Architecture | Whitworth Art Gallery redevelopment

Whitworth Art Gallery, Oxford Road, Manchester | Reopening 14 February

Being a property journalist takes me to some interesting places. Yesterday I unchained myself from my city centre desk and spent the afternoon looking around the Whitworth Art Gallery, which has been closed since 2013 in order to build an extension and refurb the older gallery spaces.

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With a whole marketing campaign centred around the 14 February opening date using a tagline “fall in love again”, the cynic in me wondered if the gallery was going to be as over-hyped and underwhelming as Valentine’s Day itself. However, the new Whitworth is no Clinton’s card and bunch of wilting roses; it’s a three-course banquet and a blooming bouquet. Needless to say, I really did love it.

You’ll be relieved to hear that I’m going to save you from any more of my tenuous metaphors, and save myself from repetition, by linking you to the review that I wrote after my ever-supportive editor let me inflict my arty-fartiness on his nice business website.

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Pieces on a couple of the exhibitions that I saw when exploring the gallery will follow shortly. Stay tuned for Sarah Lucas’s phallic stuffed tights, a gnome made from cigarettes, and wallpaper covered in boobs. You’re welcome.

Exhibition | Living Here Living There

PLACES, RIBA Hub, 113-115 Portland Street

Architecture was historically the gentleman’s profession, the preserve of the educated upper classes who needed to build an extension on their manor or a pavilion in their perfectly-lawned garden. In recent decades, architecture has diversified dramatically, but it still retains the sense of the elitist; despite the fact that we all live, work, sleep, and will probably die in buildings, very few of us actually have input into how they are designed and built.

The Manchester School of Architecture for Children was set up at the beginning of last year as an offshoot of charity PLACES to try to change that at the very grassroots of society i.e. In the minds of children. Not just children, but children from some of the most underprivileged areas around Manchester, from some of the most multicultural communities. By introducing them to young architects, taking them for walks around the city and up some of Manchester’s highest buildings for a bird’s eye view, the charity encourages children to think critically (or more accurately, think at all) about the built environment around them.

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The Living Here Living There project was with a group of students from Moss Side, largely immigrants, looking at where they had come from and the areas they lived now. The children were introduced to architecture students, shown how to do drawings and make models of buildings, and then put into teams to design their own villages.

To clarify, I am not the kind of person to look at any incoherent scrawl made by a child and go ‘awwww’. That blind adoration is best left to the little darling’s parents, and they are welcome to it. That said, looking around the Living Here exhibition, I was genuinely surprised by the variety, ingenuity, and also practicality that the children displayed in their models. There was a skateboard park with ramps for beginners and for those more adept in the art of the half-pipe, a football pitch with a strategically placed and well-engineered plastic roof to protect the players, alongside schools and religious buildings. And an inland jetty with a floating helipad. Because you know, you need a place to park your ‘copter, obviously.

Of course, the higgledy-piggledy blocks of wood and clumsily cut out card were verging on the abstract when it came to the accurate portrayal of buildings, but I’ll cut the eight-year-olds some slack. What was important here is that the kids were interacting with the design of buildings in the first place. That they realise that there is actually some method in the madness of how towns and cities are created, and that they might be able to contribute to that themselves one day, is an empowering concept. The sooner that the creation of buildings moves from being largely the responsibility of tweed-and-brogue wearing middle-aged men, and becomes a responsibility shared by people from all walks of life, the better.

Because we all need more skate-parks, and helipads, in our lives.

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Exhibition | AZ.andreazapp

Manchester Art Gallery | Saturday 25 October 2014 – Sunday 22 March 2015

Some of the most satisfying pieces of art or craft are when various strands of visual culture and experience collide to make one coherent whole.

This is not going to deteriorate into a fashion blog (I’ll spare you an aesthetic analysis of my unnecessarily large collection of shoes), but I was struck by the design work of Andrea Zapp on my last visit to Manchester Art Gallery. Having come straight out of the Cotton Couture exhibition, Zapp’s pieces seemed to me to be everything that the cotton creations were not; silky, striking, clean and modern.

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Based on her trips around the world, the simply-cut hand-made dresses showed photographs of places and buildings, reproductions of works of art and images of ‘items of curiosity’. The layers of the creative process are physically interpreted in the lay-out of the gallery space; creating almost a feeling of infinite regress. A photograph of balconies in India is reproduced in high-definition on a dress worn by a mannequin, posed as if reading the gallery notes discussing the photograph of the balconies in India. Call me a bear of very little brain, but my mind was blown.

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On a more superficial level, I love buildings, and photography, and fashion, and the possibility of being able to physically wear a hybrid of all of these things seems like a match made in heaven. Zapp designed three exclusive limited edition dresses especially for the exhibition, but thankfully for me and my bank account, I didn’t stay long enough to check the price tags…

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Mine please.

Exhibition | Sensory War 1914 – 2014

Manchester Art Gallery | Saturday 11 October 2014 – Sunday 22 February 2015

The 100th anniversary of the First World War lasts until 2018. As important as it is to mark the centenary of such a generation-changing event, with the endless list of exhibitions, war-themed Hollywood blockbusters, plays and TV programmes, there’s a risk that the public will become completely desensitised, if it isn’t already.

If I’m honest, I went into the Sensory War exhibition already jaded when it came to war art. To use a massive generalisation, the early 1900s were not the most expressive of periods of art in the Western world, and many paintings from the time retain a hint of propaganda. Writing about war also becomes difficult without slipping into cliche, so forgive me.

To say that the images cut through the white noise of war imagery is an understatement.  A piece by piece study of the exhibition would be as tedious for you to read as it would for me to write, so I’ll focus on one particular section, entitled ‘Rupture & Rehabilitation: Disability & The Wounds of War’. The series of paintings, drawings and photographs featured in a small part of the gallery act as a microcosm for the wider theme of the exhibition; a study of the large-scale assault on whole societies epitomised in the physical and emotional scars left behind.

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Herbet Cole’s paintings from Sidcup

During the first world war, many artists found work documenting wounds to assist early reconstructive surgeons in their research. In a series of small watercolours, Herbert Cole shows the facial injuries of some of the patients at Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, some healed, and some bloody and open to the air. However extreme the wounds, each image is clear without being clinical, each soldier is shown with an upright bearing. There is no grief or pain in these paintings, if anything there is a surprise and even pride that the victims have lived through such an experience. 

Drawings and paintings provide the viewer with a level of distance for the viewer from the image’s subject; seen through the filter of the artist and their pen, we can remain relatively far-removed from the original scene. The filter of a camera lense does not give us quite the same level of comfort. A photograph of a local survivor from the Vietnam war by Richard Mosse gives an unflinching look at the deformities many outside of the reach of ‘modern medicine‘ are left to live with. With a lower face so disfigured by gunfire, the viewer is forced to fight the instinct the look away and has to stare in order to distinguish the remnants of a functioning human face; teeth, tongue, a nose. A reproduction here would not reflect the true and appropriate brutality of this experience.

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Marine Corporal Michael Jennigan

Other photographers turned to recent, American survivors returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as their subjects. One, Marine Corporal Michael Jennigan, has taken life’s unfairnesses on the chin, or more accurately, in the eye. Like so many returning soldiers, war not only ripped apart their bodies on the battlefield but also their relationships at home. After being left blind, Jennigan’s wife couldn’t deal with the impact of his injuries, and divorced him. A lesser man would have done everything he could to forget this betrayal; Jennigan had the diamonds from his ex-wife’s wedding ring embedded into his prosthetic eye.

To say that The Sensory War brought new insight to not only war art but war itself is as glib as it is true. Shocking without being gratuitous, emotional but without sentimentality, the juxtaposition of the 21st century impact of conflict with images from a century ago provide a fresh and powerful view on an oft-repeated theme.

Exhibition | Cotton Couture

Manchester Art Gallery | Thursday 19 June 2014 – Sunday 14 June 2015 

Manchester is a city built on cotton. The import of the material from the US and Manchester’s production and distribution of it as a usable fabric was the core of the industrial revolution and the purpose of many of the massive Victorian warehouse still seen around the North West today.

Stylish is not a word that one associates with cotton. We use it for t-shirts, napkins and bed sheets, not cocktail dresses. Which means that despite its best efforts, the Manchester Cotton Board of the 1950s was not successful in its endeavour to prove to the world that cotton could be more than practical, it could be couture.

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The series of terrifyingly tiny-waisted mannequins across the ground-floor room at the Manchester Art Gallery show a series of outfits made by leading couturiers of the age, “inspirational creations” to prove that cotton could be as equal in a ball gown as the finest silk. From dresses for debutantes, to office chic, to clinging red voile for the aspiring femme fatale, the designs try their best, they really do. The silhouettes are gorgeous, but the dresses still seem… lacklustre.

At the risk of getting too etymological, it is that ‘lack of luster’ that is at the root of why cotton never made it from durable to desirable. The shine of silk, the vibrancy of velvet, the  sheer furriness of fur, all give off an immediate impression that the material would be a joy to touch, a pleasure to wear.

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Cotton is just too dull, too everyday. The most glamourous in society are not interested in a ‘special occasion’ dress that is machine-washable. Delicacy equals transience, and transience equals value. To wear an outfit that looks like it would only survive one showing demonstrates that you’re rich enough to afford a dress that only needs to be worn once.    

Of all places to have an exhibition on the untapped potential of cotton, Manchester is perfect. Despite the centuries since the peak of the industrial revolution, the city still has some grime under its fingernails; it works hard, and plays hard. London is a beautiful woman in silk, perfect and poised, manicured of hand and stilettoed of heel. Manchester is her fun-loving sister; she scrubs up well, but won’t let the fear of spilling ketchup on her pretty dress get in the way of having a good time.

After all, it’s only made of cotton, so she can just bung it in the wash. 

Outside | Street Art

I’m taking a daring step today. One small step for man, one giant leap for an agoraphobic aesthete, as I creep out of my office-shaped nest, and step into the coolest venue to experience art; the street.

In a world of commodity and convenience, art is evolving to meet the spectator where they are, rather than expecting the public to make the arduous trek to the museum, like in the good old days. Those ‘good old days’, were when only an elite section of the population visited a museum, and were classed as connoisseurs. Now, the viewing of art has become democratic – physically bringing art to the masses, and I’m all for it.

Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North

Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North

A brilliant example of this trend is the pop-up galleries found so commonly these days in London’s Soho or Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Just as they are established quickly, they are made to be viewed and understood speedily; in your coffee or lunch break, to and from work; whenever you have a spare five minutes, because that is all you need. They are not formidable, slow and outmoded, as with many of the major galleries of today, but instead present an easy, user friendly way to enjoy art. They are the Mac to The National Gallery’s PC. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for a PC in all our lives, but sometimes a Mac is just… whizzier.

Stepping into the open air, the art form that most majorly impacts on us is sculpture. These are placed in the public sphere; in school yards, town hall squares or, in the case of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North or Serena De La Hey’s Willow Man, by the road side. These are works created solely to be viewed when you are whizzing past them at 70mph (which I guess is the exhibitionary equivalent of a Drive Thru). In these kinds of settings, the sculpture is an integral part of the viewer’s landscape, if only briefly.

Katharina Fritsch's Hahn/Cock was on the Fourth Plinth throughout 2014

Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock was on the Fourth Plinth throughout 2014

Contemporary sculptors and curators are repeatedly establishing the notion of art as transient. The creation of a work which makes a statement and then disappears is more and more common, and a classic example of this is the changing exhibits shown on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Gormley’s 2009 contribution pushed this idea of transience and creativity even further by using people as his medium, blurring the lines between art and performance, and relinquishing control into the hands of a group of oddballs.

Allan Kaprow, an American artist of the ’60s, called for ‘artwork and life to be inseparable.’ He listed the objects that could be used in the creation of art as anything from ‘chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog.’ Before you attempt to cover your pet pooch in acrylic paint, an easier (and more ethical) option is to simply step outside, open your eyes, and see the art that is being exhibited all around us. As cheesy as that sentence sounds, it is certainly a more refreshing, inclusive and soul-nurturing way of viewing art.