Monday, 9 February 2009

REVIEW: 'Subversive Spaces', Whitworth Art Gallery

Published: MANCHESTER CONFIDENTIAL, 9th February 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, The Whitworth Art Gallery, 7 February - 4 May 2009

PDF: Subversive Spaces, Manchester Confidential, 9th February 2009

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