I spent Saturday in Saltaire a few weeks back and, as is often the case, it helped me understand something I didn’t realise I didn’t understand. Saltaire, you see, is both uniquely, unmistakeably English and at the same time utterly unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. It tends to focus the mind, in much the same way, I imagine that time spent in The Village in The Prisoner does just without the weather balloons.
Within twenty minutes walk of the train station there are stone lions originally intended, the story goes, for Trafalgar Square, an almost impossibly perfect cricket pitch, a cable car, the Yorkshire Moors and of course, Salt’s Mill. Which is now an art gallery. Throw in streets that could fit in well in Edinburgh and a river that Mr wouldn’t look out of place in The Wind in the Willows and you have what amounts to a thumbnail sketch of English life; art galleries, cricket, industry, wild countryside.
Which brings me to what I learnt. The Saturday we went was both the nearest Saturday to our mums’ birthdays and also the end of the Saltaire Festival, a week long series of cultural events which take the already eccentric basis of the town and run with it. Which is why I met Henry VIII and the nice lady playing chamber music.
The heart of Saltaire is Salt’s Mill, an immense set of buildings hunched over the railway tracks. My wife remembers going there when the mill was being gutted, being show the huge empty halls with bits of machinery stacked up and waiting to be taken away and the spaces are still t here, the sense of cavernous industry is still there. There’s maybe a tenth of the people the place used to hold in there at any one time and it still feels energised, busy.
The reason is the Hockney Gallery. A number of art based businesses have bought space in the Mill over the years but the David Hockney gallery is the most prominent and certainly the one I spent the most time in on Saturday. Situated in the ground floor hall it’s over a hundred feet of open space, punctuated only by art installations ranging from dentist chairs to a wonderful cubist mailbox and tables of art supplies. Here, the shop is the gallery and the gallery the shop, the two combined in a way which could be crass but instead is subtle, almost elegant. People browse the art supplies and the paintings, the sculptures, naturally present themselves as they go.
The ones that leapt out at me this time were the cubist mailbox and a series of Hockney’s photo montages. One, taken from the bow of a ship in Alaska and showing a glacier and the other, isolated tourists almost has a Victorian quality, a sense of a trip taken around the world ‘for improvement’ contrasted with the accidental symmetry of the tourists and the deck umbrellas and the stark, peaceful block of the glacier. It’s an immensely still piece and very powerful with it.
The other picture that I couldn’t take my eyes off was a nude photo montage. Different angles on the same sections of the face and body are layered on top of one another until you can just about discern that it’s a woman and not very much else. It’s like viewing the subject through a kaleidoscope and whilst the obvious view is that it’s about the objectification of women I took something different from it. Namely, the feeling that there was something faintly non-Euclidean about her, something wrong, something off. Interesting picture but I wouldn’t want to look at it too long.
Then I met the troll The troll was attached to the bridge, across the river. He was eight feet tall, had long claws and was looking pretty serious about climbing onto the bridge. His skin was chicken wire, his eyes were tennis balls and his entire body consisted of old cuddly toys, carefully arranged in the chicken wire frame. In one sense, he was horrifying, like the old Clive Barker story ‘In the Hills The Cities’ where the two cities form immense golems and fight. In another though, he was incredibly endearing. A fairy tale creature brought to amiable life, a traditional villain made of puppies, kittens and dolphins and as a result alien rather than threatening. And here he is:
After we spent some time with the troll, Kate and I headed over to the church. There’s an elaborate and very funny optical illusion with the central church in Saltaire, the entire building looking much closer than it actually is. Only when someone gets halfway down the approach does it become clear that the building is A)Huge
B)Massively out of proportion for normal people
C)You begin to get a sneaking suspicion you’re being pursued by the Nazgul.
It’s my favourite architectural joke and whilst the festival meant there were lots of people out front and the effect wasn’t as obvious it still made me laugh.
The reason they were there was a very large, plywood EARTH, the letters over six feet tall, connected and with jigsaw pieces drawn over them. Anyone could paint anything they wanted on a jigsaw piece and everyone was. Grannies, tourists, children and locals all worked patiently side by side and we joined in. Inside ten minutes, a yellow abstract tree and a purple hand/plant against a red background were added to the word and our work was done. We had created art.
And art was what Saltaire helped me understand. Everything about the place, from the lions to the old cable car with a traditional sweet shop at the summit that doesn’t appear to have updated it’s prices in twenty years is concerned with that immensely simple word and the immensely complex concept behind it; art. It’s the language Saltaire speaks, the heart of it’s industry and the reason why the town is so beautifully normal and at the same time so uniquely eccentric. Everything in Saltaire is designed, everything is there not just to exist but to be understood and discussed by the people who see it. There is nothing but message in Saltaire, no noise, just endless signal and endless things to understand, to learn. A town-sized puzzle, a cubist mailbox, a troll made of cuddly toys. Art is the language every single one of us speaks and that day in Saltaire taught me how to speak it a little more fluently, with a little more flourish and I look forward to what my next visit will teach me.