Walls Are Talking

To any normal soul, the prospect of visiting a whole exhibition dedicated to wallpaper may sound rather like a glorified trip to B&Q. However, when I clapped eyes on the promo material for the Whitworth gallery’s exhibition dedicated to wallpaper, art and culture, I excitedly began organising my trip there and then. Blame it on my adoration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic feminist novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, but I have long thought that wallpaper, as a medium, is ripe for artistic subversion.

The Manchester Whitworth’s Walls Are Talking is the first major UK exhibition of  wallpapers created by artists (with major names such as Andy Warhol, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst in the mix), and its aim is to take wallpaper away from its comfortable purpose of  aesthetic backdrop and present it as a confrontational force in delivering messages about warfare, racism, cultural conflicts and gender.

The big names are sure to pull in curious art lovers eager to see Warhol’s famed Cow Wallpaper and Hirst’s odes to pharmaceuticals and butterflies. But, whilst I was pleased to see Sarah Lucas’s Tits in Space and Julie Verhoeven’s Show Studio commissioned pornographic chinoiserie, it was actually the lesser known artists that opened my eyes up to the artistic possibilities of wallpaper.

Vigil Marti’s ‘Bullies’ (above), for example, is an eye meltingly vivid depiction of all the school peers who had teased him for his homosexuality, presenting them as a garish constant in the background of a victim’s existence. Canadian artists collective General Idea’s work ‘Aids‘ (1988), based on Robert Indiana’s infamous Love, is a clever play on the replication of the virus in host cells whilst also portraying the shift to a time when free love is no longer easy and innocent.

I also loved Zineb Sedira provocative ‘Quatre Generacions Des Femmes’ (1997) which combines the masculine (in form and as an occupation) Islamic geometric patterning with the names of the women in her family, asserting the importance of females in societal structures.

Any visitors who do stumble into this exhibition because they see a connection with The Yellow Wallpaper (which, I have to admit, is never alluded to by The Whitworth… although I can’t believe the curators aren’t aware of the story) will not be dissapointed as there are plenty of subversions of wallpaper around themes of  monotony and claustrophobia. Kelly Mark’s 12345 (1999/2000) is a simple hand-drawn tally in black on white, counting the passage of time (or the ticking off of domestic duties) as if in a prison cell.

Lisa Hecht’s Chain Link Fence (2000) and Matthew Meadows Razorwire 2 (2007) also play on the idea of imprisonment, making a statement that however comfortable and luxurious a home can be, it can also feel like a stifling and restrictive environment. Hayley Tomkin’s ‘Cry Baby’ (1996, below) draws an instant emotive response to its muddle of sad babies – is this the stuff of nightmares, or simply the stuff of sleepless nights?

I must admit I was surprised just how enjoyable and engaging an entire exhibition dedicated to all things patterned and flocked was, but you really have to hand it to the folks at the Whitworth in that respect. There were some classic works in there, some fantastic graphic works and a lot of important messages.  Much better than a trip to B&Q, any day!

Walls Are Talking is free to enter and runs until August the 30th.

By: Sarah Barnes, 13.05.2010 | Comments (0)
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Contemporary Art Iraq at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Gallery

‘Iraq is both somewhere we feel close to and yet a place we know nothing about’ – So begins the blurb that greets you at the entrance of Contemporary Art Iraq, the UK’s first comprehensive exhibition of fresh Iraqi art since the first Gulf War. This neat little sentence completely sums up my reasons for visiting Manchester’s Cornerhouse to see the exhibition; With a head filled only with British news reports and romanticised American war films, I know nothing of the real Iraq, its inhabitants and its art scene… but I am completely intrigued.

Contemporary Art Iraq collects together the work of 19 artists who currently live and practise in the country. The works are split into three sections; the first of which is entitled Of Time and Tradition. Here we can gain a sense of Iraq’s rich history; Aryan Abubakr Ali’s work A Year Or More (Days of The Week) references Mesopotamia’s claim to have invented writing whilst Bhrhm Taib H. Ameen’s series of posed Folk Men photographs (Kurdish Man detail, above) highlights cultural and individual identities and divides. Most striking, however, is Sarwar Mohanad Amin’s documentary Yayli which follows a proud and passionate man whose family business of driving a horse-drawn cart is slowly failing in the face of modernity.

The second gallery, which hosts The Changing City, interplay between the individual and their shifting surroundings. Bitwen Ali Hamad’s Qalat follows a man marking his passage through the city of Sulaymaniyah (where high levels of ‘personal mobility are not consented’) with a leaking bucket of white paint. In Bricks (above), an installation by Azar Othman Mahmud, we are presented with a depiction of a city at night. A reflection on the Iraqi nation-building project, this make-shift  rendering raises questions on the permanence of the project.

After these two sections, I found the third to be the most provocative and stimulating. Not surprising really, since this last gallery represented ‘Protest’ and collected the works of artists who respond to contemporary problems in their works.

In My Finger Didn’t Get Ink (above), a film by Muhammad Sale Rostamzadeh and Wrya Budaghi, the two artists host a demonstration outside a polling station on voting day. Being internally displaced they are denied the right to vote and so protest with whitened hands and features that draw attention to their clean, non inked, voting digits.

Born in Jail (below) by Julie Adnan powerfully presents the children born in jail and the mothers who must raise them within the confines and structures of their surroundings. As Rachel Hand says in her review Voices From The Gulf;

The women are ignored and forgotten, erased almost, whilst their children (the future of their country) suffer despite their innocence. The legacy of a regime has never appeared so cruel.

The brilliant thing about this final ‘Protest’ room is that there always seems to be  search for solutions and an element of hope. This feeling is perfectly captured in Jamal Penjweny’s Iraq is Flying series (seen in first image), which literally shows people soaring above their situations.

Art can often be a much more direct method of communicating broad cultural ideas, speaking on a very visceral and personal level, which is why Contemporary Art Iraq is such a vital, eye-opening exhibition for anyone interested in global contemporary art… and especially for anyone who thinks they ‘know’ about Iraq.

The exhibition is open until the 20th June 2010 and entry is free. Hafsah Naib will be artist in residence at the gallery between Wednesday the 12th and Saturday the 15th of May. There will be a tour of the gallery, which will include BSL interpretation, on Sunday 23rd of May at 2pm. Find out more at the Cornerhouse site.

By: Sarah Barnes, 03.05.2010 | Comments (1)
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Angels of Anarchy at Manchester Art Gallery

Happy New Year everybody! I hope you’ve all had a great festive season and have recovered from your new year celebrations!

If, like me, one of your resolutions is to visit more exhibitions this year then I suggest you start 2010 off with a bang by visiting the Angels of Anarchy exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery. It’s the first major exhibition in Europe to gather together pieces from essential female surrealists and present their body of work as crucial to the development of this modern art movement. You’ll have to get a wiggle on if you want to catch the exhibition, though, since it closes on January the 10th! (more…)

By: Sarah Barnes, 04.01.2010 | Comments (4)
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