I have realised recently that I'm often just as struck by the mood or feel of an exhibition as I am by the individual works themeselves. This was particularly true of my recent whistle-stop tour of Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2009 at Cornerhouse, Manchester.
Now in its 60th year, New Contemporaries is made up of work selected from open submissions of work by the UK’s art school undergraduates and postgraduates. As such, there's no doubt that it's a difficult show to engage with: often controversial and often contested. This year's offering, selected by Ellen Gallagher, Saskia Olde Wolbers, John Stezaker and Wolfgang Tillmans, is no exception, even amongst the Manchester blogging community. For example, whilst Manchester Photography hails it as “THE Manchester show of the year so far” and for the Art of Fiction it is a “diverse, considered show”, runpaintrun characterises it as “the equivalent of a biggest vegetable competition at a country show. There is only so much you can be impressed by a marrow, how ever bloody big, shiny and perfectly formed it is.”
Now, I have to say I can appreciate where runpaintrun is coming from on this one. There’s no doubt that the quality of artworks in this show varies wildly – sometimes they’re experimental, sometimes controversial, sometimes intriguing, and sometimes just a little bit underwhelming. But for me, a visit to New Contemporaries is somewhat different from a visit to any other exhibition. It’s about a mood, an energy, an overall narrative. At the end of the day, New Contemporaries is a graduate show - albeit one of a very sophisticated kind - and as such, I enjoy it for the multiple directions it points me, the possibilities it offers for the future. It’s often a bit rough and raw around the edges and usually there’s a few works that I really can’t stand, but there's always something that stands out: this time, for me, it was Frances Blythe's melancholy and slightly spooky photographs of suburbia. What is more, amongst this thoughtfully-curated jumble, something rises to the surface - vitality, energy, and however misplaced it may be, an unabashed and strangely infectious optimism about the future of contemporary art.
[Image: Susanne Ludwig, Passing Church. Feasibility Fantasies via Cornerhouse]