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Subversive Spaces: Whitworth Art Gallery

Thalia Allington-Wood on a truly remarkable start to the artistic year in Manchester: you gotta go

Published on February 9th 2009.


Subversive Spaces: Whitworth Art Gallery

You can see nothing. The darkness is suffocating and engulfing. Stumbling, groping along the walls, you experience Gregor Schneider’s astonishing ‘Kinderzimmer’. The content and message as dark as the space you explore alone.

The familiar and sunlit South Gallery of the Whitworth has been transformed. It has become shrouded and claustrophobic, the temporary container for other transplanted spaces: replicas of a child’s abandoned domestic space.

The duplication and displacement of the rooms, alongside the feeling of confinement in ‘Kinderzimmer’, articulates the Surrealist thought explored by the exhibition.

A poignant and effective introduction to the magnificent ‘Subversive Spaces’, Schneider’s work expresses the sense of constraint found in the home and the solitude and vulnerability of open, designed spaces. It physically represents the Freudian theory of repressed childhood within the dark subconscious, while also highlighting the disruption of space that fascinated and preoccupied the Surrealists.

In his manifesto of 1924, the self-proclaimed Surrealist leader, Andre Breton emphasized the importance of boundaries that “have been assigned even to experience”. It is the narrative of these boundaries, both physical and mental, and the resistance to their “cage” that the surrealists sought to express through exploration of the unconscious mind. Art to them was a means to transcend controls exerted by society and habit.

Subversive Spaces’ examines two distinct legacies from this movement: the domestic space and the disturbances it contains or causes. Followed by walking within urban environments, the surrealist preoccupation with wandering to discover hidden spaces and emotions. In both there is a focus on hysteria, childhood experience, abuse, our dreams and mental illness as a means to subvert the traditional and familiar.

Each piece undermines your expectations and challenges assumed perceptions. The works seek to disrupt the safe and comfortable. As you walk from room to room, distorted bodies, ominous settings and menacing everyday objects stop you in your tracks.

Sarah Lucas’s provocative and prostrate furniture copulate as you enter, their personification realizing potential unconscious desires. The dining room setting further highlighting the undercurrent of repressed motives and fantasies that fill everyday discourse.

From here you encounter a medley of the unexpected. Robert Gober’s prostrate limb protrudes from the wall, while Mona Hatoum suggests torture with her oversized tomato slicer. Markus Schinwald photographs flexible and objectified contortionists, while Lucy Gunning shows remarkable climbing skills. Traveling around a stark and bare room without once touching the floor Gunning literally climbs the walls in her captivity. In enacting the anxiety felt in constriction, her work interrogates the restrictions felt by some women in the family space.

Leaving the home and entering the city, confines remain but in different form. Francis Alys draws our attention to the British overuse of railings in his playful films, walking aimlessly around central London rhythmically chiming his exploration with a wooden stick. Similarly Alex Villar’s ‘Temporary Occupations’ comically highlights the physical barriers and enclosures that fill our environments, as he jumps and climbs into pointless inaccessible spaces. While both William Anastasi and Katie Holten use the city’s movements to produce ‘automatic’ and spontaneous patterns that contrast the regular motion and repetition of the environment.

Subversive Spaces’ is truly excellent. This is the Manchester art scene pushing its limits, eliminating them, and providing something at international level. The exhibition moves coherently and fluidly from room to room, theme to theme. Greats such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte stand next to contemporary artists, highlighting the continuing dialogue Surrealist thought has with more recent art. Thought provoking, visually striking and packed to the brim with impressive content, it can’t be faulted.

Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art
7 February - 4 May 2009

The Whitworth Art Gallery
Oxford Road
Manchester
M15 6ER

Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm
Sunday 12-4pm

Admission Free
http://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk

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13 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Burt CodeineFebruary 9th 2009.

I'm popping into to see this over the week or so. A relatively rare excursion into Radio 4 territory this weekend presented me a remarkably good review of this exhibition. Looking forward to it.

AnonymousFebruary 9th 2009.

actually it's mostly empty and plays on how you subconscious is supposed to fill the void.....with sex and violence. But I had left my id at home rather like I can't find my personality when the scientologists want to test it.Surrealism is now incomprehensible without faith in Freud.

champagnesocialistFebruary 9th 2009.

Drake, the marketing teams in these places really do the best they can, usually as under-resourced and under-staffed departments! They don't tend to have the big bucks that other leisure offers have and rely on positive coverage like this one to get people along to see great art. The money in most arts venues goes to programming rather than promotion.

Peter TurnerFebruary 9th 2009.

It's the Gunning videos that did it for me. Magnificent.

Graham RourkeFebruary 9th 2009.

Astonishing exhibition. I can't believe how lucky we are to get this. The other galleries now need to join in and build on this.

AnonymousFebruary 9th 2009.

Well I visited this exhibition this weekend on the back of this review. I have to say there were on or two very good and eye opening pieces. The opening was good. However, and perhaps to my untrained eye - I kept on asking myself 'but is this art?' For instance - there were a series of 'pictures' made by an 'artist' by basically sitting on an underground train holding two pencils on a piece of paper and allowing the pencils to freely draw according to the vibrations to the train. Another was simply a woman strolling through a city in a white frock. Personally, I found the Wallpaper exhibits in the next gallery more inspiring.

Richard BrowningFebruary 9th 2009.

Lowry Marionette Exhibition this summer!

GordoFebruary 9th 2009.

It was the squid risotto that did it for Gordo. That, and a pair of pumps... Whitworth Art Gallery has never been better. Just don't go putting on that dead horse movie, it was always a nonsense. And in black and white. Gordo has had nightmares ever since Bowie put it on at Wembley arena before his gig. It was the flies that did it, that and turning round to be confronted by a 27 year old Tony Wilson in full make up.

AnnaFebruary 9th 2009.

Went at weekend and it was v.busy but didn't spoil it. The Kinderzimmer was booked up for the day but going to go back when a little quieter in the hope of getting in. Exhibition so good that this didn't detract from a really interesting and varied exhibition. Having studied surrealism and some of the contemporary artists still exploring it as well as 19th and 20th century flaneurs it was like everything I loved in one place. Well done Whitworth

Tracy GFebruary 9th 2009.

Great write-up. I was at the event on Friday to launch the exhibition and thought it (the exhibition) superb. It's the type of thing you could return to again and again. I'm going back on Friday this week to have a look with out the crowd.

The friendly scouserFebruary 9th 2009.

Its a real shame i forgot that ****in famous northern dish black peas.....

DrakeFebruary 9th 2009.

There are some stunning exhibitions on in Manc at the moment. This, and the Black Panther thing at the Urbis. Why aren't they being promoted properly?

Carrie MarieFebruary 9th 2009.

That squid was gorgeous, although I was annoyed that the full Surrealist Menu advertised on Mancon wasn't available. Boo. Nice art though, well done the Whitworth.

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