Ancient Textiles from the Andes – at the Whitworth

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Last Tuesday I had a meeting at the University in Manchester. Afterwards, I’d planned to meet my wife, grab a bite to eat and watch a film at Home (the venue on Tony Wilson Place, not our house!). Before that we had an hour to spare so decided to visit the Whitworth Gallery, just a few hundred yards from the building where I had my meeting, to have a look at an exhibition of ancient textiles from South America. The exhibition mainly features textiles from a collector, Paul Hughes, together with some examples from the Whitworth’s own collection.

The textiles are very old, created between 300 BC and 1400AD. Most of them were layers of cloth used to wrap dead bodies when they were buried, called “mummy bundles”. After excavation, due to the very dry conditions and lack of exposure to sunlight, the colours were amazingly bright. The patterns have a very modern look – some of them looked like they’d just come from IKEA! – reflecting the influence of ancient cultures on modern and contemporary art and taste.

We’re all familiar with the Incas and Aztecs and possibly the Tolmecs, but from the exhibition I learned that there were a number of other “cultures” in South America before the Europeans arrived and which also preceded the Incas.

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The oldest exhibits were these two pieces created by the Paracas culture

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The piece on the left, a painted fragment of textile, is from around 100 BC. The one on the right, a shirt, is even older from about 300 BC.

Most of the exhibits were produced by the Wari culture which I’d never heard of before, but they were a major civilisation in the south-central Andes and coastal area of modern-day Peru, from about AD 500 to 1000. They were, apparently particularly, adapt at creating colourful textiles as well as metalwork and ceramics.

Unfortunately, due to the lighting in the gallery (it can’t be too bright otherwise the colours and textiles themselves could be degraded) and as I was only using my phone camera, my photos really can’t bring across just how beautiful the textiles looked. However, here’s a few of shots

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These three pieces, again from the Wari culture, are aprons created from feathers. Again the colours are amazingly bright.

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It was a very interesting exhibition with incredible pieces on display. But it raises some difficult questions. In particular, is it ethical to remove the textiles from graves? Of course, archaeologists have been doing this for hundreds of years, but in recent years they’ve often come into conflict with indigenous peoples over the custody and handling of excavated human remains, associated grave goods and other sacred objects. No easy answers, I guess.

Idris Khan at the Whitworth

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A new exhibition of works by the Birmingham born artist Idris Khan has just opened in the at the Whitworth in Manchester. This is the second exhibition of works by the artist at the Gallery. In 2012 they showed The Devil’s Wall (2011) three large, black, cylindrical sculptures, along with a series of works on paper.

For the current exhibition, a new wall drawing has ben created which can be seen on the right in the picture at the top of this post. It was difficult to take a photograph which fully captures the impact of this work which is made up of lines of text in English and Arabic printed onto the wall using rubber stamps – here’s a close up

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Like some of his other works, to me, the wall painting resembled a stellar explosion.

Beginning or End (2013), a meditation on Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and the cyclical nature of life and existence, was created using the same approach as the wall painting. However it’s painted on a dark background

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Eternal Movement (2011) was commissioned for Sadler’s Wells Dance House was inspired by Muslim religious texts.

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It’s meant to represent part of the Hajj pilgrimage where devotees walk back and forth seven times between two mountains near Mecca.

Death of Painting (2014), a series of five oil works on paper, are displayed on the wall directly opposite the wall painting.

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They were inspired by Kasimir Malevich’s iconic black square painting. Khan’s composed  black squares were created by writing a text with thick oil sticks over and over again on paper. Close up it could be seen that the squares were not “pure” black – traces of the writing could be seen.

The Rite of Spring (2013), created from layering photographs of Stravinsky’s score on top of each other.

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From a distance the work just looked like a textured black and white pattern. Close up, however, the notes and staff of the musical notation could be made out.

I’ve enjoyed all the exhibitions shown in this new gallery space, created when the Whitworth was renovated and enlarged. The gallery is bright and airy and suits the modern works that they’ve displayed here.

Tibor Reich at the Whitworth

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Last Sunday, the May Spring Bank Holiday weekend, we went into Manchester for the afternoon. One of our objectives was to visit the Whitworth Gallery as we hadn’t been for a while. The main galleries were being prepared for the next exhibition and so were closed, but there was still plenty to occupy us for a couple of hours.

Two of the galleries upstairs were showing an exhibition of the work of Tibor Reich. I’d read the report by Barbara of Milady’s Boudoir a few weeks ago and wanted to see it for myself.

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The Whitworth’s website tells us that the exhibition

celebrates the centenary of Tibor Reich, a pioneering post-war textile designer, who brought modernity into British textiles. Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1916, Reich studied architecture and textiles in Vienna before moving to Britain in 1937. In 1946 he set up Tibor Ltd, introducing bright new colours and textures into the drab interiors of post-war Britain. The firm rapidly gained an international reputation working on commissions for the Festival of Britain, Expo ‘58 and Concorde.

The exhibition explores the ideas behind his innovative textiles, photography, ceramics and drawings.

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Tibor Reich who was Jewish, was born in Budapest in 1916. He escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1937 and settled down in Leeds where he studied textile technology and design at Leeds University. On graduating, he went to work for Tootals of Bolton, but left after a year, moving on to set up his own company based in Stratford-upon-Avon, designing and producing fabrics. Initially the cloth was woven on handlooms, but power looms were later installed.

He went on  to produce textile designs for The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Festival of Britain, Coventry Cathedral,  furniture manufacturers such as G Plan and for the Royal Yacht Britannia, Concorde and the QE2. In 1954 an exhibition of his work titled ‘An Adventure with Colour’, toured the country and was seen by 250,000 people.

His textiles were based on relatively simple, colourful, abstract patterns, which was radical for it’s time in a Britain still recovering from wartime austerity and more used to greys, beige and other dull colours.

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There was an extract of a Pathe film about his working methods showing on a loop. It’s available on You Tube.

He developed a system of pattern design, known as “Fotexur” (Fo referring to photography and texur to texture) which involved taking photographs of all sorts of textures and patterns from the environment, including plants, bark, stone, cracked earth and straw. Selecting patterns that interested him, cutting them out, rearranging them – a real “cut and paste” approach – and printing them in colourful inks. There was a display case showing the tools he used.

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(Image source: Wikipedia)

His textiles could incorporate figurative elements too, like this pattern illustrating the manufacture of Aluminium

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He also designed pottery, including a range called Tigo-Ware which later was produced by Denby. His black and white cartoon like designs were influenced by Hungarian folk art but expressed in contemporary shapes.

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I really liked these pieces which have a very modern look and “feel” to them and wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary designer’s collection.

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For me, his designs were redolent of my childhood in the 60’s. I even had a blanket on my bed that was surely influenced by his work. It’s pattern was very similar to these examples of his blanket designs.

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This was a marvellous exhibition. A little like the Bauhaus was in the 20’s and 30’s, his approach must have seemed revolutionary at the time but because of his influence these types of design have been incorporated into the mainstream.

William Scott Textiles at the Whitworth

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Having just explored the Whitworth’s excellent exhibition of textile works, it was interesting to see William Scott’s textiles Skara Brae and Skaill included in the  Abstract Landscape exhibition showing in one of the galleries on the first floor.

‘Skaill’, a tapestry made by Edinburgh Weavers from a design by Scott that was painted to scale with gouache and wax resist. The resulting work is a subtle mass of broken textured forms that hint at rock and edgelands. The work corresponds with its neighbour, ‘Skara Brae’, a length of screenprinted cotton also designed by Scott. This piece, printed in the colours of rock and lichen, speaks clearly of the sunken, stone-lined features of the ancient dwellings of Skara Brae in Orkney. It is an abstraction only until the viewer recognises the source of inspiration. (Spectator)

Art_Textiles at the Whitworth

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On the Christmas Bank Holiday Monday we took the train into Manchester to visit the Whitworth. It was good to get out of the house and take in a little mental stimulation.

Manchester at one time was Cottonopolis, the capital of the once dominant British cotton industry. Reflecting this, the Whitworth has an important collection of textiles. Appropriately, then the main exhibition currently showing in the Gallery, Art_Textiles “does what it says on the tin” and features works created from textiles.

The exhibition website tells us that

The status of textiles as an art medium is highly ambivalent. Traditionally, they have been situated on the margins, in a borderland between art and craft.

As a medium textile is often used by female artists, which probably part of the reason why textile art is “situated on the margins” – an interesting topic for a thesis, I’m sure someone must have explored this. Notably,the majority, but not all, of the artists featured in the exhibition are women.

The central gallery (the exhibition covers four) is dominated by Abakan Rouge III, by the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, came at the end of the artist’s career, between 1970 and 1971, when what she called a “craft ghetto” kept the pieces from being considered fine art. But it is this marginal aspect of textile works that has allowed the medium to be used to express social, political or artistic dissent. And many of the works in the exhibition had a political, often feminist, message.

One work that certainly fits into that category is this example of a Suffragette banner. This was one work of art not intended to sit in a gallery, but to play an active part in the struggle for votes for women.

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Suffragette banner for Women’s Freedom League: Dare to be Free (1911) by Miss Burton and Miss Gosling

Facing it were two works by the Egyptian born artist Ghada Amer both with a clear political message.

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Nearby was a work by Michele Walker, No Home, No Hope (1994) made from hessian, paper and bin liners, highlighting the plight of the homeless.

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This eye catching work by Mary Sibande, Sophie Velucia and Madame CJ Walker (2009). The artist’s work

employs the human form as a vehicle through painting and sculpture, to explore the construction of identity in a postcolonial South African context, but also attempt to critique stereotypical depictions of women, particularly black women in our society.

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The figure of the work, Sophie –Velucia, represents the artist’s mother

weaving a Madam CJ Walker image using synthetic hair. Madam CJ Walker was an African–American who invented hair cream relaxer for straightening hair. My mother used to work as a domestic worker as a teenager and after school worked as a hair stylist in a salon. Sophie-Velucia is looking up to Madam CJ Walker as her icon. For her, she symbolizes a breakthrough from the generations of servitude. The figure is standing about two metres from the woven picture, arms out-stretched, thousands of strands of hair flying to her hands, plaiting and weaving through the canvas.

There were two works by Risham Syed, an artist from Pakistan,which address questions of colonial exploitation and struggle.

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All her quilts depict 19th and 20th Century maps of various port cities that were strategically located on colonial European trade routes, such as Izmir in Turkey, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Mumbai in India, and Ras al-Khaimah in the UAE. Apart from being trade gateways, these cities were also sites of resistance and rebellion against the imperial powers. (source)

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Not all of the artists featured in the exhibition are women and not all of the political messages are feminist. One of ’Grayson Perry’s series of six tapestries made during the filming of his Channel 4 documentary All in the Best Possible Taste, which we saw at Manchester City Art Gallery a couple of years ago, was hung on the wall across from Mary Sibane’s work.

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Paraguayan-born multidisciplinary artist Faith Wilding has recreated her work Crotcheted Environment, better known as Womb Room, originally made in 1972 for the Los Angeles display Womanhouse, for the exhibition.

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This large work Homage aux Caseurs du Mandé is by the African artist Abdoulaye Konaté 

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Jessica Rankin’s Quis Est Iste Qui Venit (2012), an embroidered work on a semi-transparent organdy cloth, hung a few centimetres from the wall casts shadows on the surface behind.

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There are two works by Korea artist, Do Ho Suh

Spectators (2014)

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and Myselves

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To create these works

Suh Sews over lines in thin washi paper and soaks it until the paper dissolves, leaving the cotton thread, which is then set into the pulp of handmade paper. The thread and the way the thread reacts to the water and the wet paper, creates an unusual quality of line and appearance

Penelope’s Rags (2013) by Monika Zaltauskaite-Grasiene from Lithuania was produced using a state of the art Jaquard loom.

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A large work, Flexion 2 (1971) by Jagoda Buić

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This large scale exhibition, (there were many more interesting works on display) really showed how textiles can be used as an effective medium for creating beautiful as well as thought provoking works. It was certainly worth travelling over to Manchester on a rather grey and miserable day to see it.

Chinese art at the Whitworth

One of the exhibitions shown immediately following the reopening of he newly refurbished and extended Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester was Unmanned Nature, an amazing installation in the Garden Gallery by the Chinese born artist Cai Guo-Qiang. That exhibition has now finished – replaced by the works by Gerhardt Richter, which was part of the Manchester International Festival.

The Chinese theme contiues, however, as the main exhibition currently showing is a display of contemporary Chinese art, filling three rooms, entitled The M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese art from the 1970s to now

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Uli Sigg is a Swiss businessman, former diplomat and art collector who has worked in China and became interested in Chinese Contemporary art.dsc05859_19088260254_o

The Whitworth’s website tells us that

The collection will form the backbone of the new M+ museum for visual culture in Hong Kong (due to open to the public in 2019) and the exhibition here at the Whitworth, put together in collaboration with our curators and colleagues from the M+ Sigg Collection, will be its only UK showing.

There is a chronological logic to the exhibition with works from each decade displayed in different galleries.

The “star” of the show, which will no doubt be the main draw, is Still Life (1995-2000),  an installation by Ai WeiWei comprising  thousands of Stone Age axe heads that fill a large part of the floor in the central gallery.

Most of the artists are unknown in the UK, with one notable exception.

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The Whitworth’s website tells us that the work is

an iconoclastic gesture designed to offset the value and importance of these ancient objects.

I’m not entirely sure just how it’s meant to do that unless it is working on the basis that value and importance reflects rarity and by having so many displayed together, these are undermined.

Zhang Huan‘s photographic work, Family Tree, is the result of a single day’s performance where nine calligraphy painters took turns to write lyrics on his face, gradually obscuring his features with a mass of ink. The work comprises nine photographs, showing how he work progresses and results in a face covered with a mass of ink. It doesn’t come across too well in this photo due to reflections in the glass.

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Another, earlier work by Ai Weiwei Untitled (Three Leaders) was on display in the first gallery.

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Nearby is a painting, with a photographic realism, of four laughing heads.

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This was another photographic work from a performance artist (I neglected to note his name).

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The artist has covered his body with paint and created an impression by lying on the paper. An accompanying display showed how it was created.

The third room contains more recent works. One I particularly like was the Looks like a Landscape by Liu Wei. It’s a huge digital photographic work made up of buttocks, knees and other body parts  put together to resemble a traditional Chinese landscape painting. The foliage on the “mountains” is body hair, and the figures – mosquitoes. Clever and effective.

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A number of works showed how China has changed – in deed is still undergoing dramatic changes.

These two photographs are of a group of woman. The lower one taken during the Cultural Revolution showing them dressed in the clothes associated with that period. The more recent upper one showing the same group of women, now older,wearing more modern Western style dress.

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I guess the point being made here is that changes have occurred that have meant that the Chinese people were forced to conform but now live in a “freer” society that allows individual expression. Well, I think nearly everyone would agree that is a good thing, but perhaps not all the changes that have been happening in China are so great. Some of the more recent works explore these changes – with China experiencing massive economic development with major impacts on the environment and people’s lives. And not all of these changes are for the better.

Photographs by Weng Fen from his “Sitting on the Wall” series feature schoolgirls with their backs to the camera, sitting on a wall and staring at cities undergoing major development and expansion.

Probably the most powerful piece to explore the impact of the ruthless economic expansion and marketisation is the video by Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia (2006), filmed in a factory manufacturing light bulbs. Twenty minutes long, it’s in three parts.

The first, titled ‘Imagination of Product’, begins with a series of close-ups showing light bulb components being produced and assembled by automated machines, followed by scenes of people working very quickly at workstations that are arranged into a grid formation. The second part, ‘Factory Fairytale’, shows individuals dancing and playing electric guitars inside the factory, often with staff working around them. Some of these performers wear labourers’ uniforms, but one is dressed in a ballerina’s outfit and another in a long white dress. This section of the film ends with footage of a woman going to bed, while the factory can be seen outside her window. The third part – ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ – shows individuals inside the factory, standing or sitting completely still and facing the camera, and in many of these scenes the operations of the factory continue around them. The film finishes with shots of people wearing white t-shirts bearing Cantonese characters that collectively spell out the phrase ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ (Tate website)

To me, the film clearly illustrates that although the changes may benefit a small minority of people, the majority are exploited, subject to harsh working conditions, and alienated. They have have ‘no rights, no benefits, and no power’

“Unmanned Nature” at the Whitworth

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This amazing installation is currently on display in the new Landscape gallery in the Whitworth Gallery, part of the new extension.

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It’s by the Chinese born artist Cai Guo-Qiang who now lives in New York. He uses gunpowder to create his drawings. The Whitworth website provides an explanation

After laying out large sheets of paper on the floor, Cai Guo-Qiang arranges gunpowder, fuses and cardboard stencils to create forms on the paper’s surface. The spontaneity of the resulting explosion, flames and fumes are controlled through the use of wooden boards, rocks and various other materials, which influence the impact of the explosions that create the final work.

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In this work a large scale drawing is fixed to the walls surrounding a pool of water that occupies most of the floor area of the gallery – visitors have to be careful not to fall in as they walk around and the numbers entering at any one time is restricted! The drawing, inspired by 14th-century Chinese ink and wash paintings, is reflected in the water.

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Some reviews I’ve read compare the work to Monet’s water lilies and I have to say he installation reminded me of the display of Nymphéas displayed in two specially built galleries at the Orangerie in Paris.

Cornelia Parker at the Whitworth

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The main exhibition showing at the Whitworth following its reopening is a major retrospective of the work of Cheshire born artist Cornelia Parker.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but was blown away by what I saw.

Cornelia Parker is described as a “sculptor and installation artist” by the Tate and the exhibition features works covering the range of her repertoire; large scale installations, bronze castings, found objects, flattened objects, objects transformed into wire, abstract paintings created from her blood.

The first room contained a collection of smaller works. There were metal objects- a spoon, a silver dollar and bullets, transformed into wire. The wire from the bullets was woven and manipulated to form grid like patterns. There wereDSC04867

There were two other weapon related works – a sawn-off shot gun that had been sawn up and the following work which consisted of teo metal pieces from the early stages of manufacture of a colt pistol in a glass case with a metal powder that was all that was left from a pistol that had been destroyed.

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There were also Rorschach “ink blot” patterns made using snake venom and anti-venom antidote mixed with black and white ink and a series of pieces of canvas which were originally the linings of paintings by JMW Turner from the Tate’s collection which had acquired markings and stains forming abstract patterns.

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Amongst the works displayed in he central barrel vaulted gallery there was Rodin’s Kiss (the real one, borrowed from he Tate) tied up with string.

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On the floor there were two bronze works cast from the cracks between paving stones

Black Path (Bunhill Fields) was created from the paving stones around the tomb of William Blake in the non-conformist cemetery were he’s buried in London

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There was a connection with the other similar work Jerusalem which was cast surreptitiously from the cracks between paving stones in occupied East Jerusalem. Blake’s most well known work is probably his poem, Jerusalem, which was set to music, becoming a popular hymn. There is a connection with the Whitworth which owns a number of drawings and prints by Blake and Manchester was the heart of his “dark satanic mills”.

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In the Exhibition brochure Cornelia tells us about how she created the work

When I visited Jerusalem and he West Bank several times in 2012, I found myself meditating on William Blake’s poetry. His idealisation of Jerusalem is a far cry from the politically fraught place it is now. Territories and boundaries are contested on a daily basis.

On one of my trips I took a couple of containers of cold cure casting rubber as extra weight in my luggage. I used this to cast the cracks in a section of old paving in the occupied East Jerusalem. This was done at night, away from the Israeli armed guards that patrolled the streets. When the rubber mould was set, I peeled it up off the pavement, rolled it up and put it back in my suitcase – making off with a piece of Jerusalem. For this exhibition in Manchester it has finally been cast in bronze to sit on a different turf, in the home of Blake’s “satanic mills”

These two works sit just above floor level, propped up with pins. One visitor during the first few days of the exhibition tripped over one of them, so extra staff are on hand to alert visitors!

There were two other works close to the floor, this time suspended from fine wires attached to the ceiling.

Accidental 1 consists of 16 silver plated objects – plates, cutlery and the like that had been squashed by a 250 ton industrial press

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and  its companion piece, 16 flattened musical instruments, Composition with Horns (Double Flat)

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They were simple, but effective.

Other works in this room included a series of tapestries, hand embroidered by inmates of various prisons.

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Each piece had two words with opposite meanings (War,Peace; Life,Death; Past, Future; Light,Dark; Conscious,Unconscious; Love,Hate) and their definitions. They were produced so that one of the pair was read from one side of the fabric and the second from the opposite side. Clever.

The other two rooms each contained only one work.

War Room was a tent like structure made from perforated paper left over from the manufacture of British Legion poppies which covered all the walls and were suspended from the ceiling..

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Standing inside was quite a serene experience. Almost like being inside a chapel. I guess hat was the artist’s intention – to create a feeling of a chapel of remembrance.

The final work was probably the most popular and seemed to be especially so with children. The  “frozen explosion” of Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View

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The description on the Tate’s website sums it up succinctly. It’s a

restored three-dimensional volume of a garden shed exploded by the British Army at the request of the artist. The surviving fragments, suspended from the ceiling and lit by a single bulb, create a dramatic effect and cast shadows on the gallery’s walls.

An amazing work.

All in all a fantastic exhibition. We resolved to return before it finishes at the end of May