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40 Days of Solitude at Nexus Café

Thalia Allington-Wood on the art of doing nothing

Published on March 25th 2009.

40 Days of Solitude at Nexus Café

Nexus Café is pretty unassuming. With its dull grey front and ambiguous stairwell leading into the room of sofas and coffees below, you could very easily miss it. However, since 40 Days of Solitude began it has undoubtedly been getting a little bit more attention than usual. As I approached, people walked past, shopping bags bustling, doing a double take, and pausing bewildered to take a better look.

And why, you might well ask? Because, for the 40 days of Lent usually reserved for various forms of fasting, Nexus Café are sticking people in a glass box. Well, not quite a glass box David Blaine style, but near enough.

Their glass-fronted installation space (shop window to you and me) will be occupied each day, between the hours of 9.30am and 7pm, with a lone individual. Sometimes they will be under the guise of an artist, sometimes not. All they will be allowed is three items of their choice (electronic methods of communication not permitted). All that will be bestowed upon them is: The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Bible, water and a singular meal’. Desert Island cliché fully in place. What happens next?

Answer: who knows? While in captivity, the inhabitants are free to do and create whatever they wish (except nudity). Alternatively they are free to do absolutely nothing whatsoever (watching the web footage it would seem some have merely taken the opportunity to catch up on some well needed sleep).

This is a shame. Nexus Café are providing an unusual and uniquely regulated studio space, which should provoke intriguing results, from sculpture to installation to performance.

Though with our current obsession with reality TV, maybe watching people do nothing is exactly what people like to do? The viewing numbers attracted by the Big Brother house eating breakfast say it all.

The fish bowl experience must be an odd one. Never unobserved, the inhabitants of 40 Days of Solitude are constantly filmed by a webcam and goggled at by people doing their shopping and sipping lattes. I imagine it makes you feel rather self-conscious. One woman hid herself behind an umbrella, others flit from one awkward, attempting-casual pose to the next. Nine and a half hours could seem like a very long time.

Which is why the most interesting of residencies have been those with a plan: those who have manipulated and altered the space and responded creatively to their new environment. One girl created an intricate cocoon out of multicolored string, a haven from the pubic eye. Another made large and bright 3D shapes and hung them from the ceiling like a slightly surreal mobile, turning the stairwell into a dreamlike environment.

A different artist attempted to reverse the psychological effect of his captivity by taking photos of everyone who stopped to look at him. Then promptly proceeded to grid the room with orange paper, making it into a geometric vortex. Whether this neon surrounding enhanced his experience I can’t say. It would have given me a headache.

Last time I was there, the artist in occupation had created a wonderful installation titled ‘The Practice of Generosity’. One of her three items appeared to have been a sack full of lovely earthy red sand. Scattered across the steps, the earth was compacted into small castles of circular shape, like miniature Towers of Babels, indented and crumbling.

To quote their own strapline: ‘40 days, 40 people, 40 experiences’. Some are good and some are bad. This temporary and multi-faceted exhibition is an entertaining idea that has a lot of potential.

40 Days of Solitude. Until Sunday 12 April. Nexus Art Café, Dale Street. Open 10am-7pm. 0161 236 0100. http://www.nexusonline.org.uk

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