What’s new at the Whitworth: Bedwyr Williams & the return of Cornelia Parker

Polly Checkland Harding
Photo of a bridge, artificial peach trees and calligraphy papers

There are artificial peach blossom trees, a 12 metre-long embroidery and a home observatory in the Whitworth’s latest exhibitions.

After the fanfare of the Whitworth’s reopening, and the gravitas surrounding the arrival of the M+ Sigg Collection, the next exhibitions at the gallery have opened relatively unannounced. There’s no reason for them not to be celebrated, though: Bedwyr Williams has taken over half of the upper gallery with The Starry Messenger, a series of cosmic, semi-surreal installations that premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2013, while Cornelia Parker (whose stunning opening show was seen by 100,000 visitors to the gallery in six weeks) presents an extraordinary interpretation of the Magna Carta on its 800th anniversary. Not to mention the serenely beautiful – but secretly provocative – new addition to the M+ Sigg Collection in the Whitworth’s landscape gallery.

Photo of a bridge, artificial peach trees and calligraphy papers

The installation is in keeping with the calm beauty of Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder drawing Unmanned Nature, and Double Grey by Gerhard Richter, both of which preceded it. But though the wooden bridge, artificial flowering trees and stalagmite-like wax sculptures that together make up Calligraphy Peach Blossom Garden by the Yangjiang Group appear tranquil, the balled sheets of calligraphy that fidget strangely as something moves unseen beneath them are actually a way of subverting the tradition and discipline associated with the art form. They are brought to life through movement, and because the installation is a three dimensional representation of the text painted on them.

Still from art video The Starry Messenger

Upstairs, there’s a very different atmosphere in Bedwyr Williams’ The Starry Messenger (8 Aug – 10 Jan 2016), where you’re met with a home observatory that looks like something out of Star Wars. The door is tauntingly ajar, but will open no further, though the sounds of a weeping amateur astronomer echo in the fully decorated interior. In the gloom of the next room is a giant Scandinavian-style coffee table, twice the height of a person, its glass table top dotted with objects that cast shadows beneath. Williams plays with scale throughout, looming what look like coloured space rocks over his viewers’ heads, before plunging them into the minutiae of a mosaic factory in the film that plays on a loop on one wall. It’s all brilliantly weird and funny, unnerving at points whilst also being thoughtful.

Photo of part of Cornelia Parker's Magna Carta tapestry

Next door is Magna Carta by Cornelia Parker (8 Aug – 1 Nov), a tapestry replication of the entire Wikipedia entry on Magna Carta as it appeared on the document’s 799th anniversary. Completed in 87 separate sections, stitched by more than 200 people – the majority of whom are prisoners, but which include Antony Gormley, Germaine Greer, Caroline Lucas MP and Caitlin Moran – the embroidery was eventually sewn together by the Embroidery Studio at the Royal School of Needlework, and is over 12 metres long. It’s also incredibly detailed, a modern, linguistic reinvention of the Bayeux Tapestry that’s conscious of its own tenuous relation to history. Magna Cara – only previously on show at the British Library – completes a suite of new work that demonstrates the evolving ambitions of the gallery.

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