Star rating – 6/10
The current main exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery is a bit of a disjointed affair, although it does have some affecting highlights. It aims to focus on the images of different landscapes, and the cultural and political issues stirred up by places. And it is quite a mixed bag. Many of the exhibits are from the gallery’s own permanent collection, such as the Turners, but are placed here beside some video imagery and a new installation.
There are some lovely sketches of Italy from a young man’s Grand Tour in 1782-3, which are accompanied by his handwritten notes, and place you right there with him, drawing scenes from Naples and the crater of a volcano. The nostalgic spell is somewhat broken though when you learn that the young man in question, John Robert Cozens, was an accompanying draughtsman to a wealthy young man whose family fortune came from the efforts of slaves on a Jamaican sugar plantation.
There is a Van Gough – ‘The Fortifications of Paris with Houses’ – from 1887 whose exquisitely drawn detail shows a woman walking by the useless defences which failed miserably to hold the city during the Franco-Prussian war, and became a haven for leisure walkers, then of criminals and prostitutes.
A series of three photos shows the demolition of a tower block in East London. There is a video of a family eating a meal together in Bethlehem, discussing what it means to them to be Palestinian. A seemingly charming panoramic photo by Romuald Hazoume from Benin, West Africa in 1962 shows some children playing in a boat on the shoreline with their village huts in the background. But its title ‘And From There They Leave’, reveals a darker purpose to the piece, as it is the place from which thousands of slaves were shipped to the Americas.
The two most affecting and interesting parts of the exhibition for me were firstly a film made by the Black Audio Film Collective in 1986 showing how black and Asian people came to this country in their best clothes, bringing high hopes for their new lives in a modern civilised society – then how those hopes were dashed. These arrival scenes are juxtaposed in the film with disturbing scenes from the Handsworth riots in Birmingham in the 1980’s, when the anger of many of the young black people in neighbourhood boiled over with disastrous consequences.
The other impressive part for me is the forest by Olafur Eliasson which takes over part of the gallery completely, transforming it into a dark, primeval, thrilling experience which you can walk through – guided only by the occasional flashlight held by the museum attendants.
So it’s an interesting collection, with a couple of brilliant pieces, but for me the theme of place and power is a little stretched, and the parts of this collection are too disparate to work well as a whole.