In a dream you saw a way to survive

The Whitworth, Manchester, UK

3 JULY 2016,
Cahun
Cahun

In what seems to be the season for exhibitions with impossibly long names, this show at that spectacularly re-formed Mancunian gem, the Whitworth, is the result of a curatorial project between Hayward Touring and installation artist Elizabeth Price. The litany of artists included by the pop performer-come 2012 Turner Prize winner Price, presents on paper at least, a fascinating and seemingly impossible curatorial pile-up of names/styles such as Brancusi, Burra, Channer, Fuseli, Anthea Hamilton, Holzer, Paolini, Schneemann, Warhol and others.

The show, between the 10 June to 31 October 2016, professes as its aim the creation of an immersive, dreamlike experience for the viewer, and I have to admit that the tone for this show is set really well through its four sequenced themes: ‘Sleeping, Working, Mourning and Dancing’. Whilst I personally (and ironically) did not have the stamina to get through Warhol’s 5 hour filmic foray into ‘Sleep’, the orchestrated, decapitated lump of Brancusi’s brilliant ‘Prometheus’ (1911) combined exquisitely with Rodney Graham’s ‘Halcion Sleep’ to set the scene for a very interesting user experience.

Price states that “The opportunity to create an exhibition of other artists’ work is one that comes rarely to artists themselves. I have approached it with an artist’s methods, but also as a (solitary) viewer of art exhibitions over many years. For me exhibitions are a place for inventing: for encountering objects, images and events, in all their sensual and material complexity and imagining things about them why they were made, and what could they mean....

We really mustn’t forget that, for some, artist forays into curation are as frowned upon as curator/critics venturing into art practice and production [1]. There is something of the Rubicon about the increasingly supported ventures of artists into curation, and to paraphrase Julius Caesar, this is a small - but irrevocable – step [2]. My own view on artists-as-curators fluctuates, not through any matter of principle, but because I have seen good and bad exhibitions curated variously by artists, critics and curators alike. It seems to me therefore that a good exhibition is more a matter of combined perception rather than professional training alone. We have all experienced the moment when an extremely competent curator/historian has managed to drain the life blood out of perfectly good works of art through the vampirical/arbitrary imposition of theoretical position(ing).

Exhibitions based on artists’ appreciation of the arts frequently present themselves as interesting propositions; they take (at least part of) the premise a dubious notion that artists either have a differential capacity for perception or a referential framework distinct from that of ‘jobbing’ curators/critics. Of course this may or may not be true, but this case in point is an interesting example.

There are two elements of this exhibition that really stand out for me, and both of these are testimony to the artist’s ‘eye’ within the context of the presentation and selection of works; the first is related to the presence of a large, painted grey slab which demarcates the walls of the gallery and successfully holds together an otherwise very diverse and disparate set of works. I think this is a stroke of visual-curatorial daring that anchors this show and comes across as Price being both confident and accomplished; the second element is the human form and the shapes they throw throughout this exhibition, whether through the medium of photography, sculpture or film (there isn’t much painting here).

Key works such as Gavin Turk’s ‘Nomad’ (2002) and Marketa Luskacova’s ‘Sleeping Pilgrim’ (1968) succeed in maintaining an appropriate tension between the titular euphoria of the exhibition, the dreamlike quality of the installed sections against the frequently abject imagery.

This show is tautly selected and curated and will possibly not make itself popular through the untimely inclusion of what some might perceive as edgier or more ‘difficult’ artists; Claude Cahun, Carolee Schneemann, Jo Spence and Anthea Hamilton are all present and gloriously incorrect – and, for me, the show is enlivened and enriched by their presence.

This is a really great show, picked and presented by an artist and envisioned and aligned with Price’s own practice. In this particular instance then, and with reference to my earlier argument, a case of poacher successfully turned gamekeeper.

I sometimes find myself resistant or reluctant to engage with concept exhibitions of this kind – especially those which seem to have impenetrable or fantastical titles – but on this occasion and at this extraordinarily beautiful venue, I confess, Price won me over. I never thought I would be able to see Paolini, Warhol and Cahun in one headful/eyeful, but maybe it is the power of dreams and the possibility of free association which surfaces through the combinations of works and makes this show so compelling and intriguing. Really not to be missed.

Notes: [1] Peter Plagens, reviewing 557,087 in Artforum, accused me of being an artist. He wrote: ‘There is a total style to the show, a style so pervasive as to suggest that Lucy Lippard is in fact the artist and her medium is other artists (www.tate.org.uk).
Also Lippard, L.R. (1972) Six years: The Dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972. Henry Holt & Company. In-line Citation:(Lippard, 1972) and Los Angeles, 1973, later edition 1997, p.111
[2] Bibliography: Farlex (2003) ‘The die is cast’, in Available at: idioms.thefreedictionary.com (Accessed: 22 June 2016). In-line Citation:(Farlex, 2003)