Exhibition Review. (Fine Art Year One. May 2009)

Exhibition Review – Subversive Spaces, Whitworh Art Gallery, Manchester.

On arriving at the Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, the first thing to be done is make an appointment to enter Gregor Schneider’s installation. Only one person may enter at a time and those who recall Schneider has stated that he wished one day to construct a room in which a volunteer would die may wonder whether he might have tired of waiting as they explore the rest of the exhibition, building a sense of apprehension that may or may not add to the final experience.

A reading of the text of the gallery’s events guide implies that Kinderzimmer, set up in the Whitworth’s South Gallery, should be visited first, but the need to wait one’s turn will lead many through to the Pilkington Room, where Douglas Gordon’s 1995 video work Hysterical plays on two huge screens. This work, playing two identical films with one slowed down and reversed through reflection, uses a medical film from the turn-of-the-century, showing a woman being ‘treated’ for hysteria by two male doctors. Looking less therapeutic than abusive, the film serves as an apt gateway –ambiguous, violent, sexualised; there is a warning about this for sensitive types- to the Surrealist world.

Entering the Central West Gallery, the visitor steps into the section entitled Psychic Interiors, for me the most interesting and enjoyable part of the exhibition. Throughout the whole exhibition, there are works by the original Surrealists as well as more recent artists, showing how much of contemporary art owes a debt to the movement.

Psychic Interiors is set up to resemble the rooms and corridors of a house and the mere presence of painted and photographic works adds to this impression, although this is somewhat spoiled by the intrusive presence of the wires fencing off some of the exhibits –a trip hazard around the trip hazard of Robert Gober’s disembodied leg (Untitled, 1989-92). Amongst others, Sarah Lucas, Tony Oursler and Mona Hatoum provide furniture for this house, although it is of course decidedly surreal. Turning a corner, one is confronted by Mona Hatoum’s oversized egg slicer, accompanied by a decidedly unwelcoming child’s cot. This house is unheimlich.

There is a decidedly female presence here, as contemporary female artists are still dealing with the oppression of their gender, whether by the medicalisation of this (hysteria has been seen as a response to male dominance and female disempowerment) or through the demands of the codes of marriage, home and family. While there is work by male artists in this section, it is that of the female artists that dominates, unifying the themes.

As well as this female presence, there is also a curious sense of habitation, despite there being so many empty things: Hatoum’s cot, Gober’s playpen, the unfurnished room of Lucy Gunning’s 1993 video work Climbing Around My Room (in which a woman in a red dress clambers around a room, rolling onto shelves, stepping on doorknobs, and never touching the floor in case the tigers get her).

This is undoubtedly because, not only is this house unheimlich, it is haunted. Sarah Lucas’s 2000 installation, The Pleasure Principle, could have been put together by any one of the poltergeists that crop up in the literature of paranormal investigation. Marcus Schinwald’s 2004 video 1st Part Conditional, in which a contortionist twists and hurls herself about while a bearded man sweats, could be about the birth of psychoanalysis, but could equally represent the connection between female sexuality, sexual abuse, hysteria and the phenomena of possession and poltergeist activity.

It may be that this ghost is that of Francesca Woodman, whose photographic works seem to best sum up this feeling of inhabited emptiness, and who took her own life in 1981. Naked, or partially naked, she attempts to camouflage herself in the rooms of decaying houses in Providence, Rhode Island (USA), which puts one in mind of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Victorian tale of terror, The Yellow Wall-Paper, in which a confined woman sees another in the wallpaper of her sick room.

The second half of the exhibition is Walking the City, after the habit of the Surrealist explorations of Paris. This section can be reached by passing through the chamber showing Railings, a work by Francis Alys. This has Alys walking around parts of London, wielding a drumstick, which he uses to give a soundtrack to his perambulations, tapping against columns and rattling it along railings. The visitor can then step into an exhibition space that seems to imitate the alleys and courts of some little visited part of a city.

I enjoyed the second half of the exhibition less and feel it was also slightly less successful. While some of this is down entirely to personal preference over the works, there was also an abrupt change of atmosphere. Even though deliberately unheimlich, Psychic Interiors had a unified, intimate feeling to it, working as an analogue for both house and mind, and even though populated with ghosts, was populated; Walking the City felt more like walking a gallery.

Walking the City seemed curiously uninhabited. This city was not alive, witnessed by Brassai’s deserted, nocturnal spaces and by George Shaw, with his gloomy, sinister, abandoned children’s play areas.

There was evidence of people’s passing. William Anastasi’s Subway Drawings, automatic art dictated by the vibrations of the New York subway system, are in a tight alley round the corner from Henri Michaux’s mescaline drawings (which feel as if they are in the wrong section) and Katie Holden’s black wool cobwebs, recording the durations of her journeys, festoon one wall. These were all more interesting than the documentation for Rosemarie Castoro’s 1969 works, Ariadne Looking For An Honest Man and How To Make An Atoll Out Of Manhattan Island, which fail to grab the attention. Divorced from the original act, they are dry and dull, easily the least exciting or attractive of the works here.

The city, however, is also haunted. Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s 1995 video work Nuit Blanche shows the artist walking through nocturnal street scenes, clad only in a white garment like a nightdress. It puts one in mind of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now and the piece is constructed and sound tracked as if it were part of a horror film.

One artwork dominated the entire exhibition, and it wasn’t Gregor Schneider’s installation; it was Tony Oursler’s 1995 work, The Most Beautiful Thing I Have Never Seen. While there were a number of video works with soundtracks, filling the air with their conflicting and complementary noises, Oursler’s could always be heard braying and bellowing like some monstrous idiot. Whatever feelings and thoughts I had about the work on encountering it near the start of the exhibition were buried under irritation and boredom by the time I left.

The problem of invasive noise also affects Gregor Schneider’s Kinderzimmer installation. Taking up the whole of the South Gallery, with one entrance and one exit, Kinderzimmer (Nursery) is sealed off, in total darkness. At the centre of the darkness are two duplicates of a child’s room, one of which can be looked into (and in which a small, lonely sleeping mat can be seen) and one of which you can actually enter (and lacking the mat). The room is modelled after one in a house in the town of Garzweller in Germany, which had been abandoned and then destroyed by a massive open-cast mining project. A video hidden away around a corner at the back gives a view of this deserted settlement.

The intent is obviously to disturb and, due to the timing of the exhibition, may put the viewer in mind of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who for years secretly held his daughter and their children in a dungeon under his house. However, like his controversial project to build a room based on the Muslim Ka’aba, Kinderzimmer is something of anti-climax, especially if you do not mistake the two rooms for one and therefore miss out on that unheimlich feeling. There is less sense of isolation, too, when one can hear the roar of the rest of the gallery.

Subversive Spaces does a good job of demonstrating the legacy of Surrealism through the display of past works alongside contemporary pieces, a legacy that few contemporary artists would be able to deny. The Whitworth has provided the public with an excellent opportunity to see how the supposedly outlandish art of the present day is, in fact, no more or less strange than some of that from the beginning of the last century.

Campbell-Johnston, Rachel. ‘Gregor Schneider, the inner space man’, The Times (January 27th 2009 edition).

Cumming, Laura. ‘The art of dreams –and déjà vu’, The Observer (February 15th 2009 edition).