Paper: A legitimate albeit humble medium for a work of art. Manchester Art Galleries hosts ‘The First Cut’, assimilating 31 international contemporary artists, proving the enormous potential the ubiquitous material beholds. The exhibiting artists navigate through a wide range of concepts such as: the body, the environment, consumerism, politics and of course, the transience of life embodied by the fragility of the medium. The works on display loosely seem to fall under two components: Those which cause delight and amusement and those which encompass real substance.
Upon entering the exhibition space, the viewer is met with a barrage of paper spilling onto the walls, ceiling and floors. It’s an initial sense of awe one feels on entering. ‘Wonder Forests’ by Manabu Hangai, is an immersive and experimental environment made from seaweed collected from fisherman where he lives in Japan. The spiralling branches (with giant leaves in tow) allow visitors to roam freely in between; the sheer size of the installation has a dwarfing effect, highlighting the fairy-tale aspect. Following the natural environment theme is the piece strategically placed nearby, Andrew Singleton’s, ‘Stellar Spire in the Eagle Nebula’. The artist was inspired by the photographs of gigantic nebulae that hang in space. The piece, comprising of flexible black paper is held by transparent wire which hangs elegantly from the ceiling, cascading down in elegant swirls. These pieces, amongst others, tempted the tactile side of the human temperament, as paper it is something handled on daily basis, yet remodelled into something quite striking and precious.
The array of large scale works alongside intimate imaginary worlds was most notable. A striking piece, which could just as easily be described as kitsch is ‘Notice Forest’ (Burger King) 2009, in which the artist has carefully cut a minute and intricate tree which is contained within a branded Burger King Paper bag. There is some social comment which can be drawn upon the placement of consumerist props within an artistic sphere. Dominating a large section of wall space is the crowd-pleasing artist Rob Ryan’s piece, who’s designs have been translated into mugs, bags, purses, pillows and just about anything that you might find in a home ware store. His paper cut, ‘The Map of My Entire Life,’ is described as a ‘melancholy elegy of life and death’. The piece is larger than many of his other designs allowing him to build a narrative between the entwinement of text and image.
Hanging above heads was Long Bin Chen’s ‘Angel’, overseeing the entire space, like a giant Lord of the paper arts. ‘Angel’ has been created by hanging old telephone books and directories alongside each other and then gauging into the rows of books as if they were a large slab of clay. These discarded books of information have been made redundant by the internet. They are described as the ‘cultural debris’ of our society, a bold transformation from the dismissed to the monumental. Perhaps this is their revenge.
If this isn’t enough fantasy and phantom, there is a magical animation video on loop by Danish siblings, Martin and Line Andersen, creators of Andersen M Studio. The short animation feature, Going West (2010), inspired from an excerpt from Maurice Gee‘s classic New Zealand novel. The video is mesmerising as the viewer can experience pages of the book literally come to life as the pages unfold and pop up as every scene is painstaking cut with a scalpel, photographed and lit using various filters.
The further side of the gallery space takes on a darker tone, and here is the substance which really vouched for the success of the show elevating to more than just an aesthetic exploit. As opposed to the emphasis on physical form and craft, artists Tom Gallant and Julie Smith deal with the connotations of paper through history. Julie Smith works with currency, such as bank notes and is interested in their socio-political power. Although the sculptures appear to be solid, they are in fact hollow, highlighting the illusory notion of power and instability.
Tom Gallant’s ‘The Collector VIII, 101 views’ (2010) explores the consumption of pornography by society. The piece is made from editions of 1970s stag mags. By surreptitiously cutting out the text in certain ways, gives presence to the colour photo beneath, which was a ploy elicited to bypass censorship laws. In his ‘Old Game Bird’ series (2011), Gallant borrows the iconography of William Morris wallpaper designs and game birds seen in Flemish vanitas paintings in an incongruous pairing. Beneath the floral wallpaper patterns are pornographic images which are hard to detect at a glance. The pieces are framed, and then superimposed is a large game bird, as if slapped across the surface as an afterthought. The mix of the serene patterns, alongside the graphic imagery which lies beneath surmises the numbing effect of pornography due to its omnipresence. The game birds represent consumption and the notion of the hunted, which raises questions on sexuality, empowerment and lack thereof.
In the smaller second room of the exhibition was a room dedicated to internationally recognised Kara Walker. Kara Walkers silhouettes of violence, sex, racial stereotypes and dreams explored the dichotomy between dominance and submission. The work, ‘Grub for Sharks’ (2004) is based on JMW Turners 1840s painting, ‘Slave Ships’ depicting the throwing of weak and dying slaves overboard from a slave ship that left Liverpool in the 1780s bound for Jamaica. The worthless and damaged bodies were thrown into shark infested waters so companies could claim compensation form insurance companies. ‘Grub for Sharks’ is spread across all four walls making a bold political comments prompted by the pre-civil war African and American relations. The silhouettes are rife with satire and stereotypes.
The only failures of ‘First Cut’ were the pieces that fitted into neither the awe-inspiring capabilities of paper, nor the artists who were intent of using the material to make bold comments. There were some attractive paper sculptures which looked no greater than an extravagant school project and there were those pieces that didn’t seem to elicit much meaning or intention. But the variety the curators managed to cram within the space is truly commendable. There was even a bed of flowers hand cut from gardening catalogues spread across the centre of the floor by Andrea Dezso. Manchester Art Gallery provided accessibility to all ages. Toddlers were running through the ‘Forest of Wonder’, while adults were free to interpret Gallant’s hidden pornographic images. A sense of relief can be shared that the only thing this exhibition ignited was, excitement.
Runs from Friday 5 October 2012 – Sunday 27 January 2013 at Manchester Art Gallery admission FREE