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Facing East and ARTIST ROOMS review

Thalia Allington-Wood recommends the latest Manchester Art Gallery exhibitions but she doesn't love them

Published on February 4th 2010.


Facing East and ARTIST ROOMS review

‘Facing East’ is an explosion of vibrant colour and bold artworks that you could dismiss as merely playful. You get pieces such as Takashi Murakami’s manga style mushrooms with wide circular eyes and Chen Lei’s ‘Big Kiss’, a sculpture of a small child, kissing a polar bear that balances from his lips.

I left feeling that not much else lay behind these impressively executed sculptures. Mueck’s use of scale manipulates the viewers’ emotional response very specifically, yet there is no apparent imaginative or intellectual meaning.

Yet under their bright extravagance lies unexpected sincerity and meaning. Yue Minjun’s garish painting which features a group of identical men, skin a luminous pink, laughing uncontrollably. Rather than humorous, this piece is disconcerting. The wide grinning mouths, with rows of identical white teeth and fathomless black interiors, are intimidating. This becomes significant in light of Minjun’s use of Christian Renaissance iconography.

Laughter in the Renaissance was considered a dangerous activity, signaling potential influence from the devil; open body orifices were how the Devil accessed the soul. These men are symbolic of everyman but also demonic, they sport small horns upon their heads, bringing the moral identity of the viewer into question.

Sprawled across the gallery floor lies Bharti Kher’s life-size elephant, whose body is covered with sperm like bindis. Bindis are traditionally worn by Indian women to signal their married status and thus, indirectly, their ability to respectably bear children. The sculpture is thus paradoxical; the elephant’s position suggests it is dead, though the pattern that adorns it signals life and birth. What is first an artwork of death becomes one of hope.

This exhibition does however pose a problem; there is a lack of connection between the artworks. The exhibition’s name places emphasis on location. Yet loose geographical proximity could produce a dangerously colonial generalization or ‘othering’ of these artworks.

To group three countries with such different cultures together in one room under the heading ‘East’, is to fail to provide the viewer with a clear understanding of the cultural background or significance of each. ‘Facing East’ is the exhibition equivalent of a pick ‘n’ mix bag: somewhat random and lacking coherence, but also highly enjoyable.

Walk into the adjoining room and you will find the work of Ron Mueck. Mueck, originally a model maker and puppeteer, produces hyperrealist sculptures of human figures that are technically incredible. Standing above the miniature ‘Spooning Couple’, it is amazing to view the tiny, slightly overgrown, toenails of the woman’s feet, the individual hairs that protrude down the man’s legs, the wrinkles that adorn their eyes.

Mueck’s work, like that of ‘Facing East’, also contains an element of play. Entering the room you are confronted with a giant naked man, sitting in a position that suggests both surprise and fear at your presence; his knuckles white from gripping the edge of his stool, his lips pursed, his body leaning backwards. Mueck’s sculptures create a believable presence, while simultaneously being utterly fantastical. It feels like being surrounded by fairytale characters.

They are also highly emotive on a very guttural and sensual level. The subtle body language of the spooning couple suggests discontent and distance despite their close proximity to one another; the giant man, despite his size, evokes human weakness and vulnerability.

I left, though, uncomfortable, feeling that not much else lay behind these impressively executed sculptures. Mueck’s use of scale manipulates the viewers’ emotional response very specifically, yet there is no apparent imaginative or intellectual meaning, no subversion or argument behind these feelings, other than that these models look remarkably, eerily real. Does this matter? Maybe not.

After all, I liked these sculptures and enjoyed viewing them, and that could be all that really matters.

Manchester Art Gallery
Mosley Street
Manchester M2 3JL
www.manchestergalleries.org
Open Tue – Sun 10am-5pm

Facing East: Recent works from China, India and Japan from the Frank Cohen Collection and ARTIST ROOMS Ron Mueck. 4 Feb – 11 April 2010.

Manchester Confidential will be interviewing Frank Cohen and talking about art patronage in the coming weeks.

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

HarryFebruary 4th 2010.

I found the Mueck work very moving indeed. It was an essay on the fragility of the human condition.

Craig JillFebruary 5th 2010.

I agree with you Harry. I usually think the same as the Confidential reviewers, but this time I don't think Thalia has caught the poignancy and power of the Mueck work.

TaffetaFebruary 6th 2010.

Great show. No quite Angels but still stimulating.

AgricolaFebruary 6th 2010.

I thought I'd be repulsed but I really liked it instead, especially the spooning couple.

Jenny WrayFebruary 6th 2010.

Strange but alluring exhibition. I'll definitely go again.

snFebruary 19th 2010.

agree w everyone that Thalia perhaps underselling Mueck. i saw some of his stuff 7 years ago in London and it's haunted me since. very fair on the Cohen, a hodge-podge by design, so hard for the curator.
Fang Lijun was good, i was pretty astonished by his large canvas of repeated, faint men in cloud and its implications.
i wonder if Cohen has more Cynical Realism? you could probably mount a decent exhibition of that, although the exhibition notes would have to be written by someone nimble.

Thukral and Tagra's thing was good too, is that them placing themselves silhouetted on a little cloud toward the top left of the painting?
the Yuen Minjun was good, "disconcerting" as Thalia says, very Juan Muñoz.

is Cohen still trying to get a permanent space? that was admittedly years ago i admit we first heard the one about him nosying around Spinningfields. someone called Drake on the Richard Leese interview thread made a fair comment recently in response to this saying Cohen wanted serious money and so that was a no-no. just wondering.

snFebruary 19th 2010.

P.S. d'oh!
mea culpa, stupidly i have only just noticed ManCon's intention to interview Mr Cohen in the coming weeks, look forward to that.

snFebruary 19th 2010.

Yue Minjun even, oh dear, i'm not doing very well here...

snFebruary 20th 2010.

should probably add i saw this last week during half term and a real pleasure to see all the little ones interacting with all the sculptures. the Facing East sculptures and mock-up house were really popular, lot of young families enjoying it, and kids etc. read an interview recently w Cohen about this exhibition saying they wanted to appeal to different groups so i they pulled a rabbit out of the hat there to be fair.

Scott NeilMay 15th 2010.

did you lot ever manage to interview Frank Cohen? cheers.

Jonathan Schofield - editorMay 16th 2010.

No Scott. It's in the pipeline though.

Scott NeilMay 20th 2010.

thanks Jonathan; look forward to it.

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