Jo Lathwood’s Making Up is less an exhibition of works and more an active and developing idea. On my first visit, the day of the press view, it was a process on the brink of beginning. By my second visit, at the halfway point of the show, it is already something very different: a site-specific sculptural installation that urges viewers to consider the project’s themes of non-linear progress, circularity, dead ends and returns, repurposing and disintegration, and labour as it materialises.
For the first two weeks of the show, Lathwood inhabited The Lowry’s workshop and gallery spaces working with salvaged wood – largely reclaimed from the pallets on which theatre sets reached the venue in preceding months. Over the course of those two weeks, she puzzled together the odds and ends of her gathered material to create a raised walkway, which grew in the gallery space as each working day passed. Viewers were able to watch this labour on a huge wall projection of footage live-streamed from the basement workshops, and after an event marking the mid-way point of the exhibition, they are also able to ascend the slight incline at the start of the platform and make their way around the room on the walkway. At its end, the path loops back around in a circle, in the centre of which is a rotating platform. Viewers reach a dead end, are gently turned around and, if they are not trapped spinning in the centre of the circle, sent back the way they came.
On my first visit this room was lit green – go, recycle, grow – and there were stencils for lettering laid out on the floor. By the mid-way point, a large green and yellow message is painted (using The Lowry’s leftover paint) onto the white walls: ‘we are all in a cycle’, which I can’t help but wish were more of a syntactically cyclical phrase in itself. Lathwood has borrowed the sort-of-recognisable typeface used in Veolia’s logo – one of the UK’s largest waste management companies. I doubt the reference would have landed with me if it hadn’t been pointed out, but it’s another iteration of the reclamation and repurposing at work through the project. The text wraps around the gallery space, smaller and larger in places, manifesting a concealed quirk: when standing on the rotating platform and recording on your phone, the text moves across the centre of the screen at an even size. Lathwood achieved this effect by using outdated technology: an overhead projector on the same rotating platform created the variously sized lettering by throwing the light across longer or shorter distances. The repurposing of this old tech, which can only really be perceived equivalently by using new tech, is a lovely manifestation of Lathwood’s concern for non-linear development, and applies this to technological development, reflecting how quickly and unquestioningly we replace our daily tools, and what our relationships are to redundancy and usefulness.
After a brief pause in the exhibition’s labour, during which time the platform will remain open to visitors, Lathwood will return to the galleries and workshops to dismantle the installation and turn the timber into small wooden crates to be given away. With that, the neat circular system of Making Up will close. It’s a relatively simple idea which can spark an abundance of conversations – indeed the panel discussion for Opening Up, in which Lathwood spoke with Lydia Fairhurst Marshall from Groundwork, a local charity working for environmental and social justice, and Karl Astbury from the Resilient Cities Network where he works with communities across Greater Manchester, was a wide-ranging conversation. It touched on individual and collective climate actions, the disempowerment that can occur through the language used in climate discourse, how calls to action such as ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle’ are sidelined or valorised by the progress ideology of capitalism and just how much of a carbon imprint digital documentation generates. This latter point is of particular interest for Making Up – where, really, there’s going to be no stuff left at the end. There will be no saleable objects, but not quite achieving the directive of the mantra to ‘leave no trace’ – for there will be digital photography, legacy documents for the gallery and artist’s posterity, reviews like this one. It’s at moments like this that I think Making Up does its best work – not offering answers but steering viewers towards tricky questions they might not have grappled with before. Elsewhere it can feel a little didactic, especially in the second gallery space which recreates part of Lathwood’s studio and preliminary research for the project. Books, printouts and a video work, ‘Travel Plans’ (2024), outline the historical research into the local area that Lathwood undertook. The boxes, for example, are a nod to the docks that The Lowry is sited on, no longer working due to containerisation – the system of freight transportation that provided the ability to move more goods at once, on ships which were too big for the Manchester ship canal. Similarly, the garment makers of local industrial era history, known as ‘makers up’, are alluded to in the project’s title.
I feel ambivalent about the presentation of this research. In one sense, the project doesn’t really need to be contextualised in this way. The artwork is at once the idea to create and dismantle an installation in a sustainable closed circuit, and the enactment of the labour that makes it happen. It’s a brilliant piece of work that can spark questions and conversations in itself, and doesn’t really need historically contextualising to enable viewers to engage with its politics. But for The Lowry’s audiences is it enough to simply watch an artist build, install and deinstall a piece? In another sense, a project like this really does need to be contextualised. The presentation of studio research creates multiple entry points for thinking about this research-led, concept-driven kind of art. Indeed, Making Up feels like a turning point for The Lowry, marking the start of Zoe Watson’s programming after taking on the role of contemporary art curator in 2022. What Watson and Lathwood have achieved here is a generous and elegant offering of conceptual artwork that invites engagement at all levels. Not only a difficult thing to achieve, but politically invaluable at a time when Manchester’s creative audiences are repeatedly being told that they don’t want the same kinds of art as London audiences and other arts venues in the city have multiple question marks hanging over them. Set against Greater Manchester’s contemporary cultural context then, Making Up is exactly the sort of art our city needs right now. It was a full house of all ages on the Saturday afternoon of Opening Up, which suggests to me that what our cultural audiences actually want is to participate in these political conversations. For a city like ours, which has made and remade itself time and again and where local conversations about heritage and sustainability are often lost in the push for ever-more (upwards) development, Lathwood’s installation offers a moment to slow down and really consider the systems we’re part of and how they might be ethically and ecologically improved.
Jo Lathwood: Making Up, The Lowry, 20 January – 3 March 2024.
Jazmine Linklater is a poet and writer based in Manchester.
This review is supported by The Lowry.