Art loves to talk about itself, to examine and reference its own history and present, its trends and clichés, to make art about art. For Scaffold Gallery’s latest project, A Show About The Show, hosted by Bankley Studios & Gallery, they present ‘an exhibition about the nature of exhibitions’, maximising the potential for self-reference. At the best of times contemporary art is a niche interest, so art about art and exhibitions about exhibitions are insular activities, in-jokes that demand familiarity with the tropes of an art-world that most of the world ignores. However, to those of us that are in on the joke, A Show About The Show partly functions as a reminder to remain aware and critical of the way that art is presented.
In such an environment the works all hold a performative element, everything playing its role in breaking down the idea of an exhibition. The text of the exhibition map highlights this referring to works with a uniform format that reads ‘The plinth that celebrates the plinth’ (Kieran Leach, ‘Plinths Just Wanna Have Fun’ (2017)), ‘The information panel about the space that informs you’ (Daniel Hunt, ‘Therein and Without’ (2017)), etc., approaching the Friends episode naming convention of ‘The one with…’. Within this environment viewing itself becomes a more overtly performative action, and I feel particularly conspicuous, taking notes and playing my part as the critic.
Increasing these feelings of conspicuousness are the works that directly confront the viewer beginning with Laura Weaver’s ‘Hello’ (2017), which plays a recorded ‘hello’ as you cross the threshold into the building. Although a small gesture, it is unexpected and acts as a shock to the system. While Weaver provides the disembodied voice of the artist, Rose Cleary’s ‘Gallerina’ (2017) has the artist herself, voiceless and expressionless, but present and confronting the viewer in her own way. Cleary is acting the part of the invigilator, specifically, that of a bad invigilator, walking the boundary of the room at a steady pace throughout the opening, ensuring viewers feel as though they are being watched and that they are in the way; a reminder that galleries can frequently be unwelcoming places. Rowan Eastwood’s sculptural piece ‘Split’ (2017) continues this thread of confrontation, as she neatly bisects the room with a line of suspended poles for the viewer to navigate around. More than any other work in the exhibition, Eastwood seems to be presenting a sculpture playing the part of a sculpture, a meta-sculpture designed to both contain and neaten the gallery space, and to give the viewer something delicate to worry about. Inevitably, it ends the evening broken.
These are a small selection of works from a show of twenty-two artists in total, a number that should leave Bankley’s relatively small gallery feeling over-stuffed, but Scaffold have admirably curated what actually feels like a well-balanced group show in spite of tight surroundings. Through the work presented, they highlight some of the under-noticed structures that surround the presentation of art, as well as the element of artifice that goes into exhibition making.
It’s a shame then that it is all over so quickly, with the show only open for one night and one day. Brief exhibition runs are a frustrating trend in artist-led spaces, it speaks to a lack of confidence in the appeal of the exhibition to the potential audience, or a lack of desire to maintain regular and convenient opening hours, which although boring, is vital to increasing accessibility (open by appointment doesn’t count). Specifically with Bankley, it seems that the issue is an over-stuffed programme, creating an unnecessary workload for the programme team whilst ensuring that the shows themselves are often lightweight. A show such as this one deserves to be seen and that means keeping it open for a significant period of time, not squeezing it in during a couple of free days, and if Scaffold are aiming to make a point with this brief run, then I have missed it.
A Show About The Show, Bankley Studios & Gallery, Manchester.
25 – 26 August 2017.
Tom Emery is a curator and writer based in Manchester.