Shortly before midnight on 23 enero 2020, security cameras outside Coventry Cathedral picked up two ghostly figures smashing their way through an angel in the West Screen, one of the city’s best-loved works of art. There was nothing to steal in the cathedral beyond a few pounds in a collection box. But within seconds, uno de los 66 angels and saints that had guarded the front entrance since it was consecrated in 1962 had shivered irreparably into pieces.
Coventry is a resilient city, which is used to picking itself up and dusting itself down. When its Daimler factory closed, with the loss of a key local industry, it was commandeered as an arts space; when Ikea more recently shut up shop, it was designated a new home for the art collections of the Arts and British Councils. But the city’s resolve is perhaps most poignantly embodied in the new cathedral itself, which was built alongside the ruins of the old one.
The idea of commissioning a new building, and leaving the old one as a monument to peace and reconciliation, was floated by the provost in 1940, just a month after an 11-hour air raid so devastating that Nazi propagandists coined a new verb, coventrieren: to raze a city to the ground. It was to be a work of art in all its parts, with stained glass by John Piper, a monumental tapestry by Graham Sutherland, and sculpture by Jacob Epstein. Engraver John Hutton took 10 years to develop the unique etching system that enabled him to grind and carve the diaphanous figures of the angels into its 70-foot-high West Screen.
The broken angel now lies in shards in a basement storeroom; replacing it with a replica would have been neither possible nor desirable, says Dean John Witcombe. Pero, as luck would have it, the break-in coincided with the run-up to Coventry’s inauguration as city of culture 2021, so the idea was hatched of commissioning artists to respond with new, temporary artworks, the first of which will be installed in November. In a lovely piece of historical symmetry, it’s the work of Anne Petters, who was born in another catastrophically bombed city, Dresden, one of the first of Coventry’s 26 twin towns.
Coventry is the third UK city of culture, following Derry in 2013 and Hull in 2017, in an initiative designed to boost the culture and economies of ambitious but overlooked cities. Though the title comes with no money upfront, it carries the promise that it will attract attention, investment and tourists along the way. A £2.4m revamp of the Daimler Powerhouse arts hub, where the UK’s first forklift truck was once created, es un ejemplo de ello.
There’s no hiding the fact that it was a blow to inherit the title just as the world went into a pandemic, admits its creative director Chenine Bhathena. The start of the year was delayed from January to May, and some prestige events have had to be cancelled. It took a while for local people, who were only just venturing out of lockdown, to work out why two marquees had sprung up in an astroturfed garden in the city centre, though by late summer, the lager was flowing and the world’s largest spiegeltent was rocking to the barroom musical The Choir of Man.
Bhathena and her team responded to their unprecedented challenge by turning inwards towards Coventry’s own communities, building on their image of themselves as inhabitants of a caring, collaborative and dynamic city, which has an average age five years below that of the UK as a whole, speaks in 120 languages and has taken more Syrian refugees per capita of its population than any other city in the UK. These qualities were out in force on a Friday evening in early September when members of two dozen different faith groups gathered around trestle tables for a picnic in a local park, before throwing their doors open to all-comers for a Faith weekend that featured on BBC One’s Songs of Praise on Sunday.
Jo, 91, spoke proudly of how her church, once a prison, was rumoured to be where royalist soldiers were “sent to Coventry” – not executed, but given the silent treatment – in the English civil war. On a neighbouring table, young local actor Jack Gardner quizzed his impromptu dinner companions about their favourite event of the year so far (answer: The Brightest Moon, a six-metre high installation of the moon, which they had helped to weave for a performance at the Daimler Powerhouse commemorating the firebombing of the city).
The following day, Gardner would reappear as a troubled teenager, discovered by three worried friends sleeping rough beneath the ugly ring road that girdles the city’s historic centre, in one of four promenade shows staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company around some of its less familiar streets. A trail of ribbons in Coventry blue – a tribute to the city’s medieval dyeing industry – joined churches to mosques and gurdwaras for a weekend that culminated in a Ceremony of Light. This wasn’t a flashy firework show designed to wow outsiders, but a solemn procession of 500 torches carried by local people, for whom the months of planning and preparation had offered a light through the darkness of lockdown.
The spiegeltents have now closed until the spring, but the Belgrade theatre is buzzing with preparations for a festival of arts and homelessness. Highlights of a packed eight-day calendar include a new musical, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency, with music from Chumbawamba’s Boff Whalley, telling the true story of a wacky “estate agency” set up by the poet Heathcote Williams in west London in the 1970s to find homes for squatters.
mientras tanto, along Warwick Row, to the south of the city centre, a series of lifesize portraits will spring up on white poles, like estate agents’ boards. Like The Brightest Moon and the Faith weekend, this work – entitled Agency – is only the end point of a process that has involved months of creativity. Thousands of “assisted self-portraits” were made by homeless people with disposable cameras, under the guidance of the artist-activist Anthony Luvera, whose only instruction was to snap themselves in a location that meant something to them. Mick pictures himself by the house where he was born, Robyn chose the old city walls, while Ken, a wheelchair user, documents street views of hard-to-navigate routes. The portraits will be accompanied by a giveaway newspaper documenting the process.
The theme of art and social conscience will resurface in the Coventry biennial, whose evolution is inextricably entwined with the city of culture. As founder and director Ryan Hughes explains, its first edition fortuitously opened in 2017, just as the city of culture scouts were scouring the country for the next city to anoint; its third has been made possible, and has refined its scope and focus, with support from Bhathena. “Our challenge to Ryan was, what makes this different to all the other biennials?" ella dice. How also would it complement the Turner prize exhibition, which is one of the big catches of the year, and opened at the Herbert Art Gallery last week?
Hughes’ response was to style it as a “social biennial”, specialising in “socially, politically and critically engaged artistic practices”, in the tradition of a city whose art school pioneered the idea of conceptual art in the 1960s. Among the artists to rise to the challenge was Rob Hamp, who sent a litter bin out on day trips to seven seaside destinations, in the company of kids from local youth groups, and then brought them back and analysed the contents. The results will be displayed in Art Can Be Rubbish Too, at the Old Grammar School. “Besides all the nappies and fish and chips cartons, you wouldn’t believe what we found – one bin even had a wedding ring,” says the artist.
The objective was to document and blow the whistle on the UK’s huge coastal litter problem, but also to show something of Coventry’s soul, says Hamp, who grew up in nearby Rugby but used to cycle into the city as a teenager, drawn by its brutalist architecture and its clubbing culture (un exhibition of its role in 2 tone was a city of culture summer highlight).
“The bin says it all about Coventry,” says Hamp. “It’s a grafter. It just goes on and does the job, and never gets as much credit as it should. This show has happened because some crazy guy stole a bin out of Coventry and used it as a gesture of goodwill. You need a bonkers idea for young people to realise that bonkers ideas make things happen.” It’s perhaps not being too fanciful to say this speaks for the whole city of culture project, which has assembled something luminous and new from the fragments of a broken time.