The 1970s films shedding new light on Leeds

Kevin Atherton, pictured with his sculpture A Reflective Approach at Leeds Dock.
Kevin Atherton, pictured with his sculpture A Reflective Approach at Leeds Dock.
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Artist Kevin Atherton tells Grant Woodward why he’s bringing his art films back to Leeds 40 years on.

WHEN Kevin Atherton settled down in front of the telly in the quiet County Kilkenny village in Ireland he now calls home he got a bit of a shock.

Kevin Atherton on Woodhouse Moor in the 1970s.

Kevin Atherton on Woodhouse Moor in the 1970s.

“I was watching that Damned United film about Brian Clough’s time at Leeds United and it made the city look positively Dickensian,” he says.

“I was thinking, No, it wasn’t like that. Then when I went back and looked at my own films it was a sobering reminder that Leeds was like that in the ‘70s. It was like a bomb site, really.”

An acclaimed sculptor and conceptual artist, Atherton was a teenager when he first landed in the city to study at Leeds College of Art, then in the process of becoming Leeds Polytechnic.

Decades later his work found a permanent place here.

You know those big silver balls down at Leeds Dock? They’re his.

The pair of them are being pushed towards the canal by two life-size bronze figures. The work is called A Reflective Approach.

“People have talked it being about the myth of Sisyphus, the guy the gods condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity, and it kind of is,” he says.

“But the figures, which were cast from the teenage son of a friend of mine, show a young guy being captured in the act of vandalising the sculpture. But of course the catch is he actually is the sculpture.”

The work is a good representation of Atherton’s style. There’s a playfulness to his work, which he says is also present in the films he’s now bringing to Leeds.

Shot in the city when he was a student, he realises they’ve become more than the conceptual art pieces he intended at the time.

He will be showing them at the Hyde Park Picture House next Tuesday, followed by a chat with Jon Wood, research curator at the Henry Moore Institute.

Atherton believes they show just how radical the student art movement in Leeds was at the time.

“There was this exciting avant garde arts course going on in Leeds, and nobody in the rest of the city really knew about it,” he says.

“Leeds as an art college was this pretty radical art school that didn’t have any sort of a connection with places like the City Museum, which was seen as a fuddy duddy old institution.”

The films had been in his attic for nearly half a century when Atherton saw The Damned United and decided to fetch them down and remind himself what Leeds was really like back then.

“The interesting thing looking at this body of work now is that there are a number of films shot outdoors, in places like Woodhouse Moor and Temple Newsam, which you can link to a tradition of conceptual art.

“But inadvertently it’s also a social record of what Leeds was like in the early 1970s.”

He remembers arriving at Leeds in 1969 and being strucky by the contrast between the rural beauty of his native Isle of Man and industrial Leeds.

“But I think the North of England was just like that then. I don’t remember feeling that I was living a deprived life or anything.

“It’s interesting that the films capture a snapshot of what Leeds was like, even if it’s just the cars in the street. Or more to the point, the absence of cars, because there were far fewer than there are now.”

The films are also shot through with Atherton’s surreal wit.

“You could say they’re visual jokes but actually there’s something in them to do with irony or it’s a paradoxical thing. Recently I’ve digitised them, cleaned them up and also ‘re-entered’ them.

“In 1972, as an example, I recorded myself dressed as a boxer, boxing an invisible opponent. Then when I performed it in 1972 wearing exactly the same gear I boxed myself, a life-size projection, as part of my final year show.

“I’ve got another pair of boxing shorts and gloves and done it again. Only this time I’m a 65-year-old man boxing against my 21-year-old self. I even do the commentary, I call it the Fight of a Lifetime.

“Now of course I’ll have to point out that the baldy git with the big belly is the same guy as the young, skinny one he’s fighting. There’s a certain poignancy to it.”

Others recall the hi-jinks he got up to in the city. “I did a number of ‘interventions’ at Temple Newsam because I lived in a student house in Halton.

“There was a great big field there and at night one summer I painted a great big white rectangle on the grass with a roller and a tray of white emulsion.

“No one caught me. Over a period of a week it just got bigger and bigger until it was like something had landed from outer space.

“There was another nice one where I snuck on to the roof of the polytechnic and made a film of me flapping my arms trying to fly off the top of it.

“In the end I manage to rub myself out by flapping. I flatter myself they’re a bit like Buster Keaton, little visual ideas.

“I’m not from Yorkshire – and I spent most of my time in Leeds as a young man – but I feel I’m the type of artist I am, the type of person I am, because of having gone to Leeds College of Art.

“These films fit into an art context, but they’re also accessible and become social documentaries, simply because they capture something of Leeds in the very early 1970s.”

From Leeds to the rest of the world

Coming from the Isle of Man, Atherton was amongst the first students to study Fine Art at the newly established Leeds Polytechnic in 1969 – which became nationally renowned for its radicalism.

As well as his sculptures he has exhibited widely since 1972, including performances and video and virtual reality installations around the world.

I Am The Real Kevin Atherton will take place at Hyde Park Picture House on October 25, from 6.15pm. For details click here.