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