Drawing outside the lines

Ben Luke

Snow Mirror

Ben Luke gets a first look at Asia Triennial Manchester 2011 and the Whitworth’s Dark Matters, two exhibitions in which art does no less than transcend borders and conquer time.

The Chinese-American curator Hou Hanru recently estimated that there are 300 biennial and triennial exhibitions of contemporary art across the world. The North West has long been home to one of the most enduringly interesting, the Liverpool Biennial, and in 2008, an intriguing new addition emerged – the Asia Triennial Manchester (ATM).

This autumn’s second ATM will include some of Asia’s most prominent artists, including Pakistani multimedia artist Rashid Rana, and Indian painter N S Harsha, while casting its net far beyond established Asian cultural hubs. With an overarching theme of time and generation, one of its key aims is to challenge “stereotypical viewpoints” of art in the region, says Alnoor Mitha, director of Shisha, the Northern Quarter-based agency that runs the festival.

The presence of Enkhbold Togmidshiirev, a Mongolian artist, emphasises this broader approach. “He comes from a nomadic family which has been breeding horses for generations,” Mitha says. For this performance piece he will live in a Mongolian ger, reflecting his spiritual identity and the heritage of his people’s nomadic lifestyle. It was only after commissioning Togmidshiirev’s work that Mitha learned that Manchester has one of the UK’s largest Mongolian populations.

Reaching out to these communities is a key element of the triennial’s ethos. Rana is among Pakistan’s most prominent artists, and his Cornerhouse show will feature works such as Desperately Seeking Paradise (2007–08), a huge cubic structure, with a “skin” featuring a photographic image of Rana’s home city, Lahore. Close up, the image’s pixels are revealed as tiny photographs of everyday life in the city. Rana’s exhibition will subvert the popular media’s take on Pakistan.

This search for a deeper understanding is built into ATM’s very foundations. Mitha has instigated a programme which allows curators from each of the triennial’s venues to travel to locations across Asia and work with artists, with the idea of ensuring that Manchester’s – and indeed the UK’s – engagement with Asian art is sustained beyond the two-month festival.

Two works included in ATM11 are also among the highlights of an atmospheric exhibition at Whitworth Art Gallery. A new work combining performance and projection by Ja-Young Ku, and Hiraki Sawa’s hauntingly beautiful animation Did I? (2011) are part of Dark Matters, which presents a range of artists’ responses to the idea of shadows. The show’s theme took its cue from Henry Fox Talbot, pioneer of photography, who said of his discoveries: “The most transitory of things, a shadow, the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary… may be fixed for ever in the position which it seemed only destined for a single instant to occupy.”

Ten artists feature, among them Daniel Rozin, who creates mirrors from unreflective surfaces through technical trickery. His Peg Mirror (2007) is a circle formed from wooden pegs, which tilt and shift as the viewer approaches, apparently miraculously reflecting their image. “He is using wood to produce what is essentially a digital object,” Helen Stalker, exhibition curator says. “He captures the visitor on camera, and then through digital analogue and computer programming, that visitor is transported as a kind of shadow onto the surface.”

Meanwhile, British artist Barnaby Hosking is creating a new work, Black Flood. “A turbulent rising flood will surround the visitor,” Stalker explains, “digital animations are projected onto great swathes of thick, jet black carpet which will engulf the space – it’s very dramatic.”

Such theatricality inevitably recalls spectacular entertainments through history. “It goes back to the first shadowy trickery, shadow puppetry and magic lanterns,” Stalker says, “that idea of being able to capture time, to capture the spirit, and to project it as this idea of wonderment and bedazzlement in the dark.”

Asia Triennial Manchester, 1 October – 27 November, venues across Greater Manchester & Cheshire; visit asiatriennialmanchester.com for details.

Dark Matters, 24 September – 15 January 2012, Whitworth Art Gallery, Oxford Road, M15 6ER. whitworth.manchester.ac.uk

Images: Top: Snow Mirror, 2006. Photo by John Berens. Image courtesy bitforms gallery nyc; Middle: Rashid Rana, 1 Plastic Floweres in a Traditional Vase, 2007

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