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The Walls Are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture

Thalia Allington-Wood on the Whitworth Art Gallery going to the wall

Published on February 8th 2010.


The Walls Are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture

Wallpaper is decorative and domestic; it is chosen by a homeowner to alter their private space, to create a specifically desired atmosphere and display their character.

Wallpaper is by no means a neutral medium, and it is its power and poignancy that the artists of the Whitworth’s new exhibition draw upon, manipulating and subverting its connotations of home, comfort and identity.

The show begins in the Whitworth’s South Gallery, which has been plastered with conceptual artist Thomas Demand’s ‘Ivy’ wallpaper. Demand has turned the room into a leafy enclosure; the walls merge into the park that extends outside the large windows flooding the space with winter sun. It feels like entering a secret garden: mischievous, innocent, and playful. Sensations that prove uncomfortable and disturbing when considering the piece is inspired by a child murderer’s lair.

Thomas Demand, Ivy-Efeu, 2006

Artist Lisa Hecht uses wallpaper to present the home as a place of imprisonment, with the pattern of an unforgiving metal fence. The viewer would become enclosed within Hecht’s papered space, the sky blue background connoting a freedom beyond the walls denied to those inside.

As well as a possible prison, the home is often depicted through these wallpapers as a place where appearance is a mask covering a darker, more vulnerable reality. Rosemarie Trockel’s wallpaper depicts a photograph of Trockel’s sculptural piece ‘Egg Curtain’, the hanging hollow eggs symbolising the female fertility and birth of children expected within the home, but also the fragility of this celebrated norm, so easily smashed, so often unobtainable.

Catherine Bertola’s subtle and tactile piece ‘Beyond the Looking Glass’ highlights the pretence of ideal domestic life, and the deception that lies behind many a perfect family. Bertola, using ash collected from her own hearth, creates a 19th century floral pattern, in which the flowers peel off the four walls, some scattered on the floor. The title, recalling the sequel book to Alice in Wonderland, suggests functionality. This is a domestic space beginning to fall apart before our very eyes. Similarly, in Erwan Venn’s visual installation, flower patterns fall from the wall to the sound of smashing cutlery.

Virgil Marti, Bullies, 1992-2001Francesco Simeti, Arabian Nights wallpaper, 2003

Other artists, such as Francesco Simeti adopt traditional 18th century designs to highlight modern political issues. ‘Arabian Nights’ inserts photographs of Afghan refugees into romantic painted landscapes, commenting on the many disrupted homes caused by war. In another, a pattern of acorns suggesting birth and growth are contrasted to photographic images of men removing toxic matter in white protective clothing. These images of death, contamination and poison framed by elaborate borders, suggest the pain and disruption that is found behind the façade of many a seemingly perfect domestic situation.

Though this all sounds heavy going, and pain and trauma certainly reside behind the decorative appearance of much of this wallpaper, comedy is also to be found. David Shrigley is a sharply funny as ever, while Sarah Lucas’ ‘Tits in Space’, in which cigarettes are repeatedly coiled into two pert cones, might be a comment on the sexualisation of everyday objects but comes with a healthy pinch of salt.

Sarah Lucas,Tits in Space, 2000

Many of the pieces would have benefited hugely from covering a larger space; much of the wallpaper is displayed on canvas frames. The truly garish and hallucinogenic effect of Vergil Marti’s luminous flowers and high school bullies would be truly overpowering and oppressive if slathered over an entire enclave; the disorientating nature of Damien Hirst’s kaleidoscopic butterflies impressive rather than just pretty. This highlights the technical problem of wallpaper as art: once plastered onto a wall, the only way to remove wallpaper is to destroy it, and one does not destroy a Warhol lightly.

The range and versatility of the display is impressive. The artists use wallpaper to manipulate domestic spaces of comfort into places of fear and anxiety. Wallpaper becomes a medium for social critique and current motifs of modern thought. Though not many would suit a comfortable living room, the wallpaper to be found at The Whitworth is certainly wallpaper to make you think.

6th Feb-3rd May 2010
Whitworth Art Gallery
Oxford Road, M15 6ER
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 12-4

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Sweetness and vinegarFebruary 8th 2010.

Another cracking exhibition at the Whitworth. Is it the best contemporary gallery in the north these days?

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