Both Sides Now:
It was the Best of Times? It was the Worst of Times?

Hot on the heels of last month’s It was a dark and stormy night at Castlefield Gallery, CFCCA brings us a new addition to Manchester’s current run of group exhibitions titled after opening sentences from 19th century British novels.

Both Sides Now 2 – It was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times? is a selection of video works by artists based in the UK, China and Hong Kong. It is part two of the Both Sides Now video series –  a touring programme of artist’s video screenings selected and presented by Videotage and Videoclub, moving image arts organisations based in Hong Kong and the UK respectively.

For its instalment as an exhibition at CFCCA, the videos are screened via digital projectors, monitors and headphones hung on hooks on the gallery walls. There are 10 in total, with a combined running time of 84m13s – excluding time taken walking from one video to the next, or time spent waiting for an already playing video to loop back to its beginning.

The exhibition press release asks “whether the themes in Dickens’ [A Tale of Two Cities]”, from which the exhibition takes its title, “are still relevant today”. This is presumably neither a question asked in earnest nor the focus of the exhibition because, with the possible exhibition of ‘revolution’, none of the themes pertinent to Dickens’ novel, or any of the broad socio-political themes instigated by the exhibition’s accompanying text, seem to be the concern of the works on display.

In gallery 1, Rachel Maclean’s The Lion and The Unicorn (2012), played at a volume which enables it to be heard from any of the three CFCCA gallery spaces, appears to be given pride of place. Three characters (a lion, a unicorn and a queen) debate matters of Scottish nationalism, trade and finance. It was filmed on location in Traquair House – ‘a former hunting lodge for the kings and queens of Scotland’, according to its website, and ‘a magical and romantic setting for weddings’.

Each character is played by Maclean, in costumes that are part ITV period drama, part Steve Bell cartoon. She lip-synchs a script pieced together from audio culled from television debates on the then approaching referendum on Scottish independence. David Cameron’s impassioned Burns Night re-citation of To A Mouse is delivered by the lion over a bagpiped version of Skye Boat Song – a speech so ignominious it caused at least one YouTube commenter to “buckle with cringe.”

Rumination on ‘national identity’ and the extent to which it is grounded in romance crops up again in David Blandy’s animation on the wall opposite, Anjin 1600: Edo Wonderpark (2014). It stars the artist, rendered as an anime character, walking through landscapes styled on Edo period woodblock prints. Over this Blandy narrates the story of the work’s creation, a story which begins with the story of William Adams – the first Englishman to reach Japan and the only to be granted the title of ‘English Samurai’.

The artist goes on to discuss his own relationship with Japan – his childhood friendship with a boy from Chiba and his experiences in the virtual worlds of Midgar and Neo-Tokyo. The video ends with the artist evaluating a real world trip to Japan, the transcript of which reads like a negative if rather artful TripAdvisor review. I expected “space suits and shiny surfaces, sublime beauty”. Instead, I got “ugly municipal architecture” and “tasteless sweets”.

In the private view night introductory talk, it was noted that a theme of ‘revolution’ surfaced in several works on display. Comparisons were inevitably drawn between last year’s referendum on Scottish independence (The Lion and the Unicorn) and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The latter is the subject of two works on display – Birdy Chu’s The Interviews (2015), a short documentary filmed in the city’s occupy sites, and Ellen Pau’s True Colour (2014) a video installation in which footage of the protests is projected over a tent and post it notes haphazardly stuck to the gallery wall.

What exactly the viewer was to deduce from comparing the two political events, however, was not revealed. Similarly, the fact that the majority of works selected for the exhibition don’t deal with these events, or any political event for that matter, was not addressed.

That is not to say the works in Both Sides Now are without merit or even that it is a wildly incoherent exhibition. Thematic links between works (history, mythology, fantasy) seem to arise, but the extent to which these are the product of chance, curatorial decision or viewer speculation is difficult to say.

The post-it wall in Pau’s installation is a reference to what came to be known as the ‘The Lennon Wall Hong Kong’ –  “The most-well designed protest in modern history”, according to Colette Gaiter, Associate Professor of Art at the University of Delaware, in an article in the Washington Post on the internet.

Pro-democracy demonstrators responded to the question “Why are you here?” by writing their answers on post it notes and sticking them to the wall of the Central Government Complex. A gallery reconstruction of the wall is found in the corridor between the two CFCCA gallery spaces. Viewers are invited to share their thoughts on the exhibition on post-its for display on the gallery wall. The consensus? “Quite aesthetic” but “way too deep.” “Too many screens on at the same time” making it “difficult to concentrate on one film”. “I will tell everyone about it.”

Daniel McMillan is an artist and writer based in Manchester.

Image courtesy CFCCA.

Both Sides Now: It was the Best of Times? It was the Worst of Times?, CFCCA, Manchester.

25 September – 6 December 2015.

Published 20.10.2015 by James Schofield in Reviews

938 words