Raqib Shaw‘s latest exhibition has brought new life and colour to the Manchester Art Gallery – both inside and out. Having draped their railings with flowers, foliage, and the twisted branches of Willows, the museum invites you inside to find Kashmiri-born/London-based Raqib’s work scattered and displayed in various locations. Vivid, fantastical scenes combine real and fictional creatures within sparkling fairytale landscapes both Indian and European in influence; together these conjure up a mythology that feels familiar – like a childhood memory – and highly original – bold and shocking. Surveying his beautiful (and at times slightly macabre) menagerie you can almost hear the sound of wild animals. Of course it’s always nice to look at the more traditional pieces in the Gallery’s collection, but finding one of Shaw’s pieces next to say, George Stubbs, or Charles-August Mengin, makes for an enjoyably startling contrast.
Although given a vast amount of space in the Patron’s Gallery, I’d say that it’s more stimulating finding Shaw’s works amongst pieces from the Victorian era. Seeing them all at once threatens to generate a certain loss of impact that comes from being over-awed by his use of jewels, gold, and enamel. Similarly, Susie MacMurray‘s Widow – a stunning and meditative dress made using black leather and 100,000 adamantine silver pins – is equally helped by being positioned among pieces dealing with life and death in the 17th century. New observations and ideas arise at these intersections. MacMurray’s dress says something about mortality as flawlessly as any of the masters behind her.
Something I also really like about the Gallery is the space that is devoted to activities for kids/big kids in the Clore Interactive Gallery. Technical problems aside (sadly many machines were out-of-order when I visited) it’s great to find a play space where you can let your imagination wander and your creative side express itself after soaking up all the “proper” artworks. Of course, participation is a big thing in museums and cultural institutions these days and it’s not always done well. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a pile of hastily gathered crayons and a few “give us your comments” cards; not exactly inspiring! For me, the Manchester Gallery has got it spot on. Somehow they manage to offer a range of activities that are as stimulating for adults as they are for children. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was exclusively adults who were “interacting” with the objects in the Clore room on Sunday! By letting visitors climb into a giant rotating “kaleidoscope”, invent their own “free form” still life compositions, or activate a 3-D spinning model of a painting (Marion Adnams’ Lost Infant), artworks are brought to life in a way that encourages collaboration.
Raqib Shaw’s exotic monkeys – and the lovely staff who let people wander around taking as many photographs as they like! – demonstrate in quite different ways that going to a gallery is definitely not all about tradition, reverence, and intimidating curation. Creativity is, after all, all about a certain freedom.
The title of my post is that of a fantastic and pretty unique exhibition that I visited today at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery. Subtitle: Science Technology Art. Sadly I am unable to post any illustrative pictures of what I spent the day admiring due to copyright restrictions. Yes, even the shadows cast by some of the works are copyrighted!1 So you’ll either have to go and see for yourself (it runs until well into next year) or follow the various links embedded in this post and take it from me that many of the pieces on display are absolutely magical. In that “Is this real ?!” childhood sense of magical that so many of us only dimly remember as we grow up. Still, there is also plenty that it is more solemn and introspective if that sounds like too much fun. 😉
The exhibition is themed around the idea of what happens when mechanical and digital technologies intersect with and give new expression to the “darker” (both literal and metaphorical) regions of our creative imaginations: what we see or imagine in the shadows and in response to changing, shifting patterns of light. The reaction of Maxim Gorky (who knew a thing or two about terror) to one of the first exhibitions of the Lumière brothers’ cinematographic innovations: “Not life, but a shadow of life. It is terrible to see, this movement of shadows…” provides an introductory insight. Other literary connections are provided in the work of Idris Khan. Blown-up, layered digital images of printed texts, which somehow appear like majestic 3D photocopies – including Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny – both merge and separate related elements of form, content, tone, and subtext. These look beautiful up close.
Snow Mirror by Daniel Rozin is the piece everyone wants to have a play with. The image of the viewer standing in between ‘projector’ and ‘screen’ is captured and transformed through a combination of computers, lights, and fabric, before being presented back to you slowly as if heralding the creation of a ghostly other “you”. To be more specific: a ghostly other you trapped in a snow blizzard. Kiss by R. Luke DuBois literally sparkles. For this he has visually analysed and mapped with bright points of connected light, specific regions of film depicting famous Hollywood kissing scenes, also tying them to an original, mathematically calculated, soundtrack. DuBois manages to draw your attention to the illusion/fantasy of cinematic emotion at the very same time as he takes it, manipulates it, and makes you feel it anew. Similarly, when I walked into the large room where Brass Art’s “Still Life No. 1” was sitting I was surprised to hear myself say out loud – “wow, this is amazing!” I can’t at all do justice to how magnificent the modern take of these 3 female artists (1 is from Glasgow) on a magic lantern or a Zoetrope (the Wheel of the Devil) is. Huge distorted shadows of the tiny little figurines and plastic shapes they have set up on a cylindrical table are cast dancing around the room. The figures on the table glow in bright white and yellow, appearing from a distance like crystal ornaments. This instantly took me back to the time when, as a kid, my imagination and my dreams started to develop together, spinning across the walls.
I’m sorry for these rather hesitant and “wooly” descriptions of the works. I am not an expert in how exactly these effects were achieved. I discussed this a little with one of the lovely gallery staff while we stood inside Barnaby Hosking‘s brilliant “Black Flood”. The point is to immerse yourself in the feelings elicited by these works (to react to them emotionally, even viscerally, as Gorky did) rather than to try and unpick how exactly the material and lights are set up and installed. I tried; but in the end, experiencing rather than clinically analysing suits me (and them) best.
Apparently some visitors to the museum find Hosking’s wall-mounted “butterflies” (3 different types and colours of metal, showing light, dark, shade, and very much conveying the fleeting movements of thought) too cheerful or “twee” for an exhibition themed around darkness. This is a really strange point of view! As the Lumières and other craftsmen and women working with photographs and “phantoms” knew better than most, the darkness of cinema or art based on those techniques is not possible without the play of light. Equally, the lightness of a Hollywood “kiss” is best appreciated in the dark.
1I have added a few images that I thought they wouldn’t object to – some of the lights and shadows at the Whitworth that aren’t technically exhibits…