A six part series of photogravures by Tacita Dean titled Fernsehturm is currently featured in the Whitworth Gallery’s Building on Things exhibition. Originally film stills, they show the changing light and atmosphere of a rotating restaurant located inside Berlin’s famous East-side TV Tower. Shot as the sun set, Dean’s images offer a delicate visual comment on how, even when a regime crumbles, its iconography and monuments may remain to be used in new ways. “As you sit up there at your table…and with your back to the turn of the restaurant, you are no longer static in the present, but moving with the rotation of the earth, backwards into the future”. Focusing on depictions of ruin and regeneration, Building on Things is the main reason I went along to the Whitworth today. However – keeping with the directional theme – their major exhibition at the moment is We Face Forward, part of a Manchester-wide West African art festival, so naturally I took a look at that too. The source for their title is a comment by Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, who wryly reminded the major players of the Cold War that his country faced neither East or West.
Wandering around the galleries, these two exhibitions spill almost into each other. Indeed, Francois-Xavier Gbré’s stunning shots of abandoned, crumbling, or mid-restoration buildings act as something of a bridge between them. Educated at Ecole Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques, Gbré is of French/Ivorian descent, and although trained in fashion and design, his focus here is on identity, architecture and urbanism. Tracks comprises a series of elegantly composed photographs which are imbued with coolly subtle commentaries on the “absurd” ostentation of both French and British colonialism. His locations are not just West African; alongside Mali are ruins in Lyon, Israel and beyond. As he puts it: “Between memory and future, time seems suspended. These silent voids are loaded with a thousand wrongs, impregnated with the living being. I reveal what time has left us, secretly, timidly. Forgotten areas filled with memories, with possibilities, with History.”
Serious points are being made in much of We Face Forward; the ecological and geo-political pressures upon West Africa; the strange gaze of the white man and the harshness of urbanity. Barthélémy Toguo’s long almost scroll-like watercolour, Purification, (113cm x 10m) suggests how slavery, violence, and the denial of nationality affects the bodies and minds of those oppressed in a supposedly “global” world. His figures are half sillhoute, half flayed; powerfully evocative and somehow pulsing with mysteries and life. There is plenty also which is playful, light, and optimistic. Georges Adéagbo’s The Becoming of the Human Being “illuminates and traces relationships between Manchester and Cotonou, via the wider context of the UK, France, America and Africa”. Described as “museological”, archival and archaeological in its layout, this installation is full of strange juxtapositions made within a fantastically careful yet vibrant assemblage of papers, posters, records, political and musical ephemera and poetic jottings on the nature both of destiny and Nicolas Sarkozy. These highly personal artefacts relate both to the artist’s own life and those of friends and relatives; at the same time they say something about broader West African sociocultural and geographic connections. An essay in one of the books on offer in the exhibition’s reading area – Kobena Mercer’s “Black Art and The Burden of Representation” – stimulated further thoughts along these lines.
How much can art reveal about the condition of a whole region? About the lives of millions of people spread across more countries than most of us could name? Does an exhibition curator have some responsibility to make a definitive statement, present a coherent political view, in the works that are chosen? Clearly it is not possible to fix and define any diverse population of people; and creativity will always leave space for the illusory, the momentary, the subjective and the unknowable. Victoria Udondian plays beautifully with these ideas in 6 x 7m of glorious woven textiles. Aso Ikele (1948) is made entirely of second-hand fabric and – despite the title – it was actually created this year. I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I read the little leaflet provided to accompany the piece. Inside, Udondian embeds a fiction of Aso Ikele within a historically plausible narrative, rooting her work in a variety of facts about Nigerian weaving, the patterns of the European clothing trade, German anthropologists; she even cites books on the subject. And as well as playing with notions of provenance, origin and historical fact, Aso Ikele is (you’ll just have to trust me) the warmest and most wonderful smelling artwork that I’ve ever been close to!
Back at Building on Things, and Liverpudlian printmaker Ann Desmet’s Roof Shattered was one of my own favourites. Although not as grand and attention grabbing as her cyclical Babel Flower collages, and not globally focused like the works in We Face Forward, this deceptively simple work manages all the same to say something about cultural renewal and the fragmentation of memory. Made from six pieces of a broken mirror found amidst the ruins of Manchester’s still-to-be-restored Victoria public Baths, Desmet has overlaid each piece with cut outs from one of her linocut prints, giving them a patterned appearance. But, encased within a little glass box, the pieces are destined to never quite be reassembled.
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…