Contemporary art review: Rosa Barba at Cornerhouse

Kate Feld
Rosa Barba Subconscious Society (2013) [Manchester]

Rosa Barba uses Manchester’s derelict Albert Hall as the backdrop to her new film – but is it a case of architecture over art?

Pity the poor projector. In most art installations it is hidden away, seamlessly enveloped in the bare black box that’s become compulsory for the showing of films in galleries. Almost always these days it’s a silent digital model, illuminating art that never existed in analogue form. Not so at the Italian-German artist Rosa Barba’s exhibition at Cornerhouse, where the humble projector finally gets its moment in the spotlight. Here the galleries are noisy with that evocative clack and thrum, as impressive specimens of varying sizes and vintages are thrust into prominence, but somehow manage not to completely overshadow the art.

An exhibition that celebrates film is a fitting show for Cornerhouse, which, lest we forget, most people in Manchester think of first as a cinema. Like FILM, Tacita Dean’s 2011 installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, this is part artwork, part elegy to a dying medium; Subconscious Society, Barba’s main installation, was shot on some of the last remaining reels of Fuji 35mm film in the world. The project is collaboration between Cornerhouse and Margate’s Turner Contemporary, where a complementary Barba film is now showing; the two films will ultimately be merged into one.

The 12-minute film made in Manchester employs as talent familiar faces from the city’s art scene. But the star of this show is the location: the Albert Hall, a stunning Methodist meeting hall that sat pretty much undisturbed in its roost above Brannigans on Peter Street for decades. Now, it’s in the process of being done up as what promises to be one of the city’s most spectacular music halls by the owners of the ever-expanding Trof empire (look at Gorilla as an example of how they can turn a place around). But captured here in a derelict state, before the decorators have transformed it into a retro-chic hipster playground, its grandiose decay forms a scene-stealing backdrop to what was, for me, a rather unsatisfying film.

The grandiose decay of the Albert Hall forms a scene-stealing backdrop to Barba’s film

Gnomic aphorisms about the state of contemporary society accompanied by distorted overlapping projections are followed by some bewildering events inside the hall. A group of people perform a disjointed succession of actions – walking in lines, staring expressionlessly in ranks, pretending to play the pipe organ, conferring excitedly over papers, and enacting an unconvincing sort of auction – while on the audio track people talk about the space in a sort of fragmented narrative.

It’s all clearly meant to be freighted with symbolism. Checking the gallery’s description, I see that this is intended to make a point about the transition to the digital age and the obsolescence of analogue technology. But I’m not big on art where you need an instruction manual to figure out what the hell is going on. It’s just one of those things lots of other people seem to like but I don’t care for, like Bourbon biscuits or squashy-faced dogs. But you may well feel differently, so by all means go along and see what you think.

Gallery 2 is taken up by two older projected works from Barba, Coro Spezzato: The Future Lasts One Day, and Time Machine, which both display the preoccupation with text that has been a hallmark of Barba’s work. In Gallery 1 the group exhibition Four features works from four artists specially commissioned by Cornerhouse (until 24 Feb only). Highlights include Nicola Ellis’ quietly powerful sculpture Perago and, best of all, Liz West’s intriguingly altered wardrobe, The predicament of in here and out there. Peer through the crack between the doors and you see your own perfectly framed eye staring back at you, surrounded by a seemingly infinite series of reflections and refractions that is actually a new video work. No fauns or talking lions in here, but plenty of magic.

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