When it comes to the newly revamped, extended and rebranded Whitworth (Manchester, UK) Gallery, timings the thing.
Or rather, a misstep and a series of unsynchronized stumbles.
The truth is that the relaunch has been, well, a bit creaky.
On the up side, the new spaces are pretty impressive. The visitors can flow around the building taking in the shiny glass and light of the very large, over-priced cafe, bob into the sizeable side galleries, slide through the shifting ambience of the cluster of spaces. It has turned the act of visiting the Whitworth into something of an event. A job well done.
Then the dysfunctional aspects of the rebuild start to show - toilets are a bit thin on the ground, the intentionally photogenic cafe is basically an uncomfortable glass corridor on stilts serving poor coffee.
Obviously the ‘creative industries’ shop model raises its cynical and oxymoronic head in every institution paying back its government funding.
So there’s twee papery ‘objets’ that pepper the gift / bookshop; wooden things, tasteful notebooks, expensive faux-artisanal trinkets allowing the middle-brow ex-graduates to feel distanced from base consumerism whilst feeding their inclusion.
War references pepper the displays. Presumably because the relaunch was originally to be last November and synchronized with the commemorative 11th of November’s Red Poppy day.
Cai Guo-Qiang’s huge 45 metre long, 4 metre high gunpowder drawing “Unmanned Nature” does look vaguely like a landscape drawing minus any delicacy of line. The DVD playbacks of his vast firework and gunpowder displays seemed to enjoy blowing things up far to much considering the dour thematics.
Cornelia Parker’s a decent artist with a backlog of irritatingly efficient and occasionally playful works. The apparent simplicity of her smaller object-based neo-conceptual work: silver dollars reconfigured as threads as long as Niagara Falls and The Statue of Liberty are high, a glass drum, orangey-beige rectangles of canvas linings from Turner paintings, and so on, are her real strength.
She also has a tendency to produce larger gallery-filling installations; casts of pavement cracks lying horizontally but raised from the floor; crushed tubas and trumpets, flattened silver service utensils, all hovering off the ground on fishing line strong wires. I suspect that the local art schools will soon be filled with the suspended flotsam and jetsam of students bedrooms.
Reconstructed here, her most successful example is probably the early ‘signature’ work ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’: the component bobs and bits of a garden shed literally suspended mid-explosion. A centred light bulb throws large elongated shadows on the gallery walls giving the work a scale way beyond its physical heft, It’s still a visually effective construct.
Less successful is Parker’s new ‘War Room’ installation, a high-ceilinged oblong room with its walls and ceiling covered by large perforated sheets, left-over paper negatives resulting from factory production of commemorative red paper and plastic poppies. It feels like a large porous tent but lacks any atmosphere.
Off on a tangent is the Karpadis Foundation’s dumping (or donation depending on how you want to look at it) of a 90 piece collection of American and British art - paintings, prints, photograph and photo-process based pieces. The Lisa Oppenheim 2011 reprint of 1876 heliograms look like grey circles stamped onto burnt baking trays. Almost reflective, almost an image they work remarkably well.
Speaking of all things Karpadis, Johnnie Shand Kydd’s “Hydra” is a length of corridor wall covered by 3 panels of black and white photographs from Shand’s ‘extensive and varied portfolio focus on his yearly trips to the Geek island of Hydra at the invitation of the art collector and Whitworth patron Pauline Karpadis.’ (as present in wall C’s photograph number 2 and number 16)
Shand Kydd’s (see wall C’s photograph number 35) holiday snaps aspire to being a historical record of the group of artists cursed with the title ‘Young British Artists’ as they rose to playful moneyed success. They succeed very well in these terms but the rather cheaply done book of these images piled in the Whitworth Gallery bookshop suggest a cultural value that they can’t really justify.
The self-regarding, look-at-me-mummy dimension of Shand Kydd’s work could be compared to Warhol’s homegrown stable of wannabe superstars; louche urban-types just hanging about.
Warhol got away with it because his scattershot reportage jigsawed into an overview of a social system which had critical bite, both of Capitalism’s playground indulgence of the narcissist and the seductive banality of accumulated images.
Shand Kydd’s pictures may, however, be entirely appropriate to the tone of the YBA - a recycling of historical models and a case of diminishing returns - but there’s a further problem. It seems tonally incorrect for the revamped 2015 incarnation of the Whitworth to restage a point in history when art as commerce openly ruled the roost, a celebration of socio-economic conservatism and critical surface skating, which is both decades old and, even first time round, a little lacking in substance.
And speaking of Young British Artists, Sarah Lucas (see Johnnie Shand Kydd’s wall A photograph number 6 and wall C’s photograph number 10) has a mini-retrospective upstairs. There’s three walls of wallpaper showing a regular pattern of domed breasts made from cigarettes or as tabloid-loving Lucas prefers “Tits In Space”, seedy stuffed stocking sculptures, large photos of Lucas scowling in a fuck-you kind of way - the usual Lucas alphabet of things. It’s all fine but really just another outing for things which have been seen time and time again.
By the time one leaves the building this tangle of implied nepotism and retro-staging of New Labour style grinning optimism leaves an uncomfortable niggling in the stomach.
Parker’s side room projection of a Noam Chomsky interview, one in which he does his usual informed unpicking of global feudal power structures in the tone of a tired and disappointed headmaster, suddenly seems depressingly appropriate.