The second Asia Triennial Manchester opened last weekend and is running at various venues across Manchester until 27th November. The triennial is organised by Shisha, the international agency for contemporary south Asian crafts and visual arts, and shows work from a wide cross-section of Asian countries, as far apart as Turkey, Mongolia, China, Pakistan and Malaysia. There’s far too much to see in a day (and some quite quite a way out of the city centre too) so for my first chunk I picked the exhibitions at the Chinese Arts Centre, The Whitworth Gallery and the Cornerhouse.
Institution for the Future, at the Chinese Arts Centre, is a group show including artists from China, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Cambodia which investigates the future of the art institution in light of the global economic meltdown and the consequent pressures this places on artists and the art institution. This is not new problem for contemporary artists, indeed it is an well-worn truism that all the best art comes out of hard times - how often have you heard someone make a causal link between the unemployment and social unrest of the late 70s and the quality of the music coming out of that time?
But there are practical considerations that being suddenly short on cash can have for the creation and display of art that can lead to a clearly defined shift in practice at these particular moments. In High Art Lite Julian Stallabrass describes the effect of the 1989 recession on the British art at the time:
In the years immediately following, many artists found themselves with large stocks of unsaleable objects and nowhere to show them. Some ceased making permanent objects - there was a revival of performance work and of transient installations - and others made less conventional ones. If the materials to put together a work of art could be taken from a skip, so much the better. Artists also became there own curators, making shows for themselves and their acquaintances in the numerous industrial spaces emptied out by the recession. But, most of all there was a turning away from the inward-looking concerns of the art world to new subjects, especially those which might appeal to the mass media.
Not being part of art scene in Asia I have no real way of telling what effect the economic problems we are currently facing are having on the creation of art over there, and the selection of works in this exhibition only gives a snapshot of tendencies that may or may not be directly related to economic concerns. In addition, mapping the effects of the global economic crisis on Asian art will also always be mixed up in the political pressures and restrictions that already exist on exhibiting contemporary art in much of this area. The works, then, respond to a number of concerns, and the overriding feeling is not only temporary or provisional, but also nomadic. The network is all important (see Roslisham Ismail aka Ise’s Superfriends) and ‘survival kits’ are produced (see siasat - a short tactical guide for an artist run initiative by ruangrupa, below).
There are also whole galleries held in the head, or even imagined institutions carved out of books (see an still from Michael Lee’s Hinterlands: The Consolations of Museology below).
The exhibition sets itself a question to answer - “What kind of institution do we need for the future?” - and through the works displayed gives a number of different suggestions. How far these suggestions are representative or demonstrable of a particular tendency in Asian art at this time is difficult to say, and it’s impossible to know how much the tendencies demonstrated have a direct causal relationship to our current economic situation - certainly I wouldn’t have said that any of the artworks in the exhibition explicitly address this issue. Nevertheless, it was an interesting exhibition, and it’s always good to catch at least a little taste of contemporary art from outside of Europe.
At the Whitworth the exhibition is themed around shadow, darkness and illusion bringing together ten artists (not all of whom are of Asian origin, or working in Asia, so only a tentative nod to the Asia Triennial here) whose work addresses these themes in some way. Spread across several galleries and both floors (and including a ‘Works from the Collection’ section which extends the theme to pieces from the permanent collection of the gallery) the exhibition sometimes feels quite disparate, and some works seemed to be only loosely connected to the theme. One of the really stand out pieces for me was Hiraki Sawa’s film Did I?, a really beautiful, dreamlike animation where black and white images drift together, and slide in and out of view to the soothing soundtrack of a needle at the end of a vinyl record clicking softly round and round.
The stills show how many of the images pick up the circular motion of the record, and all have a fuzzy quality that Coline Milliard in an article about Did I?, has compared to the sandplay therapy of Swiss psychotherapist Dora M. Kalff. The connection with psychotherapy is interesting, as there are aspects of Sawa’s film that the work of Surrealist artists such as Magritte or Man Ray in films like L’etoile de mer.
Another really fun piece in the Dark Matters exhibition was Peg Mirror by Daniel Rozin which comprises 650 circular wooden pegs that tilt and rotate to cast a shadow that corresponds to the image of the viewer standing in front of the piece.
Interestingly, one of the things that is most tantalizing about the piece is the sound that the pegs make as they rotate; a sort of beetle-like clicking noise, that is somehow evocative of a magical steampunk type of mechanisation that is endlessly appealing.
Lastly I visited the Rashid Rana exhibition at the Cornerhouse, billed as the first major public solo exhibition of his work in the UK, and receiving quite a bit of favourable attention from reviewers and visitors. Rana himself describes his overarching concern as being the duality of contemporary visual culture, where “every image, idea and truth…encompasses its opposite within itself.” In his work this often transpires as photographic assemblages where an image that appears to be one thing from far away is revealed to be made up of tiny images of something quite other when you examine closely. For example Veil VI which depicts a row of women dressed in burqas which on closer inspection is constructed from tiny pornographic images of women.
Whilst initially striking, I personally found these images lacked depth for me. The technique itself feels a bit tired when you’ve seen it over-used in advertising and mass media, and the juxtaposition of burqa-clad women and pornography just feels a little crass and shallow somehow. My favourite work was the large-scale sculptural piece Desparately Seeking Paradise II on the top floor which appears to be a shiny Robert Morris or Donald Judd-esque abstract piece, but which actually turns out to be concealing photo-prints that make up a city skyline when viewed from the right angle.
Again there’s that tricksy duality going on, and like the piece which mimics a Rothko made out of pixels of flesh and blood, some sort of comment on Western perceptions of Eastern art and vice versa, but again it felt like a bit of a one-liner to me.
On first viewing I don’t really seem to get what all the fuss is about, but may return when I’m felling a little less jaded by a whole day of gallery-going to see if I can get any more out of it. Don’t let me put you off though, most people seem to love it!
I’m not really one for ranking things, but if someone had tied me to a chaise longue and abandoned me on a crepuscular beach next to a flaming tuba and told me I couldn’t come home until I ranked my favourite Surrealists, I’m afraid to say Magritte would probably end up somewhere near the bottom. I think this is largely down to overexposure to a small handful of his pictures which have been reproduced over and over again in survey texts, undergraduate art history lectures and for book jackets and advertising. As you can see, I’ve not rushed over to Liverpool to see the current exhibition (which closes in a few weeks) but I’m pretty glad I caught it, and it turns out there’s a lot more to Magritte than I thought. (I should have known this really. A few years ago I heard Patricia Allmer give an excellent paper on Magritte and forgery at Manchester Uni which really made me think again about his work. I’ve downloaded ‘La Reproduction Interdite: René Magritte and Forgery’ from Issue 5 of the Papers of Surrealism to read later.)
The exhibition is organised thematically, so you get works from throughout Magritte’s career displayed together. The first rooms cover some of the big themes like ‘the surreal encounter’, so we’re treated to some of the most famous works first; paintings like The Menaced Assasin (1927) and The Lovers (1928) -
Given my earlier explanation of why I struggle with Magritte you can probably guess I wasn’t really getting into the exhibition at this stage. But then I came across the room showing several of Magritte’s ‘vache’ paintings from 1948. Cartoonish and garish they are a stark contrast to the overriding puce colour-scheme of most of his more ‘classically’ surrealist works and showed a side of Magritte that I quite liked. L’ellipse was one of my favourites:
It was also really interesting to see some of Magritte’s commercial art work, including posters and advertising campaigns. A lot of this was new to me, and it was interesting to see some parallels with his other work, even if Magritte himself classed this work as ‘idiotic’. Some posters were unrecognisable as Magritte, but in others there were images and themes clearly drawn from his paintings:
It was also fascinating to see photographs taken my him and Paul Nougé that play with some of the ideas of doubling, stage-like space and altered gravity from the paintings, such as La Jongleuse by Nougé below, and a beautiful image of Magritte and his wife Georgette entitled L’ombre et son ombre:
The exhibition is large and wide-ranging, and it’s a really excellent introduction to the work of Magritte. My only gripe was with the catalogue, which is arranged as an ‘A to Z’ of Magritte - pretty gimmicky and not a great record of the exhibition, as the reproductions of the artworks are really tiny. I’m sure it’s probably something to do with cost, but it’s a shame not to match a great exhibition with a great catalogue. However, that’s a small complaint, and if you’ve not seen it yet I’d highly recommend catching the exhibition before it closes on the 16th October.