I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
There are two fascinating/lovely exhibitions (see applicability below!) on at the Whitworth Art Gallery at the moment. Both are on until January 27th, so plenty of time to go and see them…
The first – which I didn’t know about, so was a very interesting surprise – is a collection of work by Jane & Louise Wilson. The selection is dominated by their powerful video and photographic pieces on the subject of Chernobyl, which include huge prints of eerily beautiful images of the rotting buildings in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and an 18-minute film exploring the movie made by Soviet director Vladimir Shevchenko. Shevchenko filmed around and even received permission to fly over the destroyed reactor just three days after it exploded. He died less than two years later of cancer caused by the radiation exposure. A small excerpt from his footage can be seen here:
What caught my attention, however – because of some recent research on Israeli assassinations of Palestinian writers, thinkers and activists – was the work Face Scripting – What did the Building See? Set in a black mesh cage in the middle of a gallery, a small TV shows real CCTV footage released by the Dubai police of the Mossad agents who, using stolen passports, in January 2010 killed Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
On the opposite wall, a much larger screen shows the Wilsons’ film, made in the hotel in which Mabhouh was assassinated and depicting the continuation of anonymous hotel life in places where even such violent events occur; lurid nylon carpets persist, exploited staff still patrol the corridors servicing the needs of a continuous throughput of customers, and piles of sheets and towels and folded and re-folded. The voice-over incorporates both Arabic speech and a narrated text by (the fantastic) Eyal Weizman and Shumon Basar discussing the nature of cities and surveillance, always harking back to the assassination whose prelude is shown in the real footage on the facing wall. “Tel Aviv – Dubai – airport – shopping mall – hotel – airport – one dead body” the soundtrack intones, invoking both the anonymity and specific murderousness of the subject matter, whilst: “If architecture is an editing machine, the door is the cutting blade” also references the violent act, whilst raising the debate to a more universal level.
The second exhibition – the one I actually intended to see – was Aisha Khalid’s Larger Than Life. Works by Khalid, Pakistani contemporary artist based in Lahore, included a piece specially commissioned by the Whitworth – a repeated pattern of roses part-embroidered (in some cases with the needle still hanging from the fabric) onto a two-storey-high wall, with a video of one rose being embroidered by a disturbingly loud, busy machine projected onto the floor in front. I’m not sure if the design of the roses themselves referenced the Burne-Jones tapestries which usually hand in that space (they looked like they might), but they certainly harked back to plenty of themes to do with Manchester and India/Pakistan, textiles and trade, hand vs machine manufacture.
Other pieces included a set of huge, yet minutely detailed, images collectively entitled Larger Than Life. Several of these featured the shadowy outline of a woman wearing a burqa half-hidden within the ting patterns. My favourite, New Moon, showed the phases of the moon in gold leaf, again with Khalid’s trademark meticulous, inconspicuous patterning; there must be few images with more potential meanings that the moon, especially for women artists (historical goddesses, menstruation, female power) and Muslim female artists (the significance of lunar sightings for the timings of most major religious festivals). Overall, much of Khalid’s work seems to be about the tensions around gender, tradition, craft, religion and modernity. They are often, though, just beautiful as well.
These two exhibits are good examples of why the Whitworth is one of my favourite galleries (no, it’s not just because of the great caff). Despite being close to both the university and to ethnically mixed and economically marginalised areas (Moss Side, Rusholme and Hulme), it shows interesting, challenging contemporary art without conceding to the kind of ‘accessibility’ (ie dumbing-down) that often seems to permeate art institutions who think they have to patronise potential visitors who aren’t white, middle-aged and middle-class. Long may they continue to do so.