Thursday, 2 April 2009

One and All at Castlefield Gallery

This evening, I went to the packed out preview of the new exhibition at Castlefield Gallery, which is a collection of work that was installed at various community centres throughout Manchester as part of the project 'I don't know about community networks but I know what I like' in January. The fact the work of the seven artists is now all based in one place is useful for lazy people like me who didn't get round to visiting all the venues, which were spread between Harpurhey, Gorton, Cheetham Hill and Wythenshaw.

The walk to Castlefield Gallery is something I love about Manchester, partly because of the way Edward Walters' Congregational Chapel, one of my favourite buildings, comes into view little by little. Tonight was a perfect spring evening, and its tower gradually struck a silohuette against the pink sky with an unusually large pink-red sun getting lower in the background.

Unfortunately, some of the exhibitions at Castlefield Gallery have gone a bit over my head in the past (although I really enjoyed the Laura White exhibition). I've found them too conceptual for the casual viewer, or been a bit overwhelmed by too much video or technicality and esoteric ideas. One and All works really well though, as there's enough of visual interest but it's also based on a sound concept - that of communities and urban regeneration, and the way we see the city around us, as well as more fundamental ideas of the changing role of the artist.

There's challenging, unconventional work, such as Andrew Wilson's board game based on networks of people, but there's also painting and sculpture.

I have to admit that I only got as far as the installation in the Town Hall earlier this year, called TV. Artist Hafsah Naib posted advertisements asking people who were thinking of getting rid of their television to donate it to her project, and the work TV is a collection of these TVs in a circle. We sit down and watch each of the TVs, on which are playing interviews with their former owners on the subject of television and its role in their lives - when you think about it, getting rid of a TV is saying goodbye to a large part of the fabric of your home for a lot of peope.

Some the interviewees are slightly awkward, and some take naturally to the screen like actors performing a monologue. I was slightly disconcerted when I saw one of my friends unexpectedly on one of the screens the first time round, but I think that's the point - as one of the interviewees says, TV has conventionally been one of those unifying things in our society that's part of nearly everyone's life and everyone is expected to have a view on, from Coronation Street and Eastenders to the X Factor. These people aren't experts in a traditional sense - or maybe TV is something on which everyone is an expert, not least in the way in which we build up relationships with programmes and series over time (as one interviewee says, she always remembers the last ever episodes of programmes like Friends and Frasier as being particularly poignant).

It's like reality TV gone a step further, challenging our notions of who should be on TV and who is worthy of our interest. For an exhibition which portrays the fast-changing world around us, it's interesting to see how the interviewees view television - often with mistrust, seeing it as propaganda, a tool for disseminating advertising and censored knowledge. It's also a reminder of how old fashioned television, a staple of our lives for so long, is becoming, in this age when children grow up with the internet as their main source of information. It starkly illustrates the generation gap: one man talks about a 'TV meter' that measured how much television the family was watching - a form of pay as you go TV, which seems extremely archaic, and another interviewee describes how a friend made the decision to get rid of her television for a couple of years in an incredulous, 'would you believe it' tone even though TV is probably going to be obsolete for the children of the near future.

For some interviewees, TV is a chance to tell their life story, to have an audience for their opinions: "children these days get a better education watching the TV than they do at school".

The individual's tale is also told in Jo Lewington's video Digital Film 15, Cheetham Hill August, which focuses in on the human in a uniform environment. We have a worker's eye view of a textile factory - literally, as the video was filmed by workers wearing head cameras. It's slightly disconcerting having hands appear from nowhere which aren't yours, performing the repetitive routine of a pillow manufacturer.

Grennan & Sperandio offer the closest to conventional 'art', albeit starting from a marginalised viewpoint, with paintings of the type of places and details of Manchester's streets that wouldn't normally make it into a landscape painting, including that funny slither pub in Hulme.

William Titley's dustbins, turned into sculptures housing water fountains and illuminated in bright colours, double as striking examples of recycling, and Jil Moore's large, transparent glass pieces, like vases patinaed with images of the city's transport system, are beautiful. Her sculptures are displayed by the gallery's huge windows, and when I was looking at them the wind suddenly shook some pale pink spring blossom from the trees outside like a snow shower. Somehow this display of nature in such an urban setting complemented Moore's vases, which project robust urban images onto objects based around translucency and light, perfectly.

Unlike some of the other exhibitions of modern art I've been to lately, there's enough to draw you in for a closer look that you'll want to think about the themes behind the art - ie, the role of the individual, and how much space we really have to be individuals in the modern city. As well as giving you things to look at, the exhibition makes you think about the way we view our city and whether it's dictated by outside forces we aren't really aware of.

One and All is at Castlefield Gallery until May 17 (my birthday!)
2 Hewitt Street
M15 4GB

No comments: