Subversive Spaces Whitworth Art Gallery Manchester Februrary 7 to May 4
A characteristic new installation by Gregor Schneider has been commissioned as part of the 'Subversive Spaces' exhibition, submerged in darkness to one side of the main exhibition like a mad relative in the attic. In common with his Die Familie Schneider, 2004, (memorably represented by a film in the exhibition) Kinderzimmer is a solo experience, one person being admitted at a time. Schneider's extraordinary artistic practice might best be situated within the field of visual theatre, one in which you are the only actor. You find yourself left disconcertingly alone within a very large and utterly dark space. As you stumble forwards, you have faith in the unknown outcome of this journey, or at least in the belief that the Whitworth Art Gallery would not organise this at the expense of your physical well-being. Eventually you move towards a feeble light, which transpires to be a small window allowing you to see into an empty and blandly desolate room, inhabited only by a child-size mattress. You feel your way around the corner to another weak source of light, emerging through the cracks around a door that you open to enter an almost identical room, but uncannily not quite the same. They replicate two nursery rooms in the deserted north German town of Garzweiler, in the limbo before its wholesale demolition prior to reassignment as an open-cast mine.
Emboldened, you distinguish another source of light, from a hidden space in which images are projected of silent shuttered windows in Garzweiler, and intermittently a filmed tracking shot down the deserted but not yet ruinous main street of the small town, all its doors and windows blanked. Turning back to find the exit, the darkness becomes more impenetrable and disorienting. How can you get lost in a museum? I was reminded of the 19th-century author Adalbert Stifter's terrifying tale of two children lost overnight in a snowy nocturnal forest.
The frisson provided by Schneider's installation furnishes a destabilising addendum to the large 'Subversive Spaces' exhibition - curated by Anna Dezeuze, Samantha Lackey and David Lomas of Manchester University--which offers another journey, better signposted, through the equally disorienting territories of surrealist art and literature. In her catalogue essay, Lackey refers to 'Surrealism's intransigent refusal to quietly lie down and die', and posits that the now prevailing presence of installation art in our museums is one of the direct legacies of the interventionist strategies of the international surrealist exhibitions.
Without overdoing the effect, the exhibition space at the Whitworth has been atmospherically subdivided into a sequence of softly lit domestic-scale rooms and interlinking passages. It is a bifurcated exhibition, unfolding in two directions from a central spine: one half examining the theme of 'psychic interiors', the other 'wandering the city'. The interior part of the exhibition features themes of hysteria, 'menacing furniture', family secrets, sleepwalkers and the Freudian unheimlich. Here, iconic surrealist paintings by Giorgio de Chirico and Paul Delvaux accompany no less compelling historic works of modest scale, such as Dora Maar's striking oneiric photographs. There are also books and other printed matter in vitrines, intended to show what the surrealists looked at and read. These are shown alongside recent art works by the likes of Sarah Lucas (a sculpture she made for the Freud Museum) and Mona Hatoum, the intention being to present 'very important Surrealist works and very significant contemporary works, in conversation with each other'. Affinities are sought more than resemblances, and the fact that much of the contemporary work in the exhibition was developed without any direct reference to the history of Surrealism is openly acknowledged, though very little of it seems uncomfortable in this context. …