Tuesday, 30 September 2008

'Are You Dead?' @ Nexus Arts Cafe

There's a new show coming up at the Nexus Arts Cafe. Sounds rather interesting, especially since my favourite museum is Biologiska Museet in Stockholm.

The blurb states:

''Are You Dead?' is the latest exhibition in Nexus Art Café. Three contemporary taxidermists explore the relationship that we have with the animal kingdom. Disturbing, shocking and often highly amusing this exhibition challenges our perceptions of the animal kingdom by placing them in an unexpected context.'

Its opening is this Thursday 7 - 10pm and then runs until the 1st of November 2008.

There is also apparently a collection of stuffed animals in The Manchester Museum , which I should go and check out. Shamefully, despite previously studying at U of M, I haven't checked out the Museum yet.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Brilliant tv not for me...

My god, I love the internet, and adore the BBC iplayer.

Not only does the iplayer provide me with eastenders whenever I fancy it, but other excellent BBC goodness. Unfortunately, looks like a current spree of classic arts programmes isn't going to make it onto the iplayer. Presumably there is some copyright problems with putting the programmes on the internet, but it is still rather disappointing.

Programmes I'm missing out on include the seminal The Shock of the New yesterday and Ways of Seeing tonight and until Wednesday.

Just so we know what we are missing there is a series called The Art of Art TV, which is going to be available to all us tv-less internet nerds.

Guess I'll just have to go back to trolling internet forums and bitching about Merlin.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Niagara & Yumiko: The Good, The Bad & The Beautiful @ Richard Goodall Gallery

This exhibition is undoubtedly surfing on a current visual zeitgeist which has been building for years. Interest in Japanese visual culture and tattoo culture is certainly at a high point, coinciding with fashion's waxing and waning fascination with punk rock and the completion of rockabilly and burlesque's absorption into the mainstream. I would have to, however, disagree with any suggestion that either of these artists are particularly important.

I found the representation of women at times a little disturbing, particularly in Yumiko's fetishised, overtly sexual, gangly teenaged figures. There expressionless faces, with disconcertingly uniform mouths, gaze out with empty, pseudo-seductive eyes. The unreal, decorative mixture of pattern, simplified female form and carefully rendered flora and fauna, are located in an environment so utterly flat that mercury would not know where to roll. Though whimsical and blatantly sexual, the contourless flesh and expressionless faces are extremely un-erotic.

Niagara's women are a little more familiar, and are much more powerful than Yumiko's sex doll figures. Though comic book like, they have a textural depth and scintillating lustre. Most of her works, coming from a location somewhere between a 40s 50s Noir Film and pulp comics, are highly attractive, but lack depth and articulation. This problem is resolved in her more recent Opium series, which I found extraordinarily beautiful and sensual. In these, female faces with the flagrant yet dreamy eyed expression of Tamara de Lempicka women gaze out from patterned, textural, glimmering jewel like surfaces.

Niagara's work made this exhibition for me, her figures, although as fetishised and fantastical as Yumiko's, have a certain dialogue and power within them, which I feel the other artist's lacked. To me they come from a similar place as Jaime Hernandez's Locas, sexually self-aware, punky, plucky women who exist in an reality, similar, but quite divorced from out own. A show of Niagara and Hernandez would certainly be interesting, the dialogue between different approaches to women and narrative could certainly be illuminating.

Niagara & Yumiko: The Good, The Bad & The Beautiful is at the Richard Goodall Gallery until the 19 October 2008

Sunday, 21 September 2008

cloth & culture NOW @ Whitworth Art Gallery

This exhibitions ticks all the boxes it sets out to tick. It's beautiful, international and thought provoking. The selected works function well together, complimenting each other in the placement around the galleries. Altogether, this is probably one of the nicest ways to spend an afternoon in Manchester, set as it is within the comfortingly restored-Victorian setting of the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road.

However, I do take issue with two curatorial practises which are key to this exhibition. Firstly, I would like to question the emphasis it places on the artists nationality. Although textiles obviously has it's place within every nations identity, the promotion of this paradigm reinforces the folksy, craftsy status that textile art has. The works from northern European countries are graceful and simple, the types of thing to be seen in a high class version of Ikea ( though certainly not the unlamented Ilva), the Japanese works are either cutesy or oriental. The choice of works seems to beg the perennial question, rephrased as 'what came first, the cultural stereotypes or the textile objects?'

This kind of display of textile art has been a long time coming, but mostly in its choice of objects does not seem to question the long standing and contentious art vs. crafts paradigm. Some of the works, however, are wonderful, even a challenge to the doyen of crafty-fine-art Greyson Perry.

The other aspect I take issue with, which is nothing new and seems to have become a integral part of current curatorial practises, is the didactic manner of display. The visitor is closely directed and told what to think. Yes, it could have been a lot worse, more in the vein of the previous hang of the Tate Modern, but it is a bug bear of mine which I refuse to resign. I guess I want some terribly unfashionable mix of Victorian, post-modern and a curatorially naked display practises.

This being said, the exhibition is quite beautiful in an easy-on-the-eyes way, though unfortunately disjointedly strung out over different parts of the Whitworth. Although this should not be viewed as problematic, since the Whitworth is a singularly wonderful gallery to wander around, full of interesting and quite oddly placed thematic patches of art. The works in the upstairs room are much more interesting, perhaps because they are mostly sculptural. Perhaps, also, this is because they are less stereotypically craftsy or scandinavian-lite, and are displayed in a gallery with more space and light.

The exhibition is beautiful, and will certainly pleasantly fill an hour or so, but the choice of works, and the reliance on overly didactic and unoriginal ideas of cultural identity leave an ever so bitter taste in my mouth. I know that some people may look at me and say 'but that's the point', to which I would have to reply 'that's what I don't like about it...'

I'm trying to start a movement where the visitor tries to side step the instructive controls that are so prevalent in galleries today. When in a fine art gallery lets ignore the oh-so helpful and informative panels placed next to the objects. Will you join me?

cloth & culture NOW @ Whitworth Art Gallery until 14th December 2008

The Whitworth Art Gallery, on Oxford Road, is open Monday to Saturday 10am - 5pm and Sunday 12 - 4pm

Friday, 19 September 2008

Nexus Art Cafe: Eating & Eaten

One of my favourite not-so-secret secret places in Manchester's Northern Quarter is the Nexus Art Cafe on Dale Street.

It's a great place to pause, unlike most commercial coffee spots, whatever you've been doing. For example, in my desperate search for a copy of Halo Jones, it is perfectly located between Travelling Man and Forbidden Planet. Perhaps I just love it here because of the associations with those I love most in Manchester. It is unfortunate that it is no longer a night cafe, since in that capacity it was an unique and wonderful stop pit on an evening life, and I'm certain saved a few lives. However, it's opening hours now: 10 am - 7pm Monday to Friday and 11 am - 7 pm Saturday are a little more usual and probably guarantees a better income.

The current exhibition is Eating & Eaten, a show of works exploring food. Although the art works are of variable quality, they fill the cafe and they comprehensively utilise different types of display areas around the site. The relaxed cafe atmosphere and the eclecticism of the work and methods of display means that when substance is lacking it is not so apparent. If I saw most of these items in a more austere white-cube setting I would find them pretty unimpressive, but here they work far more successfully in their environment. I particularly like Marie Stephen's The Three Graces with Pasta, 2008, but then perhaps I just rather like squidgy bums and spaghetti a little too much.

John Yeadon's Vanitas are graphically attractive, playing with text, the significance of words in relation to food and consumption and images of food. Unfortunately there seems to be a lack of depth to the works, and the use textural and visual qualities in the images feels rather familiar. Although this familiarity is not overly problematic, they sit comfortably in the space and are quite beautiful to look at, I am left wanting more.

Eating & Eaten runs until the 27th of September. Nexus Cafe is always worth a visit and is probably my favourite place to hangout and snaffle wifi in the city centre, safe in the knowledge that there will always be something half interesting to look at.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Manchester Literature Festival

Been looking through the line up for this years Manchester Literature Festival, which runs 16 - 26 October, and getting rather excited.

Luckily, for someone who does not particularly like poetry, there are plenty of non-poetic events to keep me occupied.

Of singular interest is the all day pub-Comic con at the Lass O' Gowrie on the 17th called Vvorp Vvorp! Not just because my mate is doing the marketing press jiggery for the event, but I also get to finally meet Ian Edginton, one of the finest writers. If you haven't read Scarlet Traces or Leviathan, take my recommendation and go read them now! Seems to have a rather high Doctor Who content, which I feel like I am either too young or too old and embittered to get a real kick out of, but still looking forward to it.

Not content with that for a geeky bonanza, there is Between The Panels the next day. An illustrated discussion with graphic novelists sounds like a visual treat to my big ol' ears.

There's also some Mervyn Peake based shananigans, and though I haven't read any of his work for many years, his Gormenghast books were a major presence in my teenaged psyche. Ask nicely, and I may even show you my tattoo inspired by a passage in Titus Alone.

Anyway, there is a who tonne of other, less geekly georgeous, stuff going on over the period of the festival, some of which, with any luck, i'll be bringing you in blogafied form.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov @ Royal Exchange Theatre

I know very little about Chekhov, apart from a few abysmal student productions seen many years ago. However, recent experience has taught me that with a little patience and an open mind a 19th Century novel can be utterly mad and stealthily sexy. With this in mind I approached Chekhov's Three Sisters, not knowing what to expect and was more than pleasantly surprised.

At first I was a little flummoxed, the profusion of characters being a little overwhelming, but relationships and feelings quickly became apparent. Who was who and wanted what and who became clear, but not clear enough to belie and belittle the following plot.

The story builds slowly, and though it become evident that this is not going to be a cheering play with a hearty ending, there is a bitter sweet comedy through out. This shy humour was a little spoilt by members of the audience who guffawed at things where perhaps a wry smile would be more appropriate, but was still sweet and touching. The characters discomfort with themselves, their feelings, situation and each other is gently acted, and means that you would have to be a complete egomaniacal twat not sympathise with them.

The ending is where the audiences patience is repaid. Although at no time the play becomes boring and loses the audience, it is a rather slow and steady build up to the finale. The denouement is heartbreaking and intense. Although the play is not uplifting, leaving me feeling rather lonely and sad, the ending brings the kind of macabre hope which colours the end of Heller's Catch 22.

I could not single out a single performance as weaker than the others, and when the flaws in the central trio of sisters gets a little annoying, it is clear that the problems are with the difficult characters, not the actresses performances. The set, lighting and design is beautifully understated, with the final garden setting being almost magically simple, with stunning magnificent birch trunks.

So, although this play is imbued with false hopes, frustrated relationships, failed romance, thwarted ambitions and seems to set up every loving relationship for an inevitable ending in miserable debacle, there is something rather soothing about its practised and poised pessimism. You come out half strangely comforted and half wanting to phone your ex. This is a tale of loneliness, but it is a lovely one.

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, till 11 October 2008

Friday, 12 September 2008

Masaki Fujihata: The Conquest of Imperfection

Masaki Fujihata's first major UK show, The Conquest of Imperfection, is a mixed bag of media art. Some of it falls into traps which occasionally makes media and video art seem a little hackneyed and annoying.

However, parts of it are truly wonderful. The first room of exhibits, in Gallery 1, are enchanting in their simplicity, and induced an almost childlike pleasure. Remember the first time a crafty adult showed you a card trick, and you comprehended that the mechanics of the trick were somehow completely simple but still an utter mystery. Such is was my reaction to these works, Unformed Symbols, 2006, Unformed Symbols: Another Side, 2008, and Portray the Silhouette, 2006.

The Unformed Symbols are a kind of transcendental card trick, with the light image of cards whizzing over pine tables already laid out with a few playing cards. In Unformed Symbols, 2006 the cards whizz around the table, accompanied by sound effects which range from solitary childlike playtime mutterings to computer generated hisses and clatter. The way in which the quality of the sounds change means that there seems to be a certain key quality which cannot be pinned down. Occasionally the spectral cards hover over the real cards, not quite lining up, but suggesting a poltergeists' game of solitaire. The faces switch and change, making the very value of the cards both meaningful and meaningless, and most certainly temporal.

In Unformed Symbols: Another Side, 2008 , the cards are blank, the fleeting appearance of finger prints suggesting a forensic human presence. Portray the Silhouette could be interpreted as over blown shadow puppetry, but there is sometime awe-inspiring in its simplicity. It invites the viewer to sit down and take a cup of tea with the artist. However, I refrained from doing so. There was an unspoken feeling that this was a tea party for shadows, escaped and ranging free. It made me think of Peter Pan, when Peter's shadow has to be reattached by Wendy. The slightly distorted anthropomorphic quality of shadows informed this work, it seems to reference all those myths where shadows are both the substance and the representative, the constant companion, the inescapable enemy and the deceptive indication of human position.

What made the exhibits in this room so much more interesting than most of the other exhibits was the simplicity and universality of the subjects and visual tools. Anyone who has been broke and bored knows the entertainment and comfort value in a packet of cards and a couple of cuppas out of a nice warm teapot. Although the curious eye could have found the projectors and mirrors which made the images move with a ghostly ease and sharpness, they were not overpowering or overly obvious. If the eye only chose to look where it was directed, the wonder of this room remains intact.

Gallery 2 does not inspire and intrigue in the same way as the previous floor, perhaps because it is based on technology, not utilising technology for sublime effect. The profusion of overt technology was head-ache inducing, the trickery it presses into service too harsh, technological and already seems out-dated. The fetishisation of the pixel is no longer interesting or revolutionary, though it may have precedence. Morel's Panorama, 2003 did give me a nasty fright when a security guard wandered into the digital domain of which I thought was the sole inhabitant, but only five years after it's inception it really seems to show it's age.

Gallery 3 seems to sink deeper into the clumsy obsession with technology which I find so uninteresting and uninspiring. Some computers are wired together, whizzing, popping and beeping. This is Off-Sence, 2006, which represents everything I find annoying and hackneyed about media art. Ugly graphics are broadcast up onto a screen, a representation of a virtual world. It is supposed to be based on the question of whether computers can emulate human conversation, computers chattering back and forth. It reminds me of early days of the internet and those ancient and pitifully slow network games. It seems to typify the one of the main problems with media art, which is this type of techno-media art is often far, far behind the developments and current ways in which the internet and other technologies are being used by people every day. The artist does not seem to be offering us anything new in this work.

However, in Beyond Pages, 1995-1997, we are offered something new and something that is rather awesome as well. Right now, I feel as though I could write about this all day. It is simply wonderful. It does not show it's age, or seem hackneyed or cumbersome like the other overtly technological exhibits. Perhaps I love it because of the simple universal iconography it uses, like those exhibits in Gallery 1. It made me smile and think. In this work the artist uses similar techniques of hybridising physical objects with projected digital images. I just wish there had been more of it, that there could have been a deeper, complex and more intuitive way to play with the art work. But still, this little installation, though over a decade old, made my day.

Some might deem the works which make more overtly use of technology and interrogate its place in our society as the most exciting and progressive. However, I believe the more successful, joyful and interesting works are those which come from a deeper shared cultural heritage. Technology may be here to stay and may shape our current lives, but it has not replaced the simple pleasures to be found in such pleasures as tea. Tea, card games, books, light, shadow-puppetry and playful children all have things which make me deeply happy. The way in which Fujihata has introduced these objects into the stark environment of the Cornerhouse Galleries even invigorates and enlivens the rather prosaic "white-cube" style setting. Unfortunately the cold and rather graceless technophilic exhibits do not demonstrate this lively spirit, but those that have this playful humane spirit remind me how good good art can be, not matter what its form or medium.

Luckily, you could just skip the techo-crap . Not all art is worthy of the same attention, and as the grim Mancunian autumn sets in go see some art which'll cheer you up! It's free and it'll make you want a cup of tea and a game of cards with friends.

Masaki Fujihata's The Conquest of Imperfection is in Galleries 1, 2 & 3 at the Cornerhouse till the 19th of October 2008.

Monday, 8 September 2008

BECK'S FUSION 2008: Bad Beer in Plastic Bottles and Unintentional (?) Urinal Installations

Did you doubt me? Having just moved house my internet access is infrequent, since no one in my street has an unsecured internet access. Are the heydays of stealing internet over?

So, I said I would do it. And I did. Dear reader, for you, I risked exhaustion, exposure and those other maladies which only effected young women in 19th century novels who went out in weather in unsuitable clothing. Which I did. I now believe you shouldn't be allowed to move to Manchester without showing a receipt or other proof of ownership of a sensible raincoat. However, the long and the short of it is, that after one of the hardest weeks of my life, I decided to go to the Beck's Fusion event on Friday.

Seeing that music started at 3 pm, I didn't think I was going too early turning up at 6. Oh, I was so wrong. They didn't seem to publish the line up, until they handed you a small leaflet on entry. One then did I realise I was about three hours early. A cold looking Swedish woman was singing to a hackneyed disco beat, periodically pleading with the crowd to dance. They didn't. Well, two did, but I think they were drunker and better clothed for the weather than everyone else. The rest sat on the tier sitting, wearing their yellow ponchos and drinking Beck's out of plastic bottles. Laugher was in short supply and the occasional cackle seemed forced and slightly distraught. It was cold and wet, and the singing Scandinavian was feeling it. The massive video screens clearly showed the defeat in her eyes... several foot high.

At 6 pm, the number of yellow jacketed security staff roughly equalled the audience. The weather was bleak to say the least, the occasional train rumbling overhead and the odd flash of strobe light added to the gloomy and ominous air, suggesting low rent thunder and lightening. The staff were handing out yellow ponchos. Everyone was yellow and the area was plastered with green Beck's branding. This is where the event really falls down. The Beck's branding is EVERYWHERE! The seated semi-covered area was split 50/50, press and AAA passes / everyone else. Which show's Beck's prioroties with the event pretty clearly. Promotion. Promotion. Promotion. Which shouldn't be surprising, but the branding was utterly dominant. It absolutely overwhelmed the corner of rather trite art. The works were simply not exciting. More so, they were badly chosen for the event.

A "Skystation" ( I think, I've misplaced my notes ) was a flying saucer like object, on which people were meant to lie on and look up at the sky. In Manchester... In September... It's Manchester, we're used to looking at heavy grey rain clouds. Perhaps we would contemplate them in a new way, I suppose... But it takes a stronger, madder girl than me to have a lie down in a grubby arena in Castlefield, and stare up into the rain.

Next there was a Planetarium, which looked kinda interesting, though seemed familiar. I'm certain I've seen familiar things in many a degree show. I thought I'm go and have a look inside, but when I finally located to door ( with a little difficulty, the whole thing is made out of doors... how original...) about five men walked out, fiddling with their flies and giving me a sheepish look. It only took a quick glance to gather that there were pools of liquid on the floor and it wasn't much of a guess what type of liquid they were. Now, I may be wrong, perhaps the artist intended the shed type building to be used as an urinal, in some dada-esk dedication to R. Mutt. But in the unlikely event that I am right, and it wasn't intended as an additional facility, is Beck's neglecting their duty of care to the work and the artist? I didn't think much of it, but still think that if someone gave enough a crap about it to make it and call it art, it shouldn't be used so. There was a mass of security, so why wasn't someone keeping an eye on the art works? Why else were they all ghettoised in one corner than to simplify the minding of the objects? Having worked in museums I know it's hard to keep people from touching and interacting with art when they want to and are forbidden from doing so, but many different people taking a slash is a whole different order of magnitude.

The final piece was an Ice-Cream Van, which the artist shut up as soon as I approached. I don't blame her. The weather was grim outside and she had probably dealt with enough demands for a 99 or a nobbly bobbly as she could take. Unfortunately, it looked like the most interesting thing there. Well, the brightest, cheerfulest and most original thing there.

Apart from these three installations there was very little else; a tent with a post-box in it, where you could send postcards to your friends and family. I sent one to my housemate's. It said something along the lines of: "There are men pissing in an art installation!" There was nothing more, no beautiful temporary murals, no sculpture, nothing to inspire people and invigorate new audiences. There is a close association between art and music, so why wasn't it manifested in a more complex and overreaching manner? I know art does not need to be beautiful anymore, but it would have been nice to have a bit more integration and dissemination. More traditional art forms could have been assimilated into the mix to create a more complex and wonderful whole. There could have been so much more. But the few pieces were squirrelled away in one corner and not allowed to come out and play. The fried food stalls outnumbered the art, and the plastic bottle bars roughly equalled them.

I fully intended to return and see the visual fast that Micheal Mayhew would have presented, but I left to have a drink with a friend. Then, away from the cold, bleak setting of Castlefield Arena ( which is just that weird bit by the Castlefield canal and youth hostel, but cordoned off.), in the warm confines of a pub, which a glass of vastly superior ale ( well, vastly superior to Beck's in a plastic bottle! ) , and the promise of a warm, dry bed at home, I found I physically could not return for the main event. I would like to think that perhaps things picked up, that the evening ended on a real bang. However, my experiences earlier in the evening were truly uninspiring and frankly slightly depressing.

Where you there? Did things actually pick up later in the evening? Did the main events combine visual art with dance music in a wonderful way that made the who event really worthwhile? Was there a sign somewhere in the Planetarium inviting people to contribute bodily fluids? On Saturday did they twig and post some attendants to direct revellers to the proper conveniences? Where are my notes so I can give you correct artist and object details?