Exhibition | Eastern Exchanges

Manchester Art Gallery | 2 April – 21 May 2015

“The East has a lot to teach us about attitudes to art,” curator Janet Boston explained as she looked around Eastern Exchanges, the exhibition that she has spent the last 10 years developing and researching.

Like much of the artwork around her, Boston’s description was something of an understatement. Across two large gallery rooms, the exhibition is a whistle-stop tour of the breadth and depth of East Asian art, from the monumental and traditional to the modern and the minimal.

There are 17 lenders to the show, and a lot of objects drawn from collections at Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester Museum and Bolton Museum. Alongside the historic pieces, there are works from individual and young artists, to reflect the most recent work that East Asia had to offer.

You’d have to be a particularly stubborn artist not to find some inspiration within the almost overwhelming array of objects, with armour, textiles, pottery, wooden and ivory carvings and furniture showing the best of 1500 years of Chinese, Japanese and Korean craftsmanship.

It is this extensive history that most attracted Boston to the subject of East Asian art. “The Western canon of art is about 500 years old, while the East has an ancient tradition stretching back 1000s of years. We have a lot to learn from that.”

Despite the exhausting range of the objects, from seemingly disparate parts of East Asian history, there is an undeniable shared aesthetic amongst all of the forms. Everything is so beautiful, detailed, neat, and efficient. Nothing is surplus to requirement.

“Eastern design is special,” enthused Boston. “There’s a sensitivity towards balance, form and line drawn from a heritage of calligraphy. Despite being very modern, East Asia has tradition, and respect for that tradition.”

The pottery by Jin Eui Kim epitomised the minimal yet beautiful East Asian approach to design.

The pottery by Jin Eui Kim epitomised the minimal yet beautiful East Asian approach to design.

This coherency is one of the most powerful aspects of the Eastern Exchanges exhibition, and is an important lesson to be learnt. The past 200 years of Western art in particular has been largely defined by each new school of artists creating a rupture with tradition, developing a new style which starts rebellious and then is inevitably absorbed into the establishment, creating yet another tradition to be broken away from.

Based on Eastern Exchanges, each subsequent generation of Chinese, Korean and Japanese artists has felt the weight of history behind them, but rather than being restricted by this have acknowledged the font of inspiration at their disposal. The copious exquisite objects currently on show at Manchester Art Gallery are testament to the success of that process.

Boston’s enthusiasm for her finished product was clear. “I’m really proud of this. When I first had the thought 10 years ago I would never have dreamed that it would actually happen.

“For Western audiences, East Asian craft is less familiar, takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us see things in a different way.”

Hear, hear Janet!

Exhibition | In the Footsteps of a Master

Emily Allchurch | Manchester Art Gallery | 13 March – 8 June 2015

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”, bemoaned the author of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. While this quote has been used to berate artists across the centuries for a lack of originality, modern pieces are more likely to be referential, and often deferential, to the precedents set before them.

Emily Allchurch’s work is based around making modern photographic recreations of old master paintings of iconic scenes, allowing the viewer to see the changes not only in artistic medium but in the places themselves. There’s nothing quite like juxtaposing the past and the present to show us not only how far we’ve come as a society, but how much things have stayed the same.

As part of the first UK solo exhibition of her work, Manchester Art Gallery commissioned Allchurch to make a piece based on a painting of Manchester’s Albert Square by Adolphe Valette from 1910. Valette’s view of the city is dark, smoggy, industrial and slightly despairing. Allchurch’s photograph shows a lighter, brighter, and more demographically-mixed image of the square, although the sky is so idealistically sunny as to render it unbelievable.

Both pieces are true to the spirit of their medium. As an impressionist, Valette was committed to showing the trials and tribulations of daily life for the regular population, not just the posed portraits of the aristocracy. Similarly, photography lends itself to providing a snapshot of a moment in time in the hustle and bustle of one of the UK’s busiest cities.

Allchurch’s image may be sunnier, but like Valette’s it shows the hard-working face of Manchester – there is very little loitering going on here. Some of the buildings on the skyline may have changed, but what Allchurch’s work shows is that cabbies still drive, bin men still clean, and there is nothing new under the sun.

Installation | SEED

Manchester Craft & Design Centre |  21 February – 9 May 2015

Sculpture, architecture and nature. For some, disparate concepts, but for me ideas that should more often be spoken in the same breath. While you may think I’m going cuckoo trying to draw comparisons between, say, a marble statue, a skyscraper and a potted plant, instead let me take you on a journey.

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Francesco Borromini, one of 17th century Italy’s most important architects and the man who basically built Rome as we know it, approached his designs of the most ornate churches on a tabletop scale, carving and moulding and melting blocks of wax which resulted in buildings which were both intimate and organic. He was only the latest in a long line of church builders dating back to the Medieval times, when people looked around in awe of nature and decided to do their very best to mimick God’s creation by creating towering pillars of buildings that stretched to the sky, believing they could bridge the gap between heaven and earth.

Of course these epic efforts were not limited to religious buildings alone, and after centuries and centuries of focussing our best intellectuals on the task, we finally realised that organic forms had it right all along. These days, its common for starchitects like Zaha Hadid to design buildings that look more like water than tower blocks

From the macro to the micro, the plywood installation by architect student James Donegan currently dominating the foyer of the Manchester Craft & Design Centre forms part of that narrative. While SEED may be significantly smaller than Hadid’s madder creations, Borromini’s churches and the Medieval Gothic cathedrals, it still creates a unity between the natural, the sculptural and the architectural. It has aspects of all of those things and is more than the sum of its parts; it is clever, and it is beautiful.

Most importantly, it encourages interaction. Don’t get me wrong, this is certainly not an invitation for children to treat it like a climbing frame (although not necessarily a bad idea when it comes to sculpture, as Henry Moore demonstrated). However, signs around SEED invite people to stand within what is best described as the ‘bud’, see the light filtering through the lattice work, gaze up to the centre’s skylights in the same way that Donegan’s intepretation of a plant also strains towards the sun.

Of course, all of my pretentious descriptions are nowhere near as effective at getting people to actually stand inside the thing as MCDC’s approach, which is simply to install a sign in the centre of the installation which says ‘take a SEED selfie here’.

Afterall, what is art not seen through the lens of a smart phone?

Because I can't resist.

Because I can’t resist.

Exhibition | Northern Women’s Art Collective

Nexus Art Cafe, Manchester | 26 March – 1 June 2015

A group of women from across the North of England have come together to form an artistic collective and have put on their first show based in the creative hub that is Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

I’ll put my hands up to confess that I missed the launch on 26 March as I was schmoozing at an event in Coronation Street (sucks to be me, I know), but this is top of my list to dash to in the coming weeks. It combines some of my favourite things: cool women + art + hipster cafes + people-that-like-all-of-the-above-and-live-in-the-same-place-I-do.

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The open exhibition features a variety of work including ceramics, painting, drawing, and photography, so what’s not to love?

The collective began meeting at Nexus Art Café in Dale Street in October, and have been working on pieces for the show since then. The artwork will remain in the cafe until 1 June and many of the pieces are available to buy.

The collective has 19 members; some are professional artists, but others have full time jobs outside the arts world, so props to them for making the time to create all of this stuff.

Although apparently their cultural origins are diverse, all the women now live in the north of England, and identify as Northern women.

I’m curious to see whether this ‘northern-ness’ is identifiable across the exhibition as a general aesthetic. Is it possible for the grey skies, the indomitable spirit of its inhabitants, and the industrial heritage of the North West to seep into the art of a group of almost 20 women in some subtle but consistent way? Or is that as patronising a thought as expecting their work to be based around the same themes simply because they’re all women?

I’ve pretty much defined the focus of a future review blog; now I must take the not-so-winding road to the Northern Quarter to find out the answer, and I suggest you do the same.

Hmmm... No grey skies to be seen here.

Hmmm… No grey skies to be seen here.

Fashion | Andrea Zapp at MIPIM

Every now and then, in a pleasing twist of circumstance, the personal and professional parts of my life merge. Being a property journalist, there aren’t many times when I get an opportunity to indulge in something art or design related.

Such a situation recently arose in the most unlikely of places a couple of weeks ago – MIPIM, a European property conference where 26,000 people descend on Cannes for four days of events and networking. It was here that in he middle of the sea of pinstripe suits I recognised something familiar – the sleek, silk dresses of Andrea Zapp, who I wrote a post about a few months ago.

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Because he’s infinitely supportive, when I got back to the UK my editor let me write something about it to satisfy my artistic twitch. So read on to see how property, photography, fashion, history and marketing pleasingly collided…

Exhibition | Dance of the Butterflies

Romuald Hazoume | Living Worlds Gallery, Manchester Museum | 14 February – December 2015

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.

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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.

 

Exhibition | Playtime

Cornerhouse, Manchester | 22 November 2014 – 15 March 2015

The end is nigh for the Cornerhouse cinema and gallery in Manchester city centre. The Playtime exhibition featuring installations and videos from nine artists is the last show before the arts venue closes its doors in April ahead of a move to a new HOME (sorry) down the road in May.

As last hurrahs go, overall Playtime was more of a deflated balloon than a party popper. The first installations in Gallery 1 by Gabriel Lester, ‘Melancholia in Arcadia’ and ‘Bouncer’ epitomised what many people hate about contemporary art; they were obtuse, unexciting and unrecognisable as a work of art. I’ve experienced more than my fair share of modern art (Gabriel Orozco’s Empty Shoebox of 1993 remains a highlight), but I literally didn’t realise ‘Melancholia’ was an artwork, I just walked straight through the room. There’s understated, and then there’s just completely unrecognisable. The extent of the piece was a series of hardened lace curtains on the windows to look as if there was a breeze; what the gallery notes described as ‘haunting’, read… boring.

I’m not prone to negativity, so I’ll focus on the two pieces within the collection that I found genuinely interesting and edifying. True to the Playtime theme of the exhibition, the offerings from Andy Graydon and Naomi Kashiwagi were interactive and fun, clever but lighthearted.

Graydon’s ‘Plate Tectonics 2009’ in Gallery 2 was initially perplexing for someone such as myself who has little to no experience with a record player (I’m more in the cassette player generation). With four record players in the middle of the room, the installation invites the visitor to play DJ with a range of vinyl recordings of sounds collected from some of the most famous art institutions in the world such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Cornerhouse itself. With the speakers mounted on boards taken from the galleries’ walls so you could experience the sounds in their ‘natural’ habitat, the installation was delightfully meta.

I most enjoyed mixing a recording of the New York City Museum with one from a MOMA Andy Warhol exhibition; while the layering of sounds was disorientating and interesting, I don’t think I’m going to be giving Skrillex a run for his money any time soon.

The third and final room, Gallery 3, gave the best collective experience out of all of the rooms, with a mixture of video, sound and participatory objects creating a soothing but slightly unreal environment. Taking ‘Playtime’ to its logical conclusion was ‘Kashiwagi’s ‘Swingtime’, a set of swings with trigger sensors which play sounds as you move, integrating the rhythm of the visitor’s play with the work itself. As the gallery was empty I had a cheeky swing myself, and with the subtle outdoor recordings and general ambience it was all rather pleasant.

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The exhibition was in part intended to reflect some of the heritage and general aesthetic of the Cornerhouse itself. I won’t do the Cornerhouse a disservice by judging it solely on its final artistic offering, which as an exhibition felt disjointed, disparate and underwhelming. However, the tone of both Kashiwagi’s and Graydon’s pieces provided a more appropriate send off. Quirky, engaging, playful and surprising, they were true to the spirit of the Cornerhouse as a varied and accessible arts venue that will be missed by its many patrons.

The Cornerhouse is dead, long live HOME!

Exhibition | Sex & Frocks

Helen Storey | Manchester Art Gallery | 19 February – 1 March 2015

As part of the Wellcome Collection’s Sexology season, four dresses by designer Professor Helen Storey have been installed in Manchester Art Gallery which explore the relationship between fashion and sexuality. The attraction of Storey’s dresses is clear, with the most prominent design featured using a mixture of the sexiest materials known to man (lace, sequins and fox fur). But like all pieces of art, a deeper level of insight comes from the context in which it is displayed, and for Sex & Frocks that was pretty much the entirety of the gallery.

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Good curatorship has to strike the difficult balance between showing each individual object in its best light, while also presenting a complementary collection which is in line with whatever agenda is most likely to draw in the crowds and spark conversation. Van Gogh’s cheerful sunflowers in an exhibition on his tortured mental state or Picasso’s early realism when public appetite is for later cubism, are examples of contextually-necessary square pegs that have had to be fitted into thematic round holes.

Harder still is the curation of a gallery trail, when paintings or objects are placed alongside a gallery’s permanent collection. There is no dedicated room to root the exhibition in, in many cases not much more than a spare plinth or patch of wall. The entire gallery already has well-established guidelines based around chronology, movement and materials which a curator somehow needs to shoehorn another exhibition around.

Asking a visitor to ‘read between the lines’ of a gallery is a big ask when they are already busy deciphering the regular art on display. However the placement of Helen Storey’s dresses hit the nail on the head perfectly. Rather than trying to compete with the vast array of paintings and sculptures on show, they worked in a complementary way, increasing the viewing pleasure and adding layers of meaning to the art around them, and also themselves.

This was most obvious in the case of the two dresses displayed in the Pre-Raphaelite room. In a movement so centred around sensuality and vibrancy of colour and materials, Storey’s designs fit in perfectly. The Pre-Raphaelites’ work always comes with a backstory of scandal; the heavy drinking, opiate-fuelled, adulterous ways of Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais made them celebrities of the Victorian age.

Despite pre-dating Storey’s work by 150 years, there is a certain shared lasciviousness that bridges the gap; in ‘Front-And-No-Back Dress’ Storey creates an outfit that is only a facade of propriety, from the front elegant and demure, but from behind leaving the model’s derrière completely open to the elements. Across the room, ‘Red Planet Dress’s copper-coloured velvet matches the golden palate of the paintings, and placed next to a nude statue and portrait of a woman getting undressed echoes the shapely female forms.

The most interesting aspect of the Sex & Frocks gallery trail was not Storey’s dresses, but how they brought fresh light to the exhibitions around them. This is not intended to be damning with faint praise; as objects in and of themselves the designs were beautiful and elegant. But I basked in the golden glow of the Pre-Raphaelites more when studying the Red Planet dress, and noticed the fixation on upholstery in 17th century Dutch still-life paintings more than I ever had previously when seen next to Storey’s silk ‘Implantation Dress’.

Implantation dress in the Dutch 1600-1800s room

Implantation dress in the Dutch 1600-1800s room

While only made up of four dresses, Sex & Frocks had a powerful affect beyond the mannequins themselves. Despite my many previous visits to Manchester Art Gallery I felt like I came away with new insight, proving the old adage that ‘a change is as good as a rest’.

Installation | Low Tide Wandering

Thomas Schutte, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester | 14 February – 19 July 2015

Forms of creative expression that go beyond the typical definitions of art and craft are a love of mine. Why can’t buildings be artistic, sculpture wearable, fashion architectural? The sooner we let art break out of its box, the better we’ll all be.

Thomas Schutte’s ‘Low Tide Wandering’ at the Whitworth Art Gallery is such a trans-category work (forgive me for making up a word). Made up of 139 etchings made throughout the course of 2001, displayed thematically and hung on wires crisscrossed along the gallery room, the piece is drawing, installation, diary, and thought process all rolled into one. An individual drawing is interesting, but made more powerful when viewed alongside its compatriots.

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Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall back in 2010 was an extreme example of this point. Hundreds of millions of life-sized porcelain seeds were strewn on the floor, each one a beautiful piece of artistry in and of itself, but all part of a mind-bogglingly vast final piece. Originally key to Weiwei’s design was the idea of audience participation, but in the end this was impossible as it turns out crushed porcelain dust is dangerous to inhale (slight oversight).

In Schutte’s piece, while not quite to the same scale as Weiwei’s, he actually achieves the goal of art/visitor integration, with the strings of drawings at the perfect height to allow both easy viewing and movement around and between the sheets, with only minimal ducking required.

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Schutte made the images every morning throughout 2001, with the final 139 the best of the lot. This means that the series is a mix of the mundane and the significant; the view of his coffee table versus a drawing from the morning of 9/11, appropriately captioned ‘Holy Fuck’. The creative process itself embodies this contradiction. While a daily drawing suggests spontaneity, creating a print is laborious and more reminiscent of an Old Master than a sketcher. The drawings are grouped together into different colour sets, also suggesting a coherency across days and weeks.

Each etching is a unique and colourful artwork in its own right, but is within a collection which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is when the viewer steps back that they can appreciate Schutte’s piece as a whole. The strings of paper are like developing photographs hung in a dark room, and feels spontaneous and also casual, breaking down the typical staid formality associated with gallery visits. The art is without frames, without walls for that matter, and this helps to take the piece from the elevated heights of fine art and back down (literally) to eye level.

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Not the most intricate artwork in the world, not the cleverest and definitely not the sexiest, ‘Low Tide Wandering’ still manages to achieve that most elusive of goal of it art; it takes everyday objects and everyday experiences, and makes them interesting, for everyday people.

Exhibition | Tits in Space

Sarah Lucas, Whitworth Art Gallery | Saturday 14 February – Sunday 19 July 2015

From the Young British Artist who brought us ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ in the early 90s (literally two eggs and a kebab laid out on a wooden table) I give you… ‘Tits in Space’.

Or more specifically, a photograph of two balls made out of cigarettes, printed repeatedly to form a wallpaper and plastered across a large exhibition room. The visual metaphor is obvious by the title, and sets the tone for the rest of the items displayed alongside it; stuffed tights laid out like plasticine dolls, a garden gnome also covered in cigarettes, and a large phallus. It sets a perimeter to the space; in here, mundane items become anthropomorphic, funny, surreal and sexual.

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In the early years of her career, Lucus made a name for herself alongside artists such as Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers thanks to their rebellious outlook, a rejection of anything that could be considered ‘high-brow’, and some pretty extreme partying habits. With pickled sharks, unmade beds and shop mannequins, they were the epitome of anti-establishment, taking everything the art elite held dear, screwing it up, doing a poo on it and putting it in a gallery just for a laugh.

Accept now, 25 years on, the Young British Artists are not so young anymore. In fact they’re in their 50s, and despite their protestations are now about as establishment as you can get. So much so that Lucas is representing the UK at the Venice Biennial later this year.

The exhibition in the recently reopened Whitworth Art Gallery drives this point home. In a gallery renowned for its textiles and wallpaper collection, as tongue-in-cheek as it is ‘Tits in Space’ plays homage to the heritage around it and nods to an artistic precedent. As you view the other exhibits, the wallpaper blurs into a patterned background. Faced with the baggy beige tights and garden gnome sculpture, you feel like you just wandered into your mad Granny’s bedroom. Perhaps that’s just me; if you’d met my Gran you’d understand…

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For the last 20 years Lucas has created pieces made from items of furniture, posed to be suggestive of a human form. Both in male and female figures, Lucas reduces the body to its most basic, and most sexual, parts, and doesn’t shy away from making some uncomfortable comparisons. I mean, she once used a kebab to suggest lady parts, and I really don’t need to go into unpacking that metaphor.

At the Whitworth exhibition, Lucas delivers more of the same. The stuffed tights are indicative of female bodies, nude, draped over chairs. Set next to army gear or atop stacks of tinned ham, Lucas’ women are not empowered, proudly inflagrante and posed confidently for their lover. Instead, the bodies are there to be attacked, or devoured. This is brought home by one sculpture, where a male figure is indicated in a large, rather crumpled, cigarette-covered penis. Set in the middle of a pair of tight-legs, limp and spread, the female form could not be more passive.

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These themes are interesting, but for Lucas are certainly not new. Like with the wallpaper, the sculptures echo an earlier heritage and show the cyclical nature of art, but in Lucas’ case she is mainly self-referential. Whether that’s egotistical, lazy or the last vestige of anti-establishmentism left, it’s something that can be seen in a lot of the YBAs’ work in the past few years.

As for the cigarette-covered gnome, frankly, I don’t have a clue. Perhaps it is a reference to Lucas’ secret pyromania, specifically aimed at garden ornaments. Perhaps she’s trying to kick the habit. Either way, it’s reassuring to know that even a YBA still has the capacity to be unfathomable…

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