Sarah Freeman: Hull - a city transformed by a year of culture

An art installation titled Arrivals and Departures by arts collective 'imitating the dog' is projected onto The Deep.
An art installation titled Arrivals and Departures by arts collective 'imitating the dog' is projected onto The Deep.
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Ask if Hull’s year as the UK City of Culture has been a success and those behind it will fire off a salvo of statistics.

They’ll tell you about the 3.6million who attended one of the 2,000 or so events – and the £3.3bn of investment which has apparently flowed into the city along the Humber since it took on the mantle.

Hang around long enough and they’ll mention the travel website Expedia which cited the arts programme as the reason hotel bookings shot up by almost 80 per cent over the summer and official employment figures that show the number of jobless to be the lowest on record.

It’s impressive stuff, but success can’t just exist on a spreadsheet or in the confines of the city council’s finance department.

For those living on the city’s Bransholme estate, where the exact percentage visitor spend has grown in the last 12 months is largely meaningless, the numbers had to be accompanied by something far less tangible.

It had to engender a feeling that something was changing from the Land of Green Ginger to the Fruit Market and beyond. And not just for Hull’s already thriving community of artists, musicians and actors.

And so it came to pass. I first spotted it when Spencer Tunick, a photographer whose trademark is mass nude art installations, invited anyone who wanted to strip off and paint themselves blue to join him at Queen’s Gardens.

In the early hours of one July morning in 2016, 3,500 answered the call. Some had travelled the length of the M1 to be there, Tunick’s biggest fan – 80-year-old Stephane Janssen – had hopped across the Atlantic from America, but most had come from the city suburbs.

As they walked through the dawn light passed the Guildhall to the Scale Lane swing bridge, stopping to pose for various photographs along the way, this blue army, which included nurses, barmaids, retired vicars and a couple of war veterans, summed up the potential of UK City of Culture.

It didn’t matter whether they were fat or thin, rich or poor, what mattered was that while the rest of Hull was sleeping they came together to produce something more beautiful, more bewitching and more bonkers than they could have ever achieved alone.

The results of Tunick’s Sea of Hull were unveiled in the summer, but where he led, the rest followed and on New Year’s Day 12 months ago, the rest of the city got a chance to see what the fuss was all about.

The evening of January 1, 2017 was particularly bitter, but as the curtain went up on Made in Hull, a series of light projections on some of the city’s key buildings, the warmth of the reception thawed any last frost away.

It wasn’t perfect. The repaving of many of the main pedestrian routes and a series of major roadwork still weren’t finished. The resulting diversions had pushed a number of city centre businesses to the brink, but that night most saw past the sea of orange barriers.

Some of the artists involved were native Hullensians, others had only been introduced to the place through UK City of Culture, but they were united in an ambition to allow the birthplace of William Wilberforce, Sir Tom Courtenay and the chip shop delicacy, the Hull pattie, to tell its own story.

And what a story it is. It was one which over the last 12 months has featured chapters on Richard III, Philip Larkin, a fearless fishwife called Lillian Bilocca and an art collective who go by the name Throbbing Gristle.

It has turned the Humber Bridge into a giant soundscape, staged a theatrical flood and seen a redundant office block transformed into the dystopian headquarters of a South Korean office block.

The people of Hull are a pretty stoical lot. In the face of economic hardship, they have had to be. But on that opening night there were tears of joy and tears of pride. More have been dabbed away since, often in dark theatre auditoriums, quiet corners of art galleries and under the cover of night as outside the city has watched angels descend from the sky and The Deep transformed into a giant iceberg.

There is no scientific way of measuring the impact UK City of Culture has had on Hull. It can’t be recorded in decibels or plotted on a graph, but while most of the events left those who saw them with just an entrance ticket as a souvenir, collectively they have left a lasting impression.

Television producer Phil Redmond, who came up with the idea for UK City of Culture after seeing the difference European Capital of Culture had made to Liverpool back in 2008, summed it up best.

“It’s about civic pride,” he said after seeing Blade, a 250ft section of a wind turbine deposited outside the Ferens Art Gallery. “Once you’ve seen that giant blade you won’t forget it. That creativity focuses people’s minds so the next time someone says ‘We need a new bench in the city centre’, someone else will say, ‘OK, but why don’t we do it a little bit differently’. Art triggers new idea.”

Was every event a success? Of course not. There were a few dark, windswept nights driving back along the A1079 to York when I wondered whether the journey had been worth the petrol money, but looking back over 12 months worth of installations, exhibitions, plays and more it has been quite a ride.

The UK City of Culture baton will be now be passed to Coventry in 2021 and as Hull’s years draws to a close it makes it even more poignant that the Brexit has, for the moment at least, caused the sun to set on Leeds’s bid to host the European title in six years time.

That’s not it though for Hull. One of the various taglines for the year-long celebration of the arts was “a chance to see the city through new eyes” and while 2017 may be drawing to a close, that particular story is only just beginning.