subversive spaces

On Friday night, I went along to the opening of the new Subversive Spaces exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery. I’m not sure whether it was the opening speech from Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota, the free bubbly and chocolate cakes (decorated with appropriately surreal slogans) or the work itself that was drawing the crowds, but whatever the reason, it was great to see a preview as busy and lively as this one. Unfortunately though, it did become a little difficult to get a really good look at the exhibition, so I’ll have to go back another time. I also want to venture into the (by all accounts, very spooky) installation by Gregor Schneider: specially commissioned for this exhibition, Kinderzimmer is a replica of a child’s nursery from Garzweiler, a German town which was destroyed as part of a massive open-cast mining operation, becoming “a double of a space that no longer exists... a strange repository for real past lives lived in identical spaces.”

Curated by Anna Dezeuze and David Lomas, Subversive Spaces: Surrealism & Contemporary Art is the result of a collaboration between the AHRC Research Centre for the Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies, and The Whitworth Art Gallery. This ambitious exhibition sets out to explore the legacy of the Surrealist project, bringing together work by artists such as Dali, Magritte, Ernst and Atet, and setting it alongside works by contemporary artists exploring similar territories. The exhibition is organised into two distinct spaces: Psychic Interiors investigates and destabilises the domestic space of the home, exploring themes such as female hysteria, anxiety, claustrophobia and the unheimlich; whilst Wandering the City follows the Surrealist’s interest in exploring the city streets to discover hidden social spaces and the secret territories where our unconscious fears and desires reside. These locations, both private and public, personal and social, are the “subversive spaces” of the exhibition title - the familiar, everyday places that the Surrealists attempted to disturb and reconfigure, exposing the hidden narratives at work within the spaces we inhabit.

Ambitious it may be, but from what I have seen of this exhibition so far, it certainly delivers a lot. Whilst some of the connections made between historical and contemporary works were undoubtedly more interesting and revealing than others, the exhibition is beautifully presented and very well thought through: exploring the twisty network of rooms and passages is itself an appropriately destabilising and disturbing experience. Of the contemporary works, some highlights for me were Lucy Gunning’s strangely atmospheric video of a woman in a red dress crawling around the walls of the room without touching the floor (pictured above) evoking the archetype of female psychic disturbance (Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper particularly came to mind) whilst simultaneously re-visioning children’s games. Robert Gober’s unexpected sculpture of a very realistic male leg apparently emerging from a wall was pleasingly unsettling, as were some satisfyingly unheimlich works by Tony Ousler, Sarah Lucas and Tacita Dean, whilst Katie Houlten’s crotchet wall-patterns, Francis Alys’s Railings and William Anastasi’s Subway Drawings represented playful attempts to map the apparently random and ephemeral traces of urban life. It was also interesting to get close to some classic works including original illustrations for André Breton’s Surrealist novel Nadja, Ralph Rumney’s 1958 "study" of his wanderings in Venice and Guy Debord’s psychogeographic "map" of Paris. Overall, this exhibition is an interesting assemblage of a variety of work related to the Surrealist movement and its themes: whilst the connection with some of the contemporary works occasionally feels a little tenuous, overall it makes a compelling case for the continuing relevance of the Surrealist project in all its complexities, emphasising the revolutionary intent at the movement’s heart.

Subversive Spaces is showing until 4 May, and there's also an accompanying conference taking place next Friday and Saturday which I'd love to go along to if I can make it. You can read some other responses to the show here and here and also here there's a flickr set of work from the show here.