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Janet Hodgson Remembered

At Bluecoat we were very sad to hear of the recent passing of artist Janet Hodgson. Here our staff share their memories of her.

 The artist Janet Hodgson, who had a long and fruitful relationship with Bluecoat, died on 16 March, following a long battle with cancer. Tribute has been paid to her in obituaries in the Guardian and Art Monthly, and here our Artistic Director Bryan Biggs remembers a visionary friend whose art was amongst the most memorable in his time at Bluecoat. 

Born in Bolton in 1960, Janet trained in theatre design at Wimbledon School of Art following a year on foundation course at Lincoln School of Art, and started her career in community theatre, working with Welfare State International, the radical collective of artists and thinkers established in 1968 to explore celebratory art and spectacle. When she moved to Liverpool in 1984, working at the Blackie (today’s Black-E), she immersed herself in the city and first exhibited at Bluecoat in 1992 in the group show A Pool of Signs Part 1, a collaboration with Janie Andrews. Two years later, we invited her to participate in our site specific commission series, On Location, for which artists made interventions into the public realm. Janet chose our building as her site, onto which she projected the handwritten text “I must learn to know my place” – a line of punishment at school - repeatedly across the historic building’s three front façades. The glowing text gradually revealed itself as darkness fell in the early Winter evening.

This was to be the first of three site-specific commissions that drew on the Bluecoat’s heritage and reflected Janet’s interest in history, language and time, and raised questions about authenticity and memory. While referencing the building’s origins as a school, I must learn to know my place also posed a question about the place of art, both inside and beyond the institution - part of an ongoing critique of the art world establishment, from which she felt largely excluded. In History Lesson (1999) the artist recreated an imagined Victorian school day at Bluecoat through eight films projected back into the exact gallery locations where they’d been filmed. The characters - local children and a professional actor playing the headmaster – appeared like ghosts as the gallery was transformed, from empty space to period drama film set, and back to a ‘white cube’. The exhibition was an extraordinary experience that required several visits to see all 17 hours of tape, as sequences were synchronised so that the figures moved from one room to another. Reflecting on the work in a publication that followed the exhibition, Sean Cubitt described Janet’s ‘ecological understanding of time (that suggests) we must accept stewardship of the fleeting moment.’  

The final film in this trilogy of Bluecoat works was equally haunting. Re-run (2008) was commissioned for our re-opening, following the major capital development that saw a new arts wing designed by Rotterdam architects Biq completed in time for Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture. For this work, Janet restaged classic cinema film sequences in our vacant building, while under refurbishment, using Bluecoat staff, some of the capital scheme design team, a Blue Room member and volunteers as the cast. It was with some trepidation that I – with no acting experience whatsoever - agreed to be a central character, re-enacting tense moments from films like Breathless, The Third Man, Vertigo and Don’t Look Now. Inventive and disorienting, Janet used film here as a time machine - a subject she explored in other works - where reality and fiction collided, the past recreated in the present.

Sara-Jayne Parsons, Bluecoat’s exhibitions curator at the time, produced the film, of which she says, ‘It was a learning curve for both of us, but through it all Janet’s humour and vision were constant and kept us on track in frustrating moments. Whether giggling because the stunt pigeons flew the wrong way or putting our heads together to figure out how to get electricity to impossible places, you knew Janet could see the film, and what it was becoming, and what we needed to do. We had one of those artist-curator relationships that starts out with a project brief and ends up with a warm friendship across years. 

In Liverpool, as well as her Bluecoat projects, Janet exhibited in Tate Liverpool’s Mixing It (1995); and in the public art project entitled artranspennine (1998), connecting various sites between Hull and Liverpool, she created with Anna Douglas a horticultural installation at Calderstones Park, Allerton. Her work, which comprised sculpture, film, public art and installations was shown across the UK, at the Serpentine in London, in Edinburgh, York, Cumbria and elsewhere. She also made work at archaeological sites – at Stonehenge, El Kurru in Sudan and in Canterbury - through her collaborations with the Art+Archaeology group.

An inspirational teacher – her academic appointments included University of Central England in Birmingham, Wimbledon and the University of Kent. Janet was popular with students, including Adam Smythe, now Bluecoat’s curator. Adam says "As a tutor, Janet was direct, fiercely critical and provocative. Her radical approach to teaching included a memorable tutorial in which she advised me that getting arrested would greatly benefit my work. Janet was generous and honest with her students, unafraid to deliver hard truths. In moments of artistic crisis, Janet would always find the time to rebuild the confidence of her students and find productive ways forward. She had a great deal of respect for her students and would share candid insights into the art world with us. Above all, Janet taught me, and many others, how to think critically, engage meaningfully with the world and to care deeply about art, culture and politics. These are gifts that will stay with me through my career and which I am extremely grateful to Janet for."

Janet’s projects with us were ambitious affairs, and I will remember her tenacity and drive towards realising what at first seemed the impossible. Involving big team efforts, complex negotiations and sheer hard work, the results were however always magical. Janet will be sorely missed, but she leaves behind a legacy of art works created for Bluecoat that remain conceptually rigorous, formally inventive, playful and accessible.


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