On the day that Boris Johnson announced lockdown, Liam Fallon’s studio set on fire. He got out safely, but the building burnt down. One year later, Fallon received a message: Johann König, founder of the esteemed KÖNIG GALERIE in Berlin, had bought some of his work.
“I was just lying in bed. At that point I still had a job, I was furloughed. I had no fucking money,” Fallon tells me over the phone. I can really hear the emotion in his voice. “I remember just being sat on my bed and I just cried.”
Liam Fallon is a Manchester-based sculptor, originally from Stoke. Moments before, he had been telling me how busy he had been, working towards a deadline for an upcoming group show at the Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles. He’s also got a solo show booked at the Heller next June.
I ask him if this all feels slightly strange: big names from Berlin buying his work, shipping art to Los Angeles for exhibitions, his career taking off during the darkest days of the pandemic. “I think I’ll always find it a little bit strange, it’s not a thing that tends to happen to people from Stoke,” Fallon says.
His current studio is in one of the units at Islington Mill in Salford. He came to Manchester for university and decided to stay but Stoke continues to influence his work because much of it is based on labour-intensive processes of casting and moulding physical materials.
His grandma, for instance, worked for Wedgewood Pottery in Stoke. Fallon’s dad was a builder, his uncle is a joiner, his grandad was a painter and plasterer. These physical processes were just something he grew up around.
“On weekends, if my mum had to work, I’d go to work with my dad and he’d be setting me tasks to do,” Fallon says. “Say if he was building a wall for someone, he would have me stacking bricks for him or something.”
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Fallon’s process begins with an abstract idea that he scribbles down with a biro, which then progresses through multiple different stages before reaching its end point. He says he finds taking the time to make these physical objects cathartic. But creating art isn’t just catharsis, or therapy, and there’s a note of excitement in his voice too.
“The magical part about making sculpture [is that] you’re creating something new and bringing something into the world that no-one’s ever seen,” he says. Someone might have seen a variation, everyone’s seen a brick wall, but the point for me is by changing the materiality of it, and bringing it into a real-life setting, [it] gives you a moment to stop and think about it.”
Fallon’s work, in his own words, has “always been an ongoing exploration into queer culture and queer experience.” This might not be immediately obvious to the untrained eye. He talks about the process of ‘queering’ objects, of taking the mundane and the everyday – a brick wall – and reworking it to create something new.
“Queer culture has always taken things that people have overlooked,” Fallon says. He points to the Gay Village in Manchester: “It was a red-light district and it was completely derelict and desolate. It became the Gay Village because they didn’t have anywhere that they could go – ousted by their families, hated by society – they took this place and made it their own.”
Fallon tells me about Napoleons Bar on Bloom Street. Margaret Thatcher had brought in Section 28 and James Anderton, who once referred to people suffering from AIDS as “swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making,” was chief constable of Greater Manchester Police. Anderton was trying to shut down the Village and police ended up fighting with drag queens on the street.
We’re talking during Pride Month, an interesting time to reflect on the fact that the Gay Village is not as central to Manchester’s understanding of itself as it perhaps should be. Fallon raises the point that, whilst the Haçienda is mythologised to within an inch of its life, there are people in Manchester who don’t even know Gay Village exists.
And what we chose to remember matters. Seemingly every parent, auntie and dusty old geography teacher in the North West claims to have been a regular at the Haçienda. But far fewer people know that some of the club’s most legendary nights, like Flesh, used to move across from the Gay Village to the Haçienda, as its owners cashed in on the Village’s famous energy.
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Fallon’s work engages with this history in subtle ways. It’s also telling that Fallon wrote his dissertation on the relationship between queer culture and public space: sculpture is the art form that engages most obviously with space – you can walk around a sculpture, interact with it physically in ways that you can’t with a song or book.
There is a connection between his sculpture and his research: this way of thinking doesn’t take space to be neutral. Rather, it treats space as something that can make us feel certain things and think in certain ways.
As Fallon tells me: “If I’m ever on one side of town and I need to walk to the other, I’ll always walk through the Village. There’s a sense of pride from walking through it.”
People tend to think of themselves as independent, active forces moving through a passive world. Fallon’s work contradicts this: there’s a difference between understanding Gay Village as a series of streets that you either do or don’t walk down, and understanding it as a ‘space’ that interacts with us just as we interact with it, that changes us, that acts upon us, and that offers a specific set of possibilities and experiences not available elsewhere.
Liam Fallon’s work is about using physical objects and the spaces in which they sit to make us think differently. He reimagines objects that we might otherwise overlook, humanises them, and takes them into new spaces to make us engage with them in different ways.
Joe Ronan is Head of Editorial at Salt Magazine and is from South Manchester. He is interested in books, music and how the internet is changing culture. He also writes about sport. Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeRo99.