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Art review: How I Learned to Stop Worrying – An exhibition by John Marc Allen

John Marc Allen’s exhibition brings home the reality of the continuing atomic age and its potential consequences.

Those of us who lived through the existential dread of the 70s and 80s, thought that we’d got away with it when first the Berlin Wall fell followed by the Soviet Union. Now the threat of nuclear destruction seems to be back. As I write, things are hotting up in the Taiwan Strait, over something that could be described as a trivial matter, but not to the Chinese government. Not to mention the continuing Ukraine war.

At the bottom of the road leading to our estate was a telephone pole, only it wasn’t that, it had a siren mounted on top. We dreaded that siren starting up because that would mean we would have four minutes to take shelter, and that action might very well be futile. Mr Brown (I think it was) arranged a school screening of the BBC banned The War Game; being over-sensitive, I had to leave the room as my reaction to it was so intense. Are we getting that siren pole back?

Trivia fact: the British nuclear submarines are instructed that if they can’t pick up Radio 4’s the Today programme the bomb has dropped at home and they’re clear to open their envelope of orders… I’m sure there are other checks.

So walking into this fine exhibition felt partly like walking back into the 80s and its imagery. The first thing to see and read was something completely new, a typed letter from Albert Einstein warning President Roosevelt of the risk that Nazi Germany could develop a bomb, the spark that led to the Manhattan Project and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The exhibition contains a lot of different imagery, perhaps the most striking being the large and semi-abstract images of nuclear explosions, including the first British device being detonated. So cool, so 80s! But then there’s so much more.

Who knew that the bikini, an innocent piece of swimwear, was named after the Bikini Atoll bomb test site? Here was a picture of the original model with the bikini overlain with news print announcing various nuclear milestones.

Here’s the graphics from the inane Protect and Survive leaflet, with its crap advice on hiding under the table. That’s supplemented by protest imagery of the time. There’s a graphic from Raymond Briggs ‘When the Wind Blows’. These are design classics.

Being a bit of a military history buff, I grew up on the story of The Enola Gay’s raid on Hiroshima (I have a blow by blow account in one of my books. Here again it is recounted, together with details of the Bockscar’s little trip to Nagasaki. Nearby are the thoughts of Dr Robert Oppenheimer – ‘I am become death’ – and an excellent piece superimposing the man’s outline with relevant Hindu imagery. Then Peter Sellars as Dr Strangelove, from one of the funniest and grimmest films ever made and from which this show draws its title.

For light (ish) relief, we have a panel based on continuing atomic age derived toys, including a Godzilla. Also a game of Nuclear War, of which I suspect a variation was available into the 90s; a friend certainly had it.

Pardon me for having some flashbacks on viewing this excellent body of work. One had to live with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, especially when Ronald Reagan took the US presidency and things started to escalate, particularly as at the time the USSR had decided it would go into Afghanistan. When the threat receded and the danger we had all been living with became clear, the relief was palpable. Now some of that threat does seem to be back.

This work is brilliantly executed and the pieces are all individually marvellous. They tell a strong story, the information boards being really well done and setting the pieces’ context very well. I just wish that the thing has not proved necessary once more. Not too long ago, this theme might have seemed irrelevant, but not anymore. It should be noted that donations at this event were going to support Ukraine.

People remarked that the minimalist décor and slightly bunker atmosphere of the Hive first floor gallery suited the subject perfectly. A good crowd were in attendance and there was a fine social buzz. Thanks to Hive for providing the nibbles and drinks.

Thanks to John Marc Allen and the Tangerine Art Company for putting this together and to Hive for supporting and accommodating the venture. The presentation included a small booklet with information on the pieces pictured and further contact details, which is very professional and useful to keep.

John Marc Allen is a pop artist based in Blackpool. He started out as a painter, exploring American Abstract Expressionism. He has a degree in Fine Art from Manchester Metropolitan University and has been involved in a number of creative projects in Blackpool. He also enjoys creating print and digital works. His work is very much informed by the early Pop Art pioneers from Britain and America, who brought art to the masses and showed the world that the ordinary everyday can be beautiful. His recent work has started to look towards more serious subjects but still with an eye towards his Pop sensibilities.

The exhibition is in the Alternative Gallery Space on the first floor at HIVE, 80-82 Church Street, Blackpool, FY1 1HP and runs until Saturday 3rd September.
Opening times: Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-4pm. 

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    I have worked in the housing and transport professions for several local authorities, specialising in policy, strategy preparation and bid writing. Having always had an interest in film, the visual arts in general, theatre, music and lterature, I thought it would be good to combine the writing experience with these interests to contribute to altBlackpool. In addition to writing, my hobbies include watercolour and pastel painting, photography, woodwork, cycling and vegetable gardening.

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