What is art? This is a perennial question that has bothered critics, journalists and the public. Is it a public good? Does it make money or should it make money?
These are some of the questions explored by the new exhibition that has opened in the Whitworth Art Gallery as part of the Manchester International Festival (MIF) 2023.
Part exhibition of the visual arts, part exposition on the business of art, and part workshop on how art could be a business. The premise of the show is that art and economies are intertwined.
The exhibits within Economics the Blockbuster are art projects that operate as real-world economic systems. Some of these are more obvious, such as printmaking or the sale of garments with artistic content. Other exhibits question the limits of art and business, including a community business/art project that makes fruit and flower-based drinks gathered in Dagenham.
The theme of the show
The theme of the show is based on “Arte Útil” or, translated into English, ‘Useful Art’. This is a concept or possibly a movement that Alastair Hudson, until recently the Director of the Whitworth Gallery, has been interested in for a number of years and he was the instigator of the current exhibition.
Arte Útil can also be translated as art acting as a tool or instrument and one of the objectives of Arte Útil is to achieve socially beneficial outcomes through art. Another aspect of Arte Útil is the idea that art should not be an object of contemplation for a small societal elite, instead, it should provide a route to allow a more beneficial life for everyone. This matches with the stated aims and objectives of The Whitworth which states it aims to: use art for positive social change; learning together, through making and doing; creating a place of care, consideration and community.
The Whitworth is, of course, free to enter and the exhibition is also without an entry charge. One of the legacies of Alastair Hudson is the provision of an Arte Útil space in the Whitworth for the public to use and access. After Alastair Hudson’s sudden departure from Manchester, it has been left to a team led by Poppy Bowers, Interim Head of Exhibitions at the Whitworth, working with a range of collaborators at the Alliance Business School (University of Manchester), Liverpool John Moores University, Centre for Plausible Economies, Asociación de Arte Útil, and many others to develop what is on display.
In keeping with the MIF 23’s ethos, this is a new exhibition/installation building on the ideas of the collaborators and exhibitors of the show. The exhibition occupies the ground floor exhibition space in the Whitworth and there is an impressively varied, if somewhat eclectic, range of objects on display. The content can seem a little overwhelming, especially as the connection between the works on display by the different artists is a little abstract for the average visitor.
I had the advantage of seeing the exhibition on its opening night and so a number of the artists were present for discussion, which was interesting but left me wondering how others would approach the exhibition unguided.
There is a challenging piece from CATPC, “Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise” or Congolese Plantation Workers Art League. Based in Lusanga, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), they use proceeds from exhibitions in the developed world to purchase plantation land in the DRC, developed originally to provide export crops managed by multinationals, and repurpose it for local use for food production or even rewilding and reforestation.
A North West connection is that one of the plantation lands repurposed was part of Unilever’s original plantations in the DRC. They work closely with Renzo Martens, a Dutch artist who has worked in the DRC for a number of years. He is perhaps best known for a controversial film, Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, that asked the question of who owns poverty and whether it can be utilised as a natural resource.
The Dürer etching
The intrinsic value of a famous work of art is well known. What value is a copy? And can we appreciate it just as much?
One piece explores the reality of a physical art object through a Dürer etching in the Whitworth collection. Melencolia I is a well-known etching by Dürer. There are many copies in some of the most famous art museums in the world. Each copy is an individual print from an original copper plate produced in Dürer’s workshop in 1514. An etching such as this would fetch a high price in the art market.
This concept is subverted by Goldin+Senneby in the exhibition, using the Whitworth print, they have reverse-engineered a printing plate by using accurate quantitative imaging of the print and laser engraving a metal plate. This has then been used to print a limited edition of Melancholia II prints on 16th Century paper. As they state, this is Whitworth using its artistic capital as a way of generating a new market in the reproduction of Dürer prints.
Of course, one can already purchase a photolithographic reproduction of this print but Melancolia II is surely a recreation rather than a mere copy. There is an ironic point that is also being made here because Dürer was involved in a copying dispute with another printmaker, Marcantonio Raimondi, who in 1509 was accused by Dürer of making unauthorised copy prints of his work. In the days before a legal copyright, all he could achieve was forbidding Raimondi from including the AD mark on the copies.
Other highlights of the Economics of the Blockbuster include: Lumbung kios – taken from the Indonesian word for a small shop (or kiosk) – to demonstrate a collective mechanism for the creation, curation and dealing in art centred on the artist rather than collectors and galleries. It is also a mechanism or marketplace for artistic exchange. The Centre for Plausible Economics has a more polemic-driven installation as they try to bring together artistic imagination with economic thinking.
Also included is a community enterprise organisation, Company Drinks, that began as a community art project gathering flowers around Dagenham for conversion into floral flavoured drinks – on sale in the Whitworth shop.
This is an interesting and challenging exhibition and well worth a visit to the Whitworth Gallery that sits on Oxford Road where the University of Manchester buts against the Curry Mile. There is a parallel exhibition of Dürer prints in the Whitworth at the same time as the Economics of the Blockbuster and a visit to view both is recommended.
As a further twist, the Whitworth also recently had an exhibition of prints by Dürer’s foe, Raimondi.
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