‘The group show concerns the perfect balancing act we all aim to achieve in life’ reads the press release for Tipping the Scales at Paradise Works, Salford. And in this quest for balance, Kieran Leach and Precious Innes’s curatorial team name show.me.up could be taken in the context of the exhibition, both in the sense of the put-down, humiliation, and the plea: show me which way is up. Out of the eleven works on show, ‘the balancing act’ is a motif most literally figured in Sam Porritt’s ‘Muscle Memory’ (2017), in which a clay snake scales a set of stairs. As the show self-professedly attempts to expose the ‘coping mechanisms’ we use to deal with ‘unstable existence’, the stairs transform to a descending escalator in the mind, and the snake undulates: forever toiling, but ultimately stationary.
There is a similar meagreness to Corey Bartle-Sanderson’s ‘Do you come here often?’ (2018). In his sculpture two smiley-faces on stilts face each other, one drinking through a straw. There is a knowing pathos at work in the imagery, installed as it is in Manchester, the home of The Haçienda. He redresses the legacy of the smiley-face from Factory to cafeteria, from acid-house to home-comfort, from MD to HP — mourn-laughing at the loss.
To write about an exhibition which claims in its press release that ‘the use of humour runs throughout’ is a difficult exercise. It is difficult because to receive forewarning of a sense of humour is to smash it in the guts till flaccid. Here’s a good one says the loquacious taxi-driver. Want to hear something funny says the man before the botched punchline. GSOH writes the tooth-sucking straw-clutcher on PlentyOfFish. E. B. White wrote the well-known warning: ‘Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind’; because what is funny is subjective, ineffable, strange — not black-and-white.
Sara Procter’s video work ‘Hyslop Office Supplies’ (2017) is funny, and black-and-white; penguins inhabit an office-space resembling the beige-grey box of Gervais and Merchant’s eponymous mockumentary. (Procter is developing a penchant for monochrome protagonists — as evidenced in her excellent 2016 work ‘The Pandrix’). The storyline is simple: the penguins are ejected from their workaday lifestyle by mechanisation, and handed their redundancy packages by a big fluffy petulant chick. In their sadness they turn to booze. They turn to revenge. Procter’s mise-en-scène is meticulous. The huddle (socialist) mentality of the colony is crystallised into glimpses of The Communist Manifesto (1848) — and, of course, in a flash of great wit, it is the Penguin Little Black Classics edition (2015) of Marx and Engel’s text which lingers in the shot.
All considered, there is just more to Sara Procter’s keen eye in the show at Paradise Works. While attacking the technocratic overhaul of retail, she manages also to satirise conventional modes of attack: the awkward articulation of the penguin puppets as they clasp whisky bottles is not the only level of ventriloquism in the video. The manipulative formulas of the (now quaint) medium of the sitcom are pulled into exposed puppet-strings, which draw-up orchestrated, but tragic, canned laughter. And in a similar way, the portrayal of computer-hacking in action films — as a drum-and-bass-fuelled anarchist stupor — becomes a role of greasy thumbs, nugget-crumbs, and futility.
Lonely, pissed, and flightless. Huddled against a cutting blizzard.
Coping mechanisms are all that is left.
An endless staircase ad absurdiam.
Tipping the Scales, Paradise Works, Salford.
3 – 31 March 2018.
Jordan Harrison-Twist is a writer and designer based in Manchester.