By Gemma Burns, MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies 2019-20
On Thursday 24th October 2019, The Whitworth previewed Elizabeth Price’s ‘A Long Memory.’ The exhibition presents a selection of video works alongside archive material and works on paper by the Bradford-born, Luton-raised artist. Although Price has curated work at the Whitworth before, this is the largest show of her video works and serves as a reflective overview of her oeuvre so far. This exhibition continues The Whitworth’s commitment to supporting contemporary video work, with Steve McQueen’s Ashes (2002-2015) shown in the gallery in 2017-2018.
‘A Long Memory’ is a culmination of seemingly disparate material that Price weaves together through film to explore what connections can be found between the human and the technological. Recent socio-political histories are used as a springboard in Price’s work to highlight the intersection of these themes. Price is fascinated by the collective memory of the pre-information age moment, and how this can be explored through contemporary video art. Alastair Hudson, director of The Whitworth, discussed his own participation in the collective memory of Price’s work in his opening speech, reminiscing on the closing of the mines and the rise of digital technology. He described the resonances found in the video works as ‘our past’, although I have to admit, as a late millennial, it is a past that I personally don’t recall well. Nevertheless, Price’s works do formulate an eerie, disconnected nostalgia that is defined in the exhibition as ‘…a fictional past, an imagined future and a parallel present’.
Price received the coveted Turner Prize in 2012 for her video work The Woolworths Choir of 1979, which is shown for the first time in the city for this exhibition. The work presents filmic splicings of the fatal furniture store blaze that occurred in Manchester with jump-cut imagery, set to a music performance of the 1960s. Price describes the work as a ‘story that belongs to the city’ with the narratives in the work culminating on its eventual return.
Both definitions of the word ‘cache’, as a term in computing, but also its general meaning as a hidden store or repository for a collection, are relevant in Price’s digital work and in her excavations of archives. Specifically of note is the Albert Walker archive; Albert Walker was a miner made redundant by the Conservative government in the mid-1980s who later pursued photography. His photographic archive serves as a memorial to coalmining in Britain, which Price herself excavates and places at the heart of the exhibition.
The wings of The Whitworth’s Central Gallery are transformed into multisensory spaces. The sophisticated films are played in well-designed, medium-specific environments, prompting total presence in the viewer through cinematic immersion. This is further enhanced by the dark spaces which render the viewers anonymous, removing the self-conscious experience of the gallery space. However, this exhibition is not for all audiences, as the loud, immersive environments could induce a sensory overload that some viewers may find uncomfortable.
Overall, the exhibition presents a spectacle of virtual and physical imagery which promotes the formulation of evocative narratives in the imagination of its audience.