The scaffolding is up and building work is about to commence around Manchester’s Holden Gallery – and yet while the construction work will, no doubt, be assimilated quickly into the everyday bustle of life on Oxford Road, the gallery’s current exhibition, Material Remains, compels us to stop and pay closer attention to just such processes of construction, maintenance and demolition.
Material Remains draws together recent works by Lara Almarcegui, Becky Beasley, Derek Brunen, Cyprien Gaillard, and Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs: their pieces (photographs, videos, drawings, text-works) call on us to examine not only the changing states of things, but also how we, as viewers, react to, and pass judgement upon, such changes. They explore the intersections of production and ruination, and echo Robert Smithson’s observation that decay can cause built forms to appear as ‘ruins in reverse’. Although the exhibition features aspects of the post-industrial landscapes that fascinated Smithson, from abandoned buildings and dismantled artefacts to heaps of earth, what particularly distinguishes these works is the artists’ apparent preoccupation with the notion that artistic production is itself a kind of ruin.
Derek Brunen’s ‘Plot’ (2007) inverts the Romantic desire for expression through material form, and proposes instead disappearance as a mode of artistic production. Throughout this six hour fifteen minute film, the figure of the artist is realised as a sweating manual labourer, digging his own grave, in a gesture, perhaps, towards Keith Arnatt’s ‘Self-Burial’ (1969).
Collaborators Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs present the testimony of the photographic object in a state of ruin. Their photographs of abandoned construction projects are interrupted by miniature scaffolds placed in front of the camera; scaffolds that converge, in the image, with the forms of the buildings themselves. This trick of superimposition is not obscured; it is immediately visible and thus draws emphasis to the illusion of depth of field in photographs – the testimony of which, nonetheless, we are typically inclined to trust.
In her film ‘A Man Restored a Broken Work’ (2015), Becky Beasley meditates on restoration as a supplement of artistic production. The film documents the repair of one of her early sculptural works, a wooden box that mimics the dimensions of a shoebox found by the artist. The repairer examines the parts and progressively reassembles them, though we never see this work culminate in a finished form. By using film to reflect on the precarious existence of sculptural objects, Beasley emphasises how any artwork’s finished form is only a provisional state; restoration allows artistic statements to endure.
By-products of urban development are the material of Lara Almarcegui’s work. Her current installation at the Venice Biennale arranges rubble, concrete and industrial waste from locations around that city into enormous piles that challenge the scale of the Spanish Pavilion. Here in the Holden Gallery, Almarcegui addresses us through a large-scale text work that extends, via an armature, into the floor space of the gallery. The work is a list of materials related to urban development in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The quantities are enormous, and within her practice Almarcegui seems to act as a cipher, giving presence to the almost ungraspable processes of global development that are currently re-shaping modernity.
The exhibition as a whole reflects upon the material forms through which artistic intentions are structured and artworks realised. The works in Material Remains emphasise how artworks both rest on convention and depend upon conservation, as well as showing how all acts of production have their eventual non-existence pre-figured in their forms.
Material Remains, Holden Gallery, Manchester.
23 October – 15 December 2017.
Andy Broadey is an artist based in Manchester and lecturer in Contemporary Art, History and Theory at the University of Central Lancashire.