Saturday, 28 January 2012

From Lime Street to Liverpool

I wrote this piece, 'From Lime Street to Liverpool: A voyage in pixels, stone and glass', a while ago for the artist Simon Faithfull's book Liverpool to Liverpool.

In 2002, Liverpool City Council bought the freehold to the concourse around Lime Street station, with the aim of turning it into an expanded public space and more welcoming approach to the city. As part of this project they commissioned Simon Faithfull to produce a piece of permanent public art. Faithfull chose to create a work which tells the story of an epic journey from Liverpool, UK, to Liverpool, Nova Scotia, made by the artist in the summer of 2008. Faithfull’s images of his journey are engraved into the surfaces of the new concourse, a reminder of Liverpool’s maritime past, its historical dependence on the shipbuilding industry and transatlantic trade, and the survival of these global connections today. They offer a visual record of a voyage towards a remote place, one which has much in common with Liverpool apart from its name.

A common thread that runs through all of Faithfull’s work is his effort to re-enchant the everyday and find the magical in the mundane: his luminous fake moon lit up 2008’s Big Chill music festival in Herefordshire, rising and setting like the real thing and fooling many festival-goers; his book, Lost, each page telling the story of an object he has lost over the last three decades, was left in random places around Britain for strangers to find and then lose again; “Escape Vehicle #6”, a bogstandard office chair, was sent 18 miles upwards dangling from a weather balloon, the onboard camera showing it nestling between the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space. From an early age, Faithfull says, he was gripped by “a melancholy awareness that I was tethered to this mundane realm” and remembers being jealous of flies because they “could even walk on ceilings”.

Faithfull’s transatlantic journey is part of the same exploration of our failed attempts to escape “the trivial, the mundane and the self” but also of the beautiful futility of these dreams of escape. His 3000-mile, one-way trip eats up the vastness of the Atlantic and the Canadian tundra but also negotiates the bathos of a Virgin Pendolino train and the two-lane roads of Nova Scotia. Faithfull’s initial plan was to sail directly from Liverpool to Montreal, but his container ship, the Joni Ritscher, was diverted to Belgium, so on 9th September 2008, he set off from Lime Street for the south coast and then got the early morning ferry to Antwerp to catch the container ship to Montreal. From Montreal he took the train to Halifax, then hopped on a bus and, three weeks after leaving Lime Street, arrived in Liverpool - a small town of just over 3000 people. Naturally, it was named after its British counterpart and also lies on the banks of a river Mersey.

That most of Faithfull’s miles are covered by container ship is not without its ironies. Like many ports, Liverpool, UK has suffered serious downsizing on the back of the rise to global dominance of the ISO (International Standards Organisation) shipping container: that uniform, stackable steel box invented in the 1950s by the American trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean, so that goods would not have to be handled when transferring between ships and lorries. These omnipresent cuboids, which Faithfull calls the “quantum units of 21st century life”, are usually seen by ordinary mortals when they are stacked high and stationary near railway lines and motorways. But their parallel, invisible lives are spent in Lego-like stacks in these gargantuan container ships – at 175m long, the Joni Ritscher is a relative midget - carrying the flotsam and jetsam of modern consumerism, from Nintendo Wiis to Nike trainers. Their snail-slow, Homeric voyages are normally noticed only by customs officials and pirates.

Faithfull made about six drawings a day throughout his journey, documenting the detail of daily life on land and sea, from Liverpool to Liverpool, with his Palm Pilot. These sketches are necessarily simple, because the screen on his hand-held device is tiny and the act of drawing with the stylus is fairly tricky: you can scroll sideways to make the drawing bigger, but then this means you can’t see the whole image at once. Yet the improvised, on-the-hoof, quietly observational quality of these drawings somehow fits the quotidian nature of their subject matter, and it is striking how the simplicity and economy of the pixilated line still manages to convey the vivid particulars of the journey, and picks out the contrasts between English Liverpudlians crouched under umbrellas and Canadian Liverpudlians with moustachioed lips and pick-up trucks.

One of the main advantages of drawing digitally was that Faithfull could easily transfer the images into other forms and send them out electronically – an idea he developed on a previous, two-month residency with the British Antarctic Survey, when he emailed his Palm Pilot drawings of icebergs and penguins across the world. In Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Faithfull used a local copyshop to make 181 postcards of his drawings. Having taken the Liverpool (UK) phonebook with him, he then posted the cards to random addresses in it, all saying “Wish you were here”. (Despite being in the Liverpool phonebook, I wasn’t lucky enough to receive one.)

In a creative collision between the newly virtual and the conventionally concrete, these 181 digital drawings have now been sandblasted into some of the York stone pavings and etched into the glass arches at the entrance to Lime Street. Each drawing is given latitude-longitude coordinates inscribed beneath it in the corner of the glass or stone – the kind of navigational northing and easting now familiar to most of us from satnav systems - so that the viewer has a precise location, which in theory they can go away and explore further should they so wish (although please note that the herring gull perched on a lamppost at N.53°24.30 W.2°59.77 may no longer be there).

Harassed train passengers, hurrying through the new concourse to catch trains or taxis, might well miss Faithfull’s relatively unobtrusive artwork. Indeed, its modesty offers a refreshing counterpoint to the spectacularly visual nature of most urban regeneration projects. Such projects tend to favour the grand gesture: an eye-catching new building or a multi-million pound facelift, aimed at instantly changing perceptions about a place and attracting tourists and potential investors. Faithfull’s project instead insists on the importance of the local and vernacular, and the persistence of history and memory in even the most modernised environments. This book includes all 181 digital drawings, and Faithfull’s often wry, imagist commentary on the landscapes he was passing through and the humans he encountered as he drew them. Both the words and images attest to the survival of the texture and detail of individual everyday lives even in our restlessly mobile, globalised world.


  1. As an observer of how the mundane can be profound, you might be interested, in view of your remarks about containers, in Brian Cudahy, Box Boats: how container ships changed the world, Fordham University Press, 2nd ed 2006.