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Blog 1: Aaron Williamson blogs his new residency at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool / 6 August 2012

It’s been two years now since I was last a-blogging for DAO during my time as the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursarist for Shape at Spike Island, Bristol [Read Aaron's previous blog here]. I’m now artist in residence at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool as part of the coming Biennial and the invitation to write again for DAO has arisen. Last time, I used the activity of blogging as a useful medium for reflection and speculation away from the crucible of, um, doing stuff, and I’m hoping that the magic will return once more.

I could hardly be in a more contrasting environment. Whereas at Spike I had a large, windowless studio-cell crammed with tools and junk, here I am ensconced in an oak-lined chamber in the County Sessions House neighbouring the Walker. I get here via a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels that join the two grand Victorian buildings, passing through prison cells, around ornate staircases, along marble halls and through the eerily bedimmed, disused courtroom to reach the room. I am its sole occupant and have learned that the room’s original use was as a Judge’s chamber for the donning of wigs and stockings. The urge to call for a butler to crack open a bottle of jurisdictive port, to light a fraternal cigar and sink back in a leather divan is always with me, but I am in fact here to work on a project that sports a working title: ‘The Eavesdropper’

Firstly though, I have a bit of form with Liverpool and most of my record involves art-crimes on behalf of DaDaFest – the annual festival of deaf and disabled artists led by Ruth Gould out of the Bluecoat Gallery. This year’s DaDaFest includes the groundbreaking exhibition Niet Normaal and one of my video works, ‘Barrierman’ is in it. I mention this not as a plug for the piece, but because it was my first public (street) performance in Liverpool, some three years ago now. I followed that piece up last year with ‘The Feral Four’, a Beatlemania tribute that involves four artists screaming hysterically at the audience whilst dressed as 1963-style poptastic band ‘The Beatles’, who had some sort of connection with this city.  ‘The Feral Four’ have a shifting membership depending on who can fit into the suits, but on the occasion of DaDaFest 2011, I invited Simon Raven, Sinead O’Donnell and Alex Oddy to join me as Ferals led by a Svengali-like cravat-sporting ‘manager’ performed by Laurence Harvey. We even staged a bed-in during the afternoon to drum up interest in the screamathon itself and generally had a hell-raising time.

This performance is a useful link to reflect upon (it was also performed at Spike Island’s open studios evening at the end of my residency there), since the Walker Gallery has always maintained a strongly populist outlook. It gets amazing audience figures each day of the week. According to one of the information panels in one of the Victorian Rooms, the curatorial premise for collecting works has always been to purchase ‘works of popular character to give great pleasure to the numerous visitors to the Gallery who are uninitiated in the higher forms of art.’

This unabashed populism isn’t the be-all of the Walker. ‘High art’ exhibitions of Picasso in 1933, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Paul Nash in 1934; and now, yours truly (hoho), have also been staged but the Gallery contains many canvases such as W.F. Yeames’ ‘When Did You Last See Your Father?’ (1878) that, being unafraid of sentimentalism, perform that evergreen populist ingredient known as ‘telling a story’. I’m here, ostensibly, as a listener, an eavesdropper, to hear or invent such stories around and between the painted figures in the Gallery’s collection, and to see what I can construct out of them.

I’m currently toying with the idea of offering my services as a free private clairvoyant in some kind of preparation for the artwork proper, but stay tuned for whether or not that happens. It does sound ill-advised.

NOTE: a book arising from my ARMB Bursary, ‘The Forgotten History of the Affligare’ is being published by Spike Island and launched at the Bluecoat Gallery on August 22nd as part of Shape’s Symposium of the Adam Reynolds Bursarists.