Anguish and Enthusiasm: Manchester Cornerhouse’s ‘unapologetic’ exhibition on revolution aftermath

By Reece Lawrence

With more parts of the world engulfed in revolution than ever, depicting the moment and the aftermath has never been more important, and Manchester Cornerhouse is the latest to visually represent the turmoil and beauty of upheaval.

Global events are today captured more than ever through media – and a good time for Cornerhouse’s revolutionary (in every sense of the word) exhibition, Anguish and Enthusiasm.

Off the back of the Arab Spring, the display combines a range of media in a compelling and thought-provoking journey through changes in society in the last two centuries.

A concoction of films (both long and short), paintings and drawings, is spread out over three galleries and is something of an eye-opening experience.

Cornerhouse’s Director of Programme and Engagement, Sarah Perks, described how the process of bringing the display to life began.

“We’ve been doing over the last five years a series of issues looking at international socio-political concern, particularly conflict,” she said.

“It is an increasingly pertinent question with a lot going on in the Middle East and North Africa and artists and filmmakers struggling to deal with it.”

After discussions about the issue it was decided to see what relevant work on the topic was being done that could be grouped together.

“We wanted to look back,” Sarah explained. “We thought quite a bit about the Russian revolution in 1917 and got inspired by Russian writer Victor Serge.”

Serge’s writings provided not just the title of the exhibition but infused into it a wider sense of how society functions following major changes.

She said: “If someone wants to topple a government then everyone comes together to topple them, but then everyone remembers they came in for a strategic alliance, and the different groups start to fight each other.”

Nowhere is the aftermath of a revolution more profound than in one of the four new commissions specifically for Anguish and Enthusiasm – the installation known as Gag.

Developed by artist Sarah Pierce, it is an arrangement of the leftover debris from creating the exhibition – giving the impression of a ‘mess’.

“That’s what you are faced with afterwards,” added Cornerhouse’s co-curator.

“It’s not clean, it’s not easy and no one really knows what’s going to happen afterwards or how long it will take.”

Of the new commissions, Sarah is particularly proud of what she feels are ‘special’ pieces, believing it always to be a real honour to be able to commission artists on specific themes.

Much research went into getting the most out of the notion of revolution, including an exploration of such issues in Havana last year.

Sarah said: “We were asking some people how they felt after the Cuban revolution, and they would reply, ‘hang on, it’s not finished – we’re still in the revolution’.

“We also thought about Black Panthers in America and how women have gone through various revolutions.”

The death of a young black man, Oscar Grant, in a bungled police shooting in Oakland in 2009 was another incident that encouraged a new commission – a replica of a street mural of Grant.

Sarah explained that the large painting, located outside Cornerhouse’s cinema, highlights the struggle still taking place for young black people in America.

She revealed the mural itself has had good feedback from the public.

“I like the way some people look quite personally at these issues and some look a bit more distant and use references and have a detached way of looking at it,” she added.

In all, there are 13 pieces scattered around the exhibition, portraying contrasting representations.

These include French Impressionism, African struggles, and the long-term effects of the Cultural Revolution in China – though Sarah argued parallel themes emerged throughout.

Sarah said: “This kind of exhibition is one where we set out wanting people to think and work a little bit harder, but not for it to be immediately obvious – that doesn’t mean inaccessible by any stretch.

“A common reaction for people is one of needing to come back and spend a bit more time looking at Anguish and Enthusiasm and to not be apologetic about it – there’s a lot of work in it.

“We don’t want to tell people what to think either.”

Anguish and Enthusiam is running until August 18 and is free to visit.

Image courtesy of Cornerhouse Manchester via YouTube, with thanks 

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