Once upon a time in Manchester (UK) there was a politically convenient, widely held (and strategically promoted) belief that Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery only showed the works of tired old men, all churning out blocky abstract paintings.This was a period of insular playground scuffles over potential ‘arts’ funding so Castlefield had become a target for hungry young ‘art’ types enviously lusting after the filthy lucre keeping the thing economically afloat.
The combatants of the period have retired, bloody-mindedly continued their practice or now have a gallery and / or teaching position. The infighting is subtler and, more often than not, concerned with maintaining rather than acquiring status in the local / provincial / UK ‘art world’ (delete as appropriate).
In the Manchester of now a recurrent gripe is the Cornerhouse Galleries over-reliance on cinema related, themed or inflected exhibitions. Actually, looking back a few years at the rolling programme, this isn’t true. Of course pictures that move about a bit or the ubiquitous ‘digital media’ feature fairly regularly but, for god’s sake, it is 2015 and to be expected.
A fairer criticism is the obviousness of most films referenced - here artists have to take a considerable amount of the blame - leaving a post-exhibition feeling that you’ve attended a powerpoint display by a middlebrow academic. Not uninteresting just a little tepid.
The current exhibition, and the last one prior to the whole art centre’s rebirth as ‘HOME’, is very solidly film related as ‘...nine artists take inspiration from film director Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedy masterpiece Playtime...’
In actual fact five of the of the exhibits pre-date the exhibition by a number of years. The appropriate thematics of four of these pieces means that they can be conveniently shoehorned into the show. With a little more curatorial rigour Gabriel Lester’s ‘Melancholia In Arcadia’ - lace curtains seemingly suspended in time whilst being ruffled by a light breeze - would have been saved for a future retrofitted affair.
Tati’s film is stylish and odd and extremely hard to date accurately; it’s from 1967 but feels like a 1957 speculation about the future. In it Tati’s avuncular and ‘befuddled’ gent gets lost in the blocks and clean lines of a Modernist Paris. Pieces in Cornerhouse’s ‘Playtime’ occasionally reference particular scenes from the film or work as compact tonal critiques of the contemporary urban world.
Lester’s other work here is ‘Bouncer’ (2014) a horseshoe shaped series of thirty saloon-type swinging doors, one after the other, which crash too behind the gallery visitor only revealing yet another set of the swing doors. Physically they’re clumsy things: the hinges are too large, the wooden doors surface have the quality of cheap compressed laminated board and the crash on closing is mildly irritating rather than sonically effective.
Niklas Goldbach’s ‘Habitat‘ (2008) is a looped DVD showing the same man crossing his own path in the enclosed greys and brown blocks of a French Modernist estate, finally chasing himself until the routine starts all over again.
The other ‘film’ piece is Shannon Plumb’s ‘Madison and E 24th Street’ (2008) in which Plumb, with fake moustache and dressed as a disheveled and harried businessman, stands in front of a screen showing the streets intersection and feigns hailing a taxi.
Andy Graydon’s ‘Untitled (Plate Tectonics)’ (2009) has four record players, one each side of a square central pillar; each surface has shallow shelves with vinyl records sat on them. Each record appears to contain the ambient noises of different gallery spaces around the world. Four can be played at once with the sounds muffled, but amplified by, speakers attached to the surfaces of eight squares of plywood hanging in a circle around the record players.
Rosa Barber’s ‘One Way Out’ (2009 - 2014) has the gallery floor penetrated by a human scaled transparent tube. The lower level has a floor projector positioned presumably to feed a long loop of running film celluloid through the gap’, the accompanying sound spilling through to infect the space. Unfortunately, the mechanism was broken so it was an elaborate hole and projector combination.
Functionally ‘interacive’, Naomi Kashiwagi’s ‘Swingtime’ (2014) is a slightly raised plateau of rubber mats with a centred frame and two childrens swings which trigger pre-recorded outdoor sounds; it’s clunky and underwhelming.
Jan St. Werner’s ‘Molecular Hypnotics’ (2014) (or ‘Molocular Hypnotics’ according to the wall text) is ‘a bespoke light and sound environment’ or rather a spartan white and grey-blue room, electronic throbs, pulses, and squeals accompany Mark E Smith’s voice snarling impenetrable narratives through his phlemgy disdain. As often happens, even for the dystopian sci-fi simplicity there’s too many ill-considered elements - confusion over the title and a small square framed kaleidoscopic fragmented image (possibly an iris to keep the ocular bit going) - which niggles even when experiencing the thing.
In the face of freely roaming corporate corruption and economic instability, the atmosphere of the time is one of confusion and resignation hidden by an enforced rictus grin of affability. The show may actually be very revealing of the cultural tone of the time but to a large degree by accident. ‘Playtime’ really requires at least the suggestion of the flutter of an anarchist’s heart to pose the possibility of a healthy opposition to the castrating banalities of bureaucratization.