Gabriel N. Gee, Art in the North of England: 1979-2008 (2017)

Based on rare archival material and numerous interviews with practitioners, Art in the North of England 1979-2008 analyses the relation between political and economic changes stemming from the 1980s and artistic developments in the principal cities of the North of England in the late 20th century. Looking in particular at the art scenes of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, Gabriel Gee unveils a set of powerful aesthetic reactions to industrial change and urban reconstruction during this period on the part of artists including John Davies, Pete Clarke, the Amber collective, Richard Wilson, Karen Watson, Nick Crowe & Ian Rawlinson, John Kippin, and the contribution of organisations such as Projects UK/Locus +, East Street Arts, the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust and the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool. While the geographical focus of this study is highly specific, a key concern throughout is the relationship between regional, national and international artistic practices and identities. Of interest to all scholars and students concerned with the developments of British art in the second half of the 20th century, the study is also of direct pertinence to observers of global narratives, which are here described and analysed through the concept of trans-industriality.

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"The processes which made it possible for the Northern artistic scene to fully come into its own are painstakingly uncovered in Gabriel N. Gee’s book entitled Art in the North of England, 1979-2008. From Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979, through Tony Blair’s premiership, and before the crisis of 2008 undermined western economies, the author investigates the new contexts in which art was produced, the functions it was made to serve, the ideological discourses it was involved in, the themes artists tackled and the practices they created. He argues that while adapting and responding to social and economic mutations, art in the North of England thrived in singular ways, distinctive from London models, and became a full participant in the regeneration of the region: art was central in the process of transformation from an industrial past to a post-industrial economy.

Decade by decade, this extremely well-documented study, rooted in archival work and oral history, examines the evolution of artistic practices, cultural institutions and policies in the Northern cities of England, both from the perspective of policy-makers and that of artists with a commitment to a place, its history, its community, and to the value of collective work. Never separating his analysis of cultural evolutions from the economic context of the North of England in that period, the author sheds light on the frameworks in which art was produced and consumed in response to the specific social and economic shifts which profoundly transformed the North and the sense of its own identity."

Mathilde Bertrand, Etudes britanniques contemporaines, n.52, 2017


"There is a strategic hypothesis behind this study: the socio-political turmoil that Britain entered in the 1980s, and the specific conditions that northern cities found themselves in, triggered a radical aesthetic development in the northern regions, which itself broke from past regional practices to engage critically with the present’. The region saw a diversification of art practices allied to central and common aesthetic preoccupations and engagements. A lot of attention is paid to forms of creative resistance and alternative artistic voices to the normativediscourse in these decades— ‘forms of interstitial aesthetics and interstitial heri- tage’ and transient interventions in the urban fabric with its ‘spaces that had lost their original functions and that stood in an in-between’. These artistic endea- vours were focused against sanctioned national and regional cultural policies, regarding contemporary art as ‘a practical economic tool and uninhibited asset of cultural distinction’, and against the role of the cultural economy in the commo- dification of artistic practices and of contemporary art, especially during the New Labour governments, whereby artists were seen as part of a new class working in the creative industries, a means to an economic end in the transition from heavy industries to a service industry."

Another strength is the seemingly effortless embedding of this publication in a theoretical art historical context. The author refers to several seminal studies and art historical concepts (Augé, Baudrillard, Baxandall, Bourdieu, De Certeau, De Chassey, Florida, Foucault, Francastel, Ginzburg, Harvey, Lefebvre, Lyotard, Rancière, Laurajane Smith). He applies these concepts only when it appears necessary to place his argument in a broader context. It does not feel extraneous, and the artistic jargon used is always explained clearly." 

Peter Rogiest, Art Libraries Journal, Cambridge University Press, vol.42, n.4, Oct. 2017

What the author says

"My interest in British contemporary art goes some way back. The material discussed in Art in the North of England, 1979-2008 is drawn from a doctoral research I submitted in 2008 at the Université Paris X, France. I had always had the intention to publish a version in English of this study, but I was also at the time somehow keen to let a little water go under the bridge, see if I could let some ideas rest for a while, and perhaps mature in ways I might not have foreseen…

I think this is what took place, and this publication written between 2012 and 2015 is by no means a translation of the initial/original piece. Each of the ten chapters starts with an in depth discussion of a specific artwork, before unfolding into a reflection on the broader northern England artistic landscape. By North of England, I mean both the North East, Yorkshire and the North West, although the focus is more specifically on urban art scenes, cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle. I look at the nature and evolution of art production in these cities, their museum and galleries infrastructure, and the relation these had to the charged socio-political and economic context in the follow up of the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The North of England was the cradle of the national and ultimately global industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century, and its cities have witnessed dramatic deindustrialisation in the second half of the Twentieth century.

While the geographical and historical focus is in that respect very specific, I also believe the works and issues discussed here carry a relevance beyond the British shores, as their metamorphosis are indicative of more current global patterns. I describe this contemporary condition as trans-industrial, that is located in a state of flux between industrial and post-industrial conditions."