If you’ve been into Selfridges in the past three weeks you’ll have seen Genesis; Jacob Epstein’s large, bold, controversial sculpture of a naked, heavily pregnant woman. With her African mouth, Asian eyes, prominent breasts and swollen stomach she fills the department store’s main entrance and is the pièce de résistance of the Whitworth Art Gallery’s latest display; Pop-up Whitworth.
It’s taken me a while to get my head around this. Selfridges doesn’t seem like the obvious home for the Whitworth’s collection. I love the idea of the collection ‘popping up’ (while the gallery is closed for redevelopment) in unexpected locations, sparking off new interpretations and reaching new audiences, but why choose this palace of high-end consumerism?
Collaborations between art and retail are not unheard of. Apparently the V&A has had exhibitions with Habitat, Burberry and Harrods. The Louvre, of course, has an entrance in a shopping mall. Such ventures can reinforce anxieties about dumbing down and blurring boundaries; about cultural institutions pandering to an audience that is no longer able to appreciate a uniquely aesthetic experience, but consumes culture in the same way it consumes high street fashion – driven by desire, scanning the horizon for the next aesthetic fix, in an attempt to fill the void in our fragmentary postmodern lives.
But there is another way of seeing it. In Having One’s Tate Nick Prior describes the most successful twenty-first century museums as ‘reflexive allotropes’. ‘Reflexive’ meaning responsive and self-aware, and ‘allotrope’ meaning something that is capable of existing in two or more different forms. Art galleries don’t have to respond to our hyper-modern culture by either becoming populist, disneyfied distraction machines or by retreating into elitist narratives of high culture. They can do/be both. And everything in between.
Having spent some time working at the Whitworth I know how good they are at being many things to many people. Academics, students, families, toddlers, home schoolers, asylum seekers, teachers, hospital patients; they all think of the Whitworth as their own. The gallery redevelopment is driven by the need to provide space for this increasingly diverse audience.
The Selfridges venture provides a way in for a new audience. This might be well-off professionals who are never in the Oxford Rd area, but might be inclined to go there for an After Hours event. It might be non-residents who visit Manchester for the shopping but don’t know about the city’s cultural attractions. And this allows the Whitworth to show its glamorous side, to borrow a bit of glitter and glitz. It turns out a Picasso print looks surprisingly good next to a Gucci handbag…
That last comment is a bit flippant; it is more complicated than this. Looking at the vulnerable little female figure in one of Tracy Emin’s monoprints, alongside eye-wateringly expensive clutch bags, is a complex and contradictory experience that deserves a bit of time and reflection. I suppose my uncertainty about this exhibition comes from knowing that, if I was in shopping mode, I wouldn’t be stopping to spare this time, in fact I’d probably walk straight past the glass case which dissolves too easily into the visual noise of reflected lights and polished surfaces. I’m not certain the works on paper in this exhibition entirely work. Maybe they’re too small, too subtle; they don’t quite stand up to their new surroundings.
But happily, the same can’t be said about Genesis; she literally stops people in their tracks. Apparently she has elicited a huge range of reactions from passing shoppers; curiosity, enchantment, revulsion, excitement, bafflement… But whatever people think of her, the important thing is they think something – they are momentarily forced out of a consumer mindset into an aesthetic one: Who is she? What is she doing here? Why does she make me feel angry/happy/confused?
She carries the contradictions of her new setting well. In her nakedness, caressing her belly, back turned on all the material desires and exchanges of the store, she challenges those going inside to think about the things that are more important than shoes and handbags. But at the same time she basks in the spotlights and the glamour of her surroundings, her white skin echoing the white interior of the store. Dare I say it; she looks more at home here than she did in the gallery.
I think this is a fearless move by the Whitworth: Striking out into an arena of society that is, in many ways, anathema to what art galleries try to do; exposing some of the most important pieces of the collection to an alien context; creating an experience that is contradictory and perhaps not entirely successful… It shows just how confident and innovative the Whitworth is as a reflexive allotrope –able to embody both populism and elitism, challenging anyone and everyone to engage. I urge you to go and see Pop-up Whitworth before it vanishes on 14th February, leaving empty handbags and crumpled cashmeres in its wake.