Exchanges are constant and timeless, happening all around us in all walks of life, but to what extent do we consciously bear witness to these silent happenings? An exchange, visible or invisible? Natural or artificial? Emotive, explicit, vernacular? This is exactly what the Whitworth conveys in Exchanges, a thoughtful and selective exposé of works across the artistic boundaries of three hundred years. The exhibition is unfaltering in delivering a plethora of both rare and everyday exchanges which so commonly pass us by with less than a glimmer of notice.
The artists displayed in the exhibition range not only in medium and style but also extensively in date. The exhibition space is mapped by the eighteenth-century work of William Hogarth in ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ (1732) to post-impressionist works such as Paul Cézanne’s lithographic proof of ‘The Bathers’ (1896-97), positioned thoughtfully next to the contemporaneous works by Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois of the twenty-first century. This eclectic selection and curation of such dynamic and varied pieces is engaging and should be thoroughly applauded. The style of curation compels the viewer to observe these works of art in conjunction to one another, including pieces from the institution’s permanent collections, allowing the works to be scrutinised in light less commonly attributed to them.
A photographic series by Gillian Wearing named ‘A Woman Called Theresa’ (1998) stood out as one of the most engaging and poignant pieces in the exhibition. This series exhibited a collection of intimate images of a woman named Theresa, befriended by Wearing and who later allowed her to photograph her relations with the various men in her life. These photographs were coupled with powerful and emotive statements below from the men featuring their thoughts of Theresa. These notes from her lovers, friends and convenient acquaintances articulate sentiments of hate, passion, concern, disdain and indifference towards a woman who has struggled with unemployment and alcoholism, struggling to exist within society’s structured expectations. When displayed next to Hogarth’s ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ a comparative perspective on the exchange of relations between men and women becomes apparent. The unkind and rejected existence of the harlot in Hogarth’s series exemplifies yet another figure who has been unable to exist within society’s expectations and whilst three hundred years apart, sits unsuspectingly close to Theresa.
Stephen Willats’ ‘In Relation to Another’ (2004) is a further piece in the exhibition that invites the viewer to understand the exchange of relations between public citizens through the subjective eye of an outsider. ‘In Relation to Another’ is closely reminiscent of the act of people watching, where one may decide on the status, fate and lives of those before us in silent, internal subjectivity, relevant solely to the viewer. The image shows exchanges as an almost algorithmic programme through a series of arrows that visualise and signify the sentiments presented in the nine photographs of different couples that circle a tower block. Willats’ work does not act as a definitive reference for the emotive exchanges he lists such as expectancy, harmony, uncertainty or guidance, but instead prompts the viewer to observe more closely their own perception of public exchanges that around them too, happen constantly.
The works in this exhibition signify a commentary on exchanges through their own interactions with each other in the exhibition space as much as the commentary they bare themselves on the various processes and examples of exchanges they present. The exhibition’s power is accessible in the viewers’ hindsight, where upon leaving the gallery one really does become conscious of the enormity of the exchange, allowing them to more visibly access and reflect upon the exchanges in their own lives.
Exchanges, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.
24 March 2018 – 24 April 2019.
Over the course of the next year some of the pieces on display in the exhibition will be exchanged for the Whitworth’s most recent acquisitions, activating new dialogues between the works displayed.
Miles Knapp is a writer based in Manchester with an interest in curation and art direction.