Up all night? The Bluecoat gets restless after dark

Mike Pinnington

With stop-frame animation, sculpture and “Pissing Women,” a new Liverpool art exhibition discovers that it’s darkest just before dawn.

It is a time drenched in dualities, from the despair of checking the bedside clock to the creative highs that can be inspired by this “magic hour”. The Bluecoat’s artistic director Bryan Biggs calls it “the shadow side of our daylight existence,” noting that the “wee, small hours” hold both a sense of freedom and dread. Whatever your take on the hours between Midnight and the morning, a new exhibition at the Bluecoat offers a dizzying interpretation of just one of them: 3am.

Everything we associate with the dead of night – our deepest fears and terrors, deviations and aberrations – are all here in an exhibition titled 3am: wonder, paranoia and the restless night. Well, almost. At its most perfunctory, this is manifested in Tom Wood’s Looking for Love series, where 1980s teens and twenty-somethings are captured out on the town in pubs and clubs, all dolled up and fuelled by a mix of alcohol and hormones. They’re fun, but with a kind of “you had to be there” quality; despite the subjects’ gaudy clothes, it means they’re a little forgettable, especially given the long shadows cast by some of the other work here. Jordan Baseman’s film, Nasty Piece of Stuff, is one such piece. Narrated by political activist and founding member of the UK Gay Liberation Front, Alan Wakeman, it features a stop-frame animation of a Soho street. Wakeman recounts how, working late one night, he was picked up on the street not far from his offices. We learn that not only was this his first sexual experience, but that it concluded with him being raped. Needless to say, it stays with you, not just because of the implicit trauma but for Wakeman’s humour and wry asides.

Craving light relief, gallery-goers are instead confronted by large-scale images of a pair of worse-for-wear women relieving themselves in 1990s London. From Sophy Rickett’s series, Pissing Women, the images arrestingly capture the moments when you just can’t wait any longer, but also have much to say about how society expects the XX-chromosomed amongst us to behave. Would the images be nearly as eye-raising if we replaced the women with men?

Everything we associate with the dead of night, our deepest fears and terrors, are here

At this point in the exhibition, 3am is still rooted in the realities – however wayward – of behaviour that takes place under the cover of darkness, but things soon start to get weird. In 2008, Willi Dorner made Body Trail, a kind of flash-mob human centipede captured on CCTV. Seemingly an exercise in the bewilderment of the viewer, the amalgam of bodies is mesmerising, a testament to how twilight induces light as well as dark subversive tendencies. Speaking of dark subversion, Anj Smith’s modestly-sized pieces shouldn’t be overlooked. Like highly detailed nightmares brought to life (with oils on linen), they hold all manner of night terrors just waiting to be tapped. Marc Hulson’s graphite on paper sketches, while more subtle, are neither any less fear-inducing nor impressive – chilling isn’t the word.

If it’s primal, scared-out-of-your-pants fear you’re after, look no further than Danny Treacy’s Them, which channels Charles Fréger’s Wild Men of Europe with a stark urban twist. And for sheer terror, even managing to trump Treacy (just), is Nathan Mabry’s imposing bronze sculpture, Process Art (Eat Your Heart Out). A cherubic young boy, kitted out in the boxing attire of vest and shorts, wears a single glove and boot. On his shoulders, he carries a similarly attired monkey-goblin, wearing the boy’s missing boot and glove (or is it vice-versa), suggesting that even the purest among us hide unimaginable horrors.

3am may offer terror, unreality and night-time misdemeanours in its droves but there’s no sign of the “freedom” Biggs finds in the “wee, small hours”. Where are the flights of fancy reached only in desperation, when, minds racing, some of our greatest – unlikely in the cold light of day – ambitions are indulged and imagined? It’s a shame because we’re no strangers to 3am ourselves, a time when, once fears have been conquered and expelled, the seeds of our greatest achievements have elbowed their way in to our fuzzy consciousness and given the room to grow into wonder.

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