Saturday, 13 February 2010

Walls are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture, Whitworth Art Gallery

Wallpaper has a few obvious functions; to decorate — change the appearance of an environment. To show off one's status or wealth — through designer, luxury or custom made paper. To display one's taste — matching a room in a perfectly complementing design scheme. Or even, on a basic level, to hide what's below. Wallpaper can reflect the fashions of the time — it contributes to layers of history, literally (have you ever peeled back a strip of wallpaper to reveal a layer of once garish but now faded '70s design, over which new wallpaper has been pasted?) Wallpaper can also be a form of escapism — most explicitly in designs which allow the viewer to imagine themselves somewhere else, particularly outdoors, from William Morris's Victorian patterns, incorporating natural images such as fruit, to the classic motif of ivy, which reflects man's desire to tame and domesticate the wild.

The UK's first exhibition of wallpaper, though, at the Whitworth Art Gallery (Walls are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture), shows how wallpaper has also often been a way of keeping people in their place and how it can contribute to the repressive feel of the domestic space. It also explains, by extension, how the domestic interior, including wallpaper, can be a vessel for rebellion.

Any repeated image or idea can superficially lose its power the more one is exposed to it, although it may continue to have a subtle psychological effect. Walls are Talking politicises wallpaper, applying this concept to explore how wallpaper can reinforce certain ideas and scenarios; a form of indoctrination from within the home, with the child's bedroom often a starting point. Catch them young so they're used to seeing scenes of an idealised childhood and an adulthood which will become the norm, from seemingly innocuous scenes of boys enjoying the outdoors or physical pursuits such as wrestling to contrasting parades of pretty in pink Barbies dancing ballet. Children's rooms are another commercial space, prey to pester power, for example the Manchester United wallpaper that's a 'must have' for a 'little boy' to Spice Girls version, an 'essential' for a 'little girl'.

Once boys have outgrown these 'manly' stereotypes, we're shown archive examples of some quite disturbing designs of sexualised women they can move onto. Submissive images of women fade into the background, only valued for being there, to be looked at, but contributing nothing else to the environment than a passive image. One photo shows how to decorate your room Playboy style. It's impossible to miss the connotations of what the room is meant to be used for.

It's not just children's and teenagers rooms, though. It's suggested that wallpaper is an example of the oppression of the whole domestic sphere — just as a pattern is repeated ad infinitum until you no longer notice it's there, repetitive domestic tasks become a routine in which it's easy to be trapped, for example the work Cry Baby which densely crams red, angry crying babies onto the wall, as something which cannot be escaped from.

Of course, this provides something to protest against and subvert. Wallpaper can be used as a way to force something uncomfortable into vision, from the pock-marks of war to General Idea's pop-art-esque AIDS wallpaper in which the word is stacked high on the wall in bright, unmissable colours.

The Walls Are Talking also questions where we're most exposed to wallpaper nowadays, with it less fashionable in the minimalist, neutrally decorated modern home. Bars, clubs, pubs, hotels shops are now, it seems, the place where we're most likely to be surrounded by wallpaper, and in the last century artists have taken a more playful approach to the artform. You may not want to live with Damien Hirst's pill wallpaper or Andy Warhol's large, colourful cows, but seen in the public sphere they're a comment on our society and its preoccupations. One design which made me laugh out loud was David Shrigley's Industrial Estate, which shows the uniformity of modern design by presenting a series of identical boxes, on which are written words such as 'sauna', 'leisure centre', 'warehouse', 'disco', 'show home' and 'jail', huge and ominous in relation to the tiny people who surround them.

The Whitworth has always been strong on wallpaper, and one of the things I liked best about Walls are Talking is the way in which it complements past exhibitions I've seen there. Last year's Subversive Spaces surrealism exhibition showed the work of Francesca Woodman and other women artists who used rebellion both against and from within the domestic realm as a form of self-expression, and comparisons were drawn with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic feminist story The Yellow Wallpaper. It was hard not to be reminded of the story when walking round Walls are Talking, especially when seeing the installations of Erwan Venn, who has translated wallpaper into video, leaping around to music and floating tauntingly across the screen like the rows of elusive sheep faced by insomniacs.

I also loved the way the walls in the south gallery were completely papered up to the ceiling with Thomas Demand's green, leafy Ivy design, a perfect example not only of how wallpaper can influence a place, but how wallpaper itself can also be changed by context. Although inspired by a child murderer's hideaway, on a sunny day, with the sun catching between the trees outside, the entire gallery was flooded with light and it was as if the whole work had been completely illuminated.

Some of the best designs were those commissioned especially by the Whitworth, including one celebrating the cheque, repeating the image as if it's going out of fashion (which, of course, it is!).

Walls are Talking
Whitworth Art Gallery
Oxford Road
M15 6ER
Until May 3

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