ART REVIEW: Chiharu Shiota, The New Art Gallery, Walsall.

This is a blog about modern art.

I know, what a pretentious twat.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming to be an art expert, or even that I know the slightest thing about the subject, because I most certainly do not. I just like looking at it.

Modern art is much maligned, and I can understand why. After all, I leave my bed unmade most days, and there’s nobody queuing up to come and look at it. But modern art makes me think, it challenges me, and it makes me want to understand what makes it art, what was the artists’s inspiration, and how it came to be.

IS THIS ART? – Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’

I just don’t get this with traditional portraits, landscapes, sculptures and the like. I mean, I completely appreciate the immense talent involved in the craft of it. I certainly couldn’t do it myself. But I’m largely unmoved when I look at them. Essentially, I find a strong reaction infinitely more entertaining than no reaction at all. Even if that reaction is just ‘What the hell is this crap?’

Put it this way: I’ve never heard a piece of classical music I really dislike, whereas I actively despise the work of many current artists. Yet, given the choice between listening to Classic FM or Capital, I’m going for the hit music station every time.

During my recent trip to New York, its renowned Museum of Modern Art was right up there on my list of places to visit. I spent a hugely enjoyable couple of hours ambling around its famous galleries, a journey which brought feelings of awe, confusion, intrigue and, at times, sheer bewilderment. It was good. It was very, very good.

Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ at MoMA, New York

 Fast forward a couple of weeks to yesterday. The excitement of my adventure in The Big Apple all but a distant memory, it was back to the mundaneness of real life as I dropped off my car for its MOT. Little did I realise that this would be the gateway to one of the most breath-taking interactions with art I’ve ever experienced.

The New Art Gallery in Walsall has always stood out in a town which has for a long time been pretty rough round the edges. Upon its opening in 2000, despite its largely drab surroundings, the eye-catching building would quickly make its mark, winning several architectural awards, including a nomination for the prestigious Sterling Architecture Prize.

Needless to say, the building divided opinion. From a purely aesthetic point of view, there were those who questioned whether such a modern and striking building was in keeping with Walsall, if a more modest construction may have been more appropriate. Many queried the cost of the building, and whether the money would have been better spent elsewhere. Many simply wondered if the project was something of a white elephant, if an industrial town like Walsall could sustain such an ambitious cultural project.

The New Art Gallery, Walsall

Since then, a sustained regeneration project in the area surrounding the gallery means that today, it looks altogether more at home in its environment, and the sheer quality of its exhibits has established its reputation as a widely respected gallery, and a genuine jewel in the crown for the town.

As I say, I know nothing about art whatsoever, and my occasional visits have always come at times when I’m wondering around the town with not much else to do, rather than any pre-defined appointments to visit.

And so, with an hour or so to kill before my MOT was complete, off to the gallery I went. And boy was I satisfied with that choice.

After ambling around the more traditional artworks on the second floor, I made my way up to the modern art mecca where the gallery’s guest installations usually reside. As the lift doors opened (these days sadly lacking the accompaniment of Noddy Holder’s voice, much to my chagrin), I was greeted by two things: firstly, the smiling face of my friend Zaynul, who works at the gallery, and hilariously seemed almost to be expecting me despite the spontaneous and unannounced nature of my visit. Secondly, behind Zaynul, was the most visually stunning cascade of battered and worn suitcases, each one suspended from the ceiling.

I would soon find out that it was part of the gallery’s current Chiharu Shiota exhibition, showcasing a host of the Japanese artist’s dramatic and spectacular work.


Before even contemplating the artistic nature of the piece, the sheer scale and craftsmanship of the installation was absolutely breathtaking. The installation became all the more fascinating as Zaynul explained that it is made up of over 400 suitcases, each of which tell the story of a different person. From the places they’ve visited, the things they’ve experienced, and the belongings they took with them along the way. It sums up journeys and the individuals behind them, the loves, the losses, the adventures and the new beginnings. The nature of the installation means you are able to walk all around, and even underneath it, enabling you to explore the art from every angle, and become fully immersed in it.


We ventured into the adjoining room, where we were greeted by – and please forgive this uncouth comparison – what looked to be a giant spider’s web of pubic hair, arranged into a tornado shape surrounding its focal point.


Naturally, it wasn’t. The structure is made of unraveled balls of black wool, painstakingly arranged to surround hundred of handwritten letters sourced from Japan, again containing a wealth of thoughts, feelings and experiences from a host of people unknown to us. The piece allows you to walk around its focal point, again resulting in a fully immersive experience to be enjoyed and explored from all angles. It’s a truly visually stunning piece of work.


It’s funny sometimes how you can ignore what’s available on your own doorstep. I traveled to New York and went out of my way to experience to MoMA’s assortment of works. Yet, it was just circumstance and time to kill that led me to venture into Walsall’s New Art Gallery yesterday. Who knew that it would be there that I would see art that left me truly inspired?

Shiota’s installation will remain in place until March 30th, and it’s absolutely FREE to visit. If you’re shopping in Walsall, or just have some time to kill, pop in and have a look. Pictures cannot do it justice – it just has to be seen.

You know it does. It really does.


The Fairytale of New York

statueI made my long-awaited first ever visit to New York City this week, arriving amid a hubbub of excitement concerning a shift-change in the USA’s iconic late night chat show schedules.

22 years after landing the gig for the first time, Jay Leno has relinquished his hold on ‘The Tonight Show’, which will instead be held under the custodianship of Jimmy Fallon, returning to its original home of The Big Apple in the process.

Of course, it’s not the first time Leno has handed over the reins. In a notorious 2009 palaver, Leno initially passed the torch to Conan O’Brien in order to launch ‘The Jay Leno Show’, which aired on NBC during prime time.

True to many commentator’s predictions, however, Leno’s new show quickly bombed. Yet, bizarrely, O’Brien was the man to take the fall. After weeks of speculation, Leno returned to his old ‘Tonight Show’ chair, while O’Brien was unceremoniously removed from NBC’s schedules, albeit with several million dollars’ worth of severance safely banked.

Whilst hosting his final show, O’Brien delivered what was one of the most impactful speeches I’ve ever heard, maintaining his dignity when many lesser mortals would have hit out at the shoddy treatment he received.

It was one part of the speech in particular which stood out for me, which I will reproduce for your reference, dear reader:

“All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism, for the record, it’s my least favourite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

I often come back to that speech whenever I have some soul searching to do. I try hard not to be cynical, really I do. But often, in this world where the actions of others can shock and disappoint you, it’s easy to slip into a ‘glass half empty’ point of view.

So, with that in mind, it’s always nice to rediscover your faith in the generosity of human spirit.

I was in the States to watch Ice Hockey, supporting my Edmonton Oilers in back-to-back away games against the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.

Following an NHL team away from home can be a strangely isolating experience. Unlike football in the UK, the sheer distances between teams in North American leagues means that there’s no real tradition of away support, and any visiting fans are dotted disparately around the arenas.

Sitting among the fans of the home town favourites, supporting a Canadian team in the USA, no less, the feeling of being an outsider is always there at the back of your mind. For me, being an actual foreigner all the way from the UK, that feeling is heightened.

Prior to heading to New York and New Jersey, I’d watched the Oilers on the road in Chicago, Calgary, Los Angeles and Anaheim, and the best experiences were the couple of occasions when lady luck had intervened to ensure I had a fellow Oiler, a brother in arms, beside me.

Until now.

My first game of the trip took me to the legendary Madison Square Garden, a venue oozing history and prestige. Walking around the concourses, there was the usual dotted assortment of away fans, and the customary high fives and nods of acknowledgment that come from your fellow outsiders. Inside the arena, no such luck, as I was surrounded by myriad New York blue shirts.

As the man sitting next to me took his seat, there was the usual awkward banter that goes on when you discover an away fan seated next to you. “Hey, you better sit down and be quiet, you’re getting nothing here today!” nudge, nudge, wink, LOL, etc. etc.

Yet, despite our opposite leanings with regard to the sporting spectacle going on before us, I found myself enjoying the company of my seat companion, whom I knew only as John.

Conversation flowed despite the nail-bitingly close nature of the contest, albeit with a few inaccurate cultural generalisations thrown in… “So, have y’ever been in a soccer riot?”

The prompt for John’s random act of kindness, though, came when I divulged I’d been unable to whet my whistle at the game. This was thanks to Madison Square Garden’s strange policy to only accept passports as a valid form of photo ID for foreign visitors, a fact I’d only discovered when I’d hopefully presented my driver’s licence at the concession kiosk. The surly assistant duly rejected my futile advances, seemingly genuinely angered by my audacity to want to buy a Bud bloody Light for the princely sum of $10.

John disappeared during the intermission, and I enviously eyed the tall, frosty lagers he brandished as he returned to his seat, only for him to quickly thrust one into my clammy palm. Immediately I moved my free hand towards my pocket to reimburse John for his kind gesture… but he waved it away. “This one’s on me”, he said. “Welcome to the States”.

I was slightly taken aback. It seems like a small gesture on the face of it. But again, consider this – we were there as adversaries, supporting opposing teams, with nothing in common other than the fact that fate had placed us in adjoining seats in an arena of almost 20,000 people. Yet this man had taken the time to part with his money, and buy me a beer, a gesture of nothing but pure kindness and generosity of spirit. Human beings being nice to one another. What could be lovelier?

But that’s not where it ends.

The following night I crossed the river to Newark to watch the Oilers take on the New Jersey Devils. I was particularly excited about this one, as I’d splashed out on second row tickets, the closest I assumed I was ever going to get to the hockey fan’s holy grail of a front row spot – the prohibitive cost usually putting pay to any ambitions I ever had of securing such a position.

That was, until, the man in front of me gestured to the empty seat next to him, and invited me to take it. Again, it seems like a small gesture. If the seat was empty anyway, then of course he should have asked somebody to take it.

But it was the significance of it that struck me. There I was again, a foreigner, an adversary, supporting the other team. Yet something had made him reach out with an olive branch to ensure that my experience was a memorable one, offering me a seat worth several hundred dollars to boot.

frontrowWhere’s Wally? (On the left, in the blue and orange top!)

If that wasn’t enough, he ventured up to the concourse at the intermission and returned with chicken nuggets and chips for me, which I was entirely grateful for, albeit not in great need of, having earlier filled my gut on what was a nominated $1 hotdog night.

Two cities, two rival fans, two acts of incredible kindness, two people I’ll never see or hear from again. That’s a shame, really, isn’t it?

I was reflecting on that as I boarded the train to Manhattan when, finally, I found myself sitting next to a group wearing the same orange and blue jersey as me. As we discussed the game, whilst also inevitably establishing exactly why a lad with an English accent was supporting a Canadian team in the USA, they invited me to join them as they headed out into the city that never sleeps to paint the town red.

That night, the conversation flowed as freely as the beer and scotch we poured down our necks, while my stomach, already bulging with hotdogs and nuggets, was lined further with chicken bites, potato skins, and enchiladas as I savoured every moment with my fellow Oilers. Diet be damned.

And it was here that I received my third incredible gesture of human kindness in little more than 24 hours. For as our sizeable bar bill was delivered, I was informed that I was not to pay a penny. It was all on my new mates.

Facebook ‘adds’ were soon exchanged. New friendships with folks from thousands of miles away, forged purely based on the logo we wore on our chests. Marvellous.

Let’s not be fooled into thinking the world’s all candy canes and happy smiles, though.

Cast your mind back to my first game in New York. You know, the one where I sat next to kindly John who bought me a beer?

I got a little excited at the end. A late Nail Yakupov goal meant the Oilers recorded an all-too-rare victory at The World’s Most Famous Arena™, and despite my position as the sore thumb among a group of Rangers fans, nothing was to prevent me from roaring my approval.


The Oilers currently stand 29th out of 30 NHL teams.

“WHAT’S YOUR RECORD ON THE SEASON?” he repeated, almost as if he wasn’t already completely aware of the answer.

“It’s shit, mate.” I replied. “But I’ve come all the way from England for this.”

Suddenly the man’s face, previously etched with pure apoplectic fury, gave way to a forgiving smile. Off he went, confrontation avoided.

So, the moral of this story: Generally, you can rely on human beings being quite nice. If they’re not, all it takes is a Hugh Grant-esque display of British fopphishness to get you out of a tight spot.

And sharing that wisdom is my gesture of kindness to you.

You know it is. It really is.