photo. I love the way it’s captured you pulling such a strong face!’ ‘Thanks’ she smiled, going on to explain how the shoot had been taken, but that this was the first time she’d actually seen it. I was thrilled: the person behind one face out of two hundred that had caught my attention, happened to turn up at the exact moment I was there! It made me feel strangely connected to the installation and with the people of Manchester they represented. Such is the connective power of art! 

Such art does what cathedrals of old have done, enabling us to look out and look up and see beyond ourselves into a greater vista. They are deeply valuable and enchanting spaces.   

Quality design 

From there we went on an architectural tour. The stairwells, the corridors, the foyers, and the meeting spaces were cleanly and elegantly designed, using strong but simple materials, emphasising curves and city views, encouraging you to walk on and see more. We were told how many spaces, especially the foyers, worked really hard, being multi-functional and could be transformed for different uses. The two main venues were impressive and huge: the Hall is a 1600-seat concert venue, and the Warehouse space could host 5,000, thanks to vast walls that can be opened to create one massive space. The quality, the design, the versatility and the technology was hugely impressive, all set up and ready to be a northern centre of artistic excellence. 

Enchanting spaces 

So what did I make of it? And should such creativity be funded in Manchester? In short, I liked it. In fact, I absolutely loved it. It made me realise how much we need good art, good artists and good artistic spaces. They enrich us and our environment. They touch us deeply not just in our minds but in our souls and cause us to ponder and wonder. Such art does what cathedrals of old have done, enabling us to look out and look up and see beyond ourselves into a greater vista. They are deeply valuable and enchanting spaces.   

The experience was significant for me, and extremely positive. Not only do I want to go back but since visiting I’ve mentioned it to quite a lot of people and am finding myself to be a bit of an evangelist for the place! I didn’t expect that. It reminds me that good spaces produce good conversations. The fact that it cost so much might be controversial to some, but it’s hard to put a price on stunning. If it inspires people to great visionary endeavours and lifts people, especially those lacking in hope, to see beyond their horizons, then it’s money well spent. If it causes children and women and men to dream dreams and imagine new futures, then I’m behind it. If it helps people see beyond their present dilemmas and laugh heartily and cry deeply and love compassionately, then I’m a supporter. 

I believe passionately in encouraging artistry and innovation whenever and wherever I can. For the God I serve is the great Creator and the inspiration behind all true creativity. 

Deeper understanding 

My visit to Aviva Studios must have been good, as it’s made me want to support and encourage the team working there. I found myself thanking everyone, and even took a leaflet about becoming a member. As a bishop, I feel on behalf of the church and city that I want to cheer on Aviva Studios, commending it and its boldness to the Greater Manchester area, for I believe passionately in encouraging artistry and innovation whenever and wherever I can. For the God I serve is the great Creator and the inspiration behind all true creativity. Not only has he made the universe and planet Earth on which we reside, but throughout history he has given artistic gifts for human beings to foster and share.  

 

I agree with Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura, that ‘Art is fundamental to the human search for deeper understanding. Art, by extension of this reasoning, is fundamental to understanding the Bible,’ which itself is a beautifully and uniquely-crafted literary work combining human artistry and divine inspiration. Creativity then, is at the heart of God, and of his human creation. We need to express this creativity in all sorts of places, including our workplaces. Artist and crafts pioneer William Morris rightly says that ‘without dignified, creative human occupation people become disconnected from life.' But surely this is true not just of our jobs but of our homes, and especially of designated creative spaces. Without such creative places, like gothic cathedrals, beautiful parks, art galleries and now Aviva Studios, we can easily become disassociated from the wonder and joy of life. We need good spaces to stir us and send us.  

Innovative leadership 

As a bishop who wants to see our churches growing and communities thriving, I welcome the new Aviva Studios as part of the cultural landscape of Greater Manchester. I want to enjoy it, visit it and share it. I also want the church to learn from it, for churches are meant to be places of Christ-centred worship and mission that are indigenous, reflecting the good things of their cultural environment. Manchester’s burgeoning creative culture is a good challenge to the church to be similarly creative, and not just in a reactive, but proactive way.  

Churches have often been centres of creative excellence in the past, which is often when they have been most vibrant. They tried new things and become breeding grounds for creative people and innovative leaders. Interestingly, despite many churches struggling in the UK today, I see more signs of vitality and pioneering cultural leadership now than I did ten years ago. Most days I come across entrepreneurial church leaders who are brimming with fresh thoughts and renewed vision for their communities. Some even have bold and brash ideas that are being turned into reality, like purchasing, at considerable cost, an old army barracks in the centre of Manchester. Once renovated it will be a stunningly creative space for young adults, to serve the city and from which many new churches will be planted in the future. I’m all for it. Let creativity arise! 

Creative people 

Aviva Studios is an impressive building, designed to be a modern cathedral of contemporary cultural creativity in Manchester. It confidently declares a positive future for the arts, shouting loudly and proudly that Manchester is the cutting-edge city for creativity in the region and, should anyone be unsure, it really is the premier metropolis of the North. But perhaps more importantly I hope its impact will not just be the vast and impressive multi-million pound building, but the greater creative legacy it leaves in people, in those who are shaped by its art.  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013 expressed something of this when he said: 

 'We are shaped by our environment, but we can also shape our environment as well. We are created, but also creative.’  

My prayer is that Aviva Studios and the other new artistic ventures will release more creativity across the city and region, across all ages, social sectors, and ethnic groups. Not only will this lift our sights, but it will stir our souls, and cause us to wonder at the Most Creative One, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.