I’m a fan of blurred lines, although certainly not in a Robin Thicke kind of way. Previous exhibitions covered in this blog, from the fashion of Andrea Zapp and Helen Storey, the daily drawings of Thomas Schutte or the mixed-media of Sarah Lucas all not only bridge a gap between one form of art and another, but also challenge the typical way art is viewed and appreciated in the gallery setting.
Particularly in the case of Storey’s recent exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, one of the most powerful aspects of the show was the pieces’ installation alongside the regular exhibits. Works of art which may have been hung in the same place for years and seen countless times by regulars can be experienced in new ways when given a different context. This is a risky decision for the artist and curator involved as a fair balance is hard to strike; either the old favourites or their new neighbours can suffer from the adage that “comparisons are odious”.
Romuald Hazoume’s ‘Dance of the Butterflies’ currently installed in the Living Worlds gallery in the Manchester Museum is another of these integrated exhibitions, (generally known as a gallery trail but hard to call a trail when all of the art is in one room). Thousands of paper butterflies were mounted on various walls throughout the room, grouped together to form simple depictions of animals or flowers. The pieces were pretty, although not particularly striking, and did not attract much attention from the visitors there to see the Museum’s impressive collection of stuffed animals on display in the series of glass cases alongside.
With their references to the natural world, Hazoume’s pieces were in keeping with the overall theme of the room, and the butterfly/animal shapes mimicked the artefacts on display. However, as someone more likely to be found in a gallery than a museum, normally revering the man-made aesthetic over the contributions of nature, the most powerful aspect of the ‘Dance’ exhibition was how much the pieces paled into insignificance compared to their neighbours. Only a small sample of the animal kingdom is on display in the Living Worlds room, but even that was striking enough. It may be cheesy, but the sheer variety on offer in the natural world made me think how high the bar was set for someone to create art that could seem genuinely wonderful in comparison.
Never one to be distracted by the interpretations contained in gallery notes (‘Dance’ is obviously a commentary on African politics, according to the Manchester Museum), the main theme of Hazoume’s exhibition seemed to me to be “if you want to compete with nature, don’t bother”. Placed next to racks of preserved butterflies, how could the paper cut-outs not seem crude? What would be the point of drawing the outline of a whale, when a whale itself is so interesting a creature?
In that sense, ‘Dance of the Butterflies’ is worth going to see, but probably not for the reasons intended. It is an example of an exhibition where the most interesting thing to look at is not what is on display on the canvases, but rather everything else on display around it. That may seem like I’m doing Hazoume a disservice, and perhaps I am, but one of the best things you could say about an exhibition is that it brings new and powerful insight to the viewer, and ‘Dance’ certainly did that.