unable to get my bearings

Art On Tuesday I visited the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.

It’s the first time I’ve been to that end of the city since I left university in 2006. Walking up Oxford Road from the station, I remembered Graduation Day, standing outside the main hall in my gown and mortar board waiting to go in and meet Anna Ford. Seeing the name of my course base, the various buildings where I attended lectures and seminars, I felt, well alright, I felt like I’d come home. I hadn’t realised how much I missed the place, even though I hadn’t lived there, just commuted. It was more to do with the person I was within those buildings, learning, working towards something. It would be nice to have that back some time.

Past the university and into the precinct beyond and into the Gemini Café for lunch. I’ve been told this café is world famous, and I suppose it must be considering how many international students have drifted through the doors. It is as you’d expect – 60s brown rigged tables and chairs bolted to the floor, surrounding a giant kitchen dishing out everything from pizza to carrot cake. The first and only other time I ate there was in the first week, with a group of people from my faculty, when friendships were being made and I realised that, because I wasn’t living there, it wouldn’t really be with me (and so it turned out). I was adventurous and ordered a fry-up. Having skipped breakfast, I devoured the bacon and sausage, wondered why they’d put the fried egg onto the plate upside down. I also drank a large mug of black coffee.

Which is where the trouble started.

I don’t know if it’s my age, but my caffeine tolerance has collapsed. I’m drinking tea as I write this and feeling a little bit tingly. This was, a strong, sterrrong cup of coffee. Stronger even than the kind I make at home using my cheap Argos filter coffee maker. Rich, full of flavour and totally toxic.

By the time I entered the gallery, I was why-errd.

Strolling up the road to the gallery which isn’t that far away from the café, I felt perfectly fine, but as I stumbled up stairs into the foyer, I could sense something was wrong and by the time I was inside, reality seemed to have disassociated itself. I wasn’t high, at least I don’t think so. It was more in the region of being wide awake and half asleep both at the same time. I knew what I wanted to do, absorbed everything that was happening in my surroundings, functional, able to think about my ‘condition’ but not in a position to do anything about it. I could tell that I must have had an aura by the wide-eyed, slightly scared look the girl working in the shop gave me as I shuffled in looking for change for the lockers so that I could store my coat and bag. It’s impossible to describe any of this without sounding melodramatic or unlikely, but when you’re talking to yourself and having to think whole seconds before asking someone a question and these aren’t your normal modes of behaviour, you know that something has gone wrong, and there’s nothing to do but enjoy the experience.

According to Edward Morris’s book, Public Art Collections In North West England, as with the Lady Lever in Port Sunlight, the gallery is named for its patron Sir Joseph Whitworth, a local engineer famous for standardising the design of screw threads and revolutionising the making of gun barrels. When he died in 1887, Whitworth left his technology and art collections to the city on the understanding that they built some architecture in which to house them to do some public good. The council wanted nothing to do with it, more interested in building some architecture for their own collections, which left the status of the estate in jeopardy. Still, land was bought and the Trustees commissioned the present building, and by 1908, Manchester had a second gallery for the public. Bequests flooded in from throughout the country, but as is often the case, funding dried up and eventually in 1958, the University of Manchester (which had nicely filled up the rest of the local area) acquired the place, remodelled the interior, and developed its new dual purpose as public art space and teaching tool.

The shift in architectural styles certainly didn’t help my condition. The exterior, designed by JW & J Beaumont, is of the style you’d expect from that period, all columns, red brick and neo-gothic styling. The interior, apart from some structural holdovers at the entrance, looks like it was copied from the rejected design for the lair of a 60s Bond villain, with modernist wood panelling throughout, apart from an extension in which mixes a white box aesthetic with the original back wall, its now salmon coloured brick as much a feature as the paintings hung nearby. It’s the kind of mishmash I love in an art gallery, where part of the excitement is simply wondering where a doorway, stairs or corridor will take you next, and what treasures will be there. I’ve visited before, but my caffeine confusion and generally poor memory meant I only had a hazy notion as to where everything was and the display policy didn’t help either.

Like Oldham Museum, so that the Whitworth can give a fair presentation of its collection within its relatively small display space, instead of a permanent display, it has a rolling programme of themed exhibitions. Even though they have a rather extraordinary collection which includes works by Turner, Watts, Picasso, Blake, Riley, Moore, Hepworth, Hockney and Lanyon, they’re not all on display at the same time. Not only does this mean that the less well known perhaps but just as interesting parts of the collection are revealed, it’s audience can never be bored because there’s always something new to see. Later on in the visit, I saw a rather wonderful collection of prints and drawings by Walter Crane who defined the iconography of the union movement; a show of works paintings by Lynn Hershman Leeson and monoprints by Tracey Emin and ‘Putting on the Glitz’ a display of outrageous wallpaper in primary colours and gold leaf and art deco narratives pulled from the walls of old hotels.

Initially unable to get my bearings, I decided to begin with the main reason for my visit (other than ticking the gallery off the list), the touring Subversive Spaces exhibition which I’ve already mentioned on the blog and in particular the new installation from Gregor Schneider, Kinderzimmer. As the publicity describes, the artist has taken the usually sunlit South Gallery and “attempted to create a replica of a nursery that was part of a village demolished to make way for an opencast mine near where the artist lives in the Rhineland.” It’s a popular work. Visitors are only allowed to enter the space on their own and are handed raffle tickets with an appointed time on them in order to gain entrance.

When I ambled up to entrance at about a quarter to twelve I was told that all of the tickets had gone until 2:30. But I persisted, assuming that someone would surely forget to turn up and the invigilator luckily realised that because the school group which had block booked ahead of me had left early I could go in right then. He warned me that it was very dark inside, that it wasn’t for everyone and that if I felt uncomfortable, I should shout and he’d be in with a torch. I thanked him and shook his hand. To recap, I’m on a caffeine buzz, feel like my heads about to explode and I’m about to be deprived of one of my more useful senses. And I shook his hand. I’m a firm believer that even art galleries and especially installations can be spoilt, so if you’re intending to visit, I’d stop reading here for a couple of paragraphs so you can experience it for yourself.

As for the rest of you: just past the small tunnel that led from the entrance I found myself staring into a void. Schneider has somehow managed to create a space that feels completely safe and dangerous at the same time, rendering a sighted person blind even though their eyes are wide open, unable to see anything, not even their own body. Just about. Slowly as I edged forward, involuntarily giggling and say ‘Oh my god’ over and over under my breath like a cheerleader being chased through the woods by a slasher in a slasher film, I noticed a rectangular light ahead. Edging closer I realised it was a door. Not knowing if it was the exit, I looked about for some other light and noticed some shading to the left. Walking towards it, I realised it was the reflection of a window onto the wall.

Through the window is a brightly lit room, the nursery presumably, covered in pink wallpaper. It is sparse except for a mattress on the floor and the kind of place you’d expected to be locked in if you were being forced to go cold turkey for an addiction to something stronger than coffee. I could see the door and decided I wanted to go inside. Picking my way backwards, my hand out at right angles stroking the wall, which was covered in black felt presumably for safety, I realised Schneider’s design circumvents our normal perception of space and that the entrance to the room to the window had been shortened by the lack of light; I’d walked further than I thought, which meant that I might not be looking at one room. When I reached the door and entered, it was completely empty. The mattress had gone. There were two rooms. “Wow.” Suitably impressed and knowing that my time was at an end, I made my way, as safely as I could, to the exit, where another invigilator was waiting to usher in the next victim.

The mistake? That was my first exhibit. The rest of the visit happened after I’d had my perception shot to pieces and somewhere between that, the caffeine and the nagging mood of nostalgia the rest of the visit was somewhat wasted on me. Despite my best intentions, I couldn’t latch onto anything, blundering around hazily in a daze knowing that I was in now in no condition to appreciate my environment. The last thing I needed to see at that moment was something like Calin Dan’s Sample City video which features the artist strolling about a city with a door strapped to his back or Anna Gaskell’s dissonant photographs of contortionists seemingly deceased on the floor of a stately home. Elsewhere in the gallery I stood for ages trying to focus on Ian Stephenson’s Screen Painting I, an insane example of pointillism, which looks like the kind of work a child might make if they could glue hundreds and thousands to a canvas or what might happen if you could shake a George Seurat painting like a magnetic beard game and watch the figures and landscape merge into one.

I was perfectly fine about ten minutes after leaving the gallery, at exactly the moment I misjudged crossing the road and was nearly run over by a bus. I did consider returning, but decided I needed to put some distance between me and that room in terms of distance and between me and the gallery in time. I certainly won’t wait two years to return, but at least until there’s some new exhibitions. I’ve already made a list of things I’ll need to do to survive: be as awake as possible, get a bus up Oxford Road and definitely not drink any coffee beforehand. Or at all, ever again. Well, maybe sometimes, but certainly not before entering a darkened room. Unless it’s my bedroom. Isn’t life complicated?

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