27th February 2018 // Art // Cultural // Anna Bean.
I like to think I can hold my own in most conversations about the arts. Come to think of it, I’d probably only be able to speak with any authority about music, films, literature and theatre. Even then, a relatively populist area of each. So really, just music. I can hold my own in most conversations about music. High-brow stuff like classical music, opera and actual Art are a little out of my comfort zone. So how should I appear not to be a complete philistine when talking about art to one of Hull’s most lauded and talented artists, Anna Bean? The answer is to turn up woefully under-prepared and just approach it as someone who ‘knows what I like.’ It’s probably incredibly annoying to be faced with someone who’s not an art critic coasting his way through your area of expertise, but luckily Anna is one of the nicest people around, accommodating and approachable, and she goes easy on me. I do feel a slight smugness when I actually recognise a few of the photographers and artists she talks about, but I pretty much wing my way through it and it probably shows. Anyway, every day’s a school day, and I’m up for the challenge. Even on a Monday morning.
A great place to start is the recent Banksy melodrama that unfolded on social media recently. She immediately puts me at rest by asserting that the reason it generated such a response was that people get Banksy, he (?) isn’t elitist, and the art is accessible and designed to provoke debate. She mentions that her mum, who’s 78, was obsessed by it and what it meant. She was immediately on the phone, asking Anna all sorts of questions, such is the broad appeal of the artist. I feel comfortable because already we’re on familiar ground, and we’re not venturing into the obscure.
Social media is touched upon repeatedly during the couple of hours we’re chatting, and she remarks how great it was that the Banksy engaged people; everyone was involved, and had it not been for the drama that unfolded on the One Hull of a City Facebook group, nobody would have known about it; it’d have been discovered in the morning and would’ve dried. Anna was going to go down herself with fellow artist and friend, Paul Weymes, to see if they could do something, but Jason Fanthorpe, the heroic window cleaner, saved the day. A piece of art had elicited soaring highs and crushing lows. It was like watching a live stakeout or a rescue and people were completely involved.
I ask if we’d have been so locked into it a few years ago, and if 2017 had made us, as a city, more confident about talking about art; she maintains that maybe not so widely. People maybe wouldn’t have driven to it in such large numbers. It was as if half of Hull made the pilgrimage to Scott Street Bridge on Wincolmlee, and that, in itself, is nothing short of miraculous. Now the area is being mooted as an area for possible regeneration as an art space. She goes on to proclaim that we had been eased into the whole idea of artworks just popping up and people flocking to see them:
‘I think it started with the Larkin toads and the Amy Johnson moths. The toads really got a lot of attention. It was probably the first public art in the city that people really took to. The fact there was a map, and people could follow their own trail and see each one was appealing. People were turning up with their kids and really getting into it, so I think maybe the broader interest started with that. It was art for the people, not art for artists. Until then, most art was more experimental high art and based mainly in town. I think the City of Culture status built on what was already here. We’ve got things like The Sesh and The Freedom Festival, but now there’s maybe more of an audience, and it’s great to see young people engaging with art. It shouldn’t be impenetrable.’
Music to my ears. This is going to be easy. I am the people. The wider audience that appreciates the accessible, without having to do an Art degree to understand it all. And Anna’s Art is extremely accessible. You’ll all have seen her art even if you don’t know it. Her arresting, colour-drenched images hang on the walls of all the right eating and drinking establishments, galleries and cool shops in the city. They’re mainly photographic pieces, done on a computer. And feature often surreal, sometimes disturbing images of animal heads on human bodies, reimagined b-movie film posters and people dressed in retro sci-fi costumes. I mention that a good word to describe them is ‘lysergic,’ and ask her where she gets her inspiration from:
‘Ooh, lysergic, that’s a good word, I like it! (laughs). I get inspiration from anything really. At the moment, I’m really into looking for sci-fi costumes. I’ve been watching UFO, Space 1999, The Avengers and The Champions, all those ace TV shows from the 60s and early 70s, stuff I watched as a kid. I loved them back then, but I’ve gone back to it as a maker now, and see it with completely different eyes, looking closely at the costumes and sets. They’re amazing! It’s like transporting myself back to childhood, and I love to watch those programmes, take an idea or scene, and recreate them with a twist and turn them into something else.’
Without wanting to go all psycho-babble, is it a desire to return to your childhood, when you create a piece?
‘I wouldn’t say I want to go back to my childhood. I spent a lot of my childhood in a kind of dream world. I’d go into this other space. I was in that space quite a lot. It was triggered by TV, drawing and looking at pictures in books. I suppose with the art I make, you could say I’m creating that world I used to go into. I didn’t realise how much I found it really comforting; I guess it’s a calming space to be in, to make this new world that comes through in my pieces.’
Your signature works involve a lot of masks or humans with animal heads. How did that come about?
‘The masks and animal heads come from that pagan ritual thing, like in The Wicker Man where everyone has masks and you don’t know who’s which person. I also like the dreamlike aspect of it all, but it has that uncanny edge to it that makes you feel a bit uneasy. One on level, it’s quite playful, but disturbing on another level.’
I mention that I bought the first edition of The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm a couple of years ago, and they’re pretty gruesome. I ask if there are any parallels there.
‘Absolutely. There are elements of that in there; when you scratch beneath the surface, those charming fairy tales you used to read as a child, are obviously really quite sinister. It’s a similar thing, and again it goes back to childhood; the idea that you’re told to imagine things that exist, and those that don’t exist. How does a kid differentiate? You’re told that a fairy visits you when you lose a tooth, and that Santa brings you presents. But there isn’t a monster in your wardrobe and you don’t see ghosts. It’s really confusing to a child. I was in that place as a kid, and scared of the stuff that you’re told isn’t real.
‘The photographer, Roger Ballen does these black and white images of white people in South Africa in destitute conditions, and he’ll put a pig’s head on them. It’s really sinister stuff. He did geology as a student and his pictures are mining the psyche of the person who’s looking at them. All the scary stuff that we’ve pushed down, like when you see dolls or clowns as an adult, and they’re scary; he says his pictures bring that back up to the surface. I really like that idea of connecting with someone somewhere that might have had similar experiences to you. Just a little shudder of recognition is enough. It doesn’t need to be a complete connection.’
Why do you think things like dolls and clowns have become so scary?
‘Well, they’re comforting as a child, but later in life, you read stories of dolls coming alive and clowns being psychotic, or see horror films, and it seeps into your psyche. They are portrayed as having no soul in films, much like AI now. I like to operate in the place where the strange becomes familiar and vice versa. The familiarity of a doll in a certain context, becomes frightening. I’m also really interested in the idea of doubling. Diane Arbus’ famous photo, Identical Twins is amazing. It’s really disturbing. Of course, it was echoed in The Shining with the twins at the end of the corridor. And if you have a reference like that, maybe people don’t quite know what they’re seeing, but they get the reference. Just as some will have got the Arbus reference in The Shining, I like the idea that if I do images with doubles, people will hopefully get the Kubrick reference. It’s familiar to people, maybe those the same age as me, but they get the reference, and it’s still a hook-in, even if the models are dressed differently.I’ll absorb images that have stuck with me, or take elements from things I’ve seen, and mixed them all together to create something fresh. That’s what I enjoy doing.’
Diane Arbus was an American photographer, who was renowned for her work with people who were perhaps, at that time, shunned by mainstream society. Her subjects included dwarfs, circus performers, giants, nudists and some really sinister-looking children. Some condemned her work as manipulative, exploitative and cruel, but she remains one of the best-loved photographers of all time, and the collection of her photographs, Diane Arbus – An Aperture Monograph is the best-selling photography monograph ever. There is definitely more light in Anna’s work, but there are definitely parallels between the two in their shared interest of finding the surreal in everyday life.
We talk about the trend among some of today’s young people not to delve too far into the past in terms of culture. When I taught in China, students dismissed anything, even from ten years beforehand as ‘too old.’ It used to drive me batshit crazy when I’d recommend films like The Godfather, Star Wars or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and they wouldn’t even entertain the notion that anything other than the now could be of any interest whatsoever. I used to think it was a China thing; everything had to be brand new, there is no second-hand car industry. People don’t buy property that has had previous owners. It doesn’t seem to be a China thing. At uni last year, younger classmates hadn’t heard of Oasis, Trainspotting or Robert De Niro. It was astounding. I ask her if she encounters this at Hull College, where she is an art lecturer.
‘In class, I stress that the past is your toolbox. I encourage students to go back in time and take ideas and give them a twist; to bring it into their own work. Add a layer, so people may recognise the reference, then it brings a depth to their work. There is a trend to not check out older stuff, but I actively urge them to check out the past, and some kids get a refreshing new outlook from doing that.’
I ask if there’s anything outside of the art world influences Anna’s work. I mention that I see some of Guillermo Del Toro’s work in hers.
‘Yeah, definitely, I loved Pan’s Labyrinth, but I’ve not seen The Shape of Water yet. I re-watched The Mighty Boosh again a few years ago, and I hadn’t realised how much that had influenced me. Also The League of Gentlemen, where it’s not outright horror, it’s more terror versus horror. I love all of Reece Shearsmith’s stuff. Also, short stories; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a big influence. I did a photo of Claire (Scott) that was inspired by Lady of the House of Love, Carter’s loose interpretation of Sleeping Beauty. Sometimes friends will just have an idea, then it becomes a collaboration, which I love.’
I was out of the country for twelve years, and with time and distance, was able to view home with a different perspective. I think I literally came back a different person. But to paraphrase Morrissey, ‘has Hull changed or have I changed?’ There was creativity when I left, but it seems not as much as there is now. On returning, it seemed to be this hotbed of activity, particularly in the HU5 area, which has obviously since then pulsed through the whole city. And everyone seems to muck in and support each other. I love the idea of people coming together who might not have even acknowledged each other previously. It all seems more inclusive. Has it changed?
‘Hull’s always been quite creative, we had Fila Brazillia and Time Based Arts in the 90s, and before that, Throbbing Gristle and COUM, but yeah I think it has become more so in recent years. Like I say, we’ve built on what was already there. Now, HU5 is like a village, and it’s spread, going right through town and up to Humber Street and beyond. You’ll get creatives working in bars, who are also musicians and painter-decorators.There’s a lot of cross pollination, and as you say, everyone supports each other. It’s also a great city to make things happen. Look what Mak’s done with The Sesh and Humber Street Sesh, for example. You can just go up to someone and suggest an idea and it can happen. If you have the vision and tenacity, you can make things happen. For this, social media is beautiful; you can connect and set things up in minutes. Josh Hubbard messaged me about doing the Skaters’ last album cover, for the UK version. I just saw a car in Queens car park, found out whose it was, and within 40 mins shot the cover. Job done. It didn’t get used in the end, but it’s just an example of how things can get created in an instant, through social media. It’s great for sorting stuff and collaborating. Then you’ve got Davy and Kristen McGuire, the duo that did the Micropolis installation last year, relocating to Hull from Bristol. How ace is that? That’s a direct result of the City of Culture.’
We talk about the present, and Anna becomes even more animated when talking about her recent and future projects. As well as exhibitions around the country, including Brighton and Gloucester, she has been moving towards more immersive experiences over the last few years; something she’s really excited about. Her Welcome to the Monkey House installation at Hull Fair in 2015 was a stroke of genius. It was a nod back to the time in between the 50s and the 70s when real monkeys were present at the fair and you could have your pictures taken with them. Of course, Anna did this with a typically deft twist, and she hired a container, transformed it into a typically dreamlike space, and made it an interactive experience complete with humans with monkey heads, larking about with whoever passed by or walked through the doors. It takes a lot to out-weird Hull Fair, traditionally a place where the colours, noises and lights attract people out for a good mind-bending, but this was a triumph that brought some good old fun back to the fair.
The audience-being-part-of-the-show concept is definitely something she is striving to pursue; the Moonage Daydream, Animal Magic and 70s Quiz Show events were all Warhol-meets-Dali in feel, but all unmistakably Anna Bean; she even has her own Velvets in The Evil Litter who often play live at these happenings that endeavour to push the envelope further. There are pictures on walls like you’d expect at an art exhibition, but what Anna’s moving towards are no mere ‘exhibitions’; they bring to mind an even more warped Warholian Factory, with their nods to the era, and encouragement of getting the audience to be part of the art.
The notion of everyone being open to fancy dress seems to me to be a relatively recent trend. Since my return to Hull, Halloween seems to have exploded, whereas in the 90s, just before I left, it was restricted to house parties, and even then, it was all a bit half-arsed. The sheer effort that goes into some of these costumes is staggering.
‘I was at uni ‘til 2002, and during my course we used to have wild parties. I used to get people to dress up and photograph them. It was all a bit of a laugh when we were in ‘party mode,’ but I was encouraged by my tutor to do it when I was sober. I think that without that crazy party time, my vision might not have been realised. My mind was opened to the idea of these crazy experiences. You were in a different headspace, and it freed you from that world of conformity, allowing you to express yourself in an open-minded way.’
So, what can we expect next from Anna Bean?
‘Well, definitely more immersive stuff. I’m doing the Withnail & I Picnic Cinema up in the Lake District. It’s run by Eden Arts, who came here last year, saw my stuff and we connected. People, usually older couples, get dressed up and watch the film and party in character, so that’ll be interesting. Also, something music-themed for Humber Street Sesh, and loads of other happenings in the pipeline, which I can’t reveal just yet, as it works better if it’s kept secret. I love the idea of people not really knowing what they’re walking into, and hopefully people trust me enough to commit themselves and get involved. It’s the surprise, unknown element that makes for a unique atmosphere.’
As if to reiterate her earlier point about Hull being a place where things just happen, Dave Stead gatecrashes our conversation with standard panache. Within minutes, ideas are bouncing around Pave and we’ve got a collaboration on our hands. Within ten minutes, we tentatively arrange something potentially amazing. But you’ll just have to wait and see.
It’s been an illuminating two hours. I worry that we haven’t covered everything, but listening back through the 90 minutes, we’ve covered an awful lot. Ideas come thick and fast, and it’s been a fascinating insight into the mind of the visionary artist. She is both accommodating and illuminating, and incredibly good company. It was daunting to talk about art with such a unique artist, but I think I muddled my way through it without making too much of a fool out of myself. I’m excited to see what she has up her sleeve, as she builds on the ground she made in 2017, where she seemed to be omnipresent.
I forget to tell her that after she brought her amazing Bowie piece round to mine, the most sought-after prize in the raffle in January, my 6-year-old daughter, Lyla, looked at it and said, ‘Daddy, is that David Bowie? He looks weird.’ But she couldn’t take her eyes off it. It’s probably the first time she’s been genuinely moved by a piece of art. It provoked a strong reaction. She was asking all sorts of questions and really engaging in it. It led to a conversation about ephemeral identities. Ok, that last bit is a lie, but she was engrossed.