Manchester art commission inspired by French philosopher proves a hit with children

By David Keyworth

Next year’s Cultural Olympiad could feature an installation inspired by the works of an Eighteenth century Utopian Socialist, currently on show at a Manchester’s gallery.

‘Ode to Charles Fourier, Towards a Phalanstery for Manchester’ by Nils Norman has been commissioned by the Cube Gallery, on Portland Street.

The main exhibit is a ‘walk and crawl-through climbable sculpture’. It is a work- station divided into three key areas – safe play, standard play and risky play. It includes a trampoline, a tunnel and a mushroom log.

Jane Anderson has been the Creative Director of Cube for five years.  She says: “We’ve been interested in working with Nils Norman for a long time.  This is the end of a two year conversation with him.”

She explains that the aim is to adapt and make the sculpture safe and for outdoor use in Manchester city centre. 

The theme of the North West’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad is ‘We Play’. The exhibit has proved very popular with children. Fourier is likely to have been pleased by this as he believed children were naturally industrious.

A by-product of this month’s Manchester International Festival, Jane says, is a boost in families visiting the gallery.

Nils Norman’s exhibition also includes a grid or timetable which might be suitable for a community occupying one of the Phalanstries which Fourier envisioned. 

The grid subdivides the day into a number of activities such as fruit growing, apple picking, water filtration, play design and brainstorming.  Participants would rise at 3.30am and go to bed at 10.30pm.

Professor Andrew Vincent is the author of Modern Political Ideologies (Blackwell-Wiley 2009).  He explains that Fourier, born in 1772, believed in a society where work would become an aesthetic and sensual pleasure. No roles or tasks would be fixed and production would be for basic well-made goods to satisfy human needs.

Professor Vincent adds: “Perhaps after 2008 we could relearn, once again, something of Fourier’s deep skepticism about liberal market capitalism”.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Nils Norman presents a floorplan for ‘The Manchester Creative Industry Phalanstery’. Its West Wing would be for ‘noisy workshops, whilst its East Wing would include yoga and pilates, amongst other stimulating activities.

There is also a redesign of the Brooklyn apartment where the artist lived for most of the 1990s into a museum.  It features a Marx library, Einstein Tower and Cabaret Voltaire virtual reality ride, amongst other attractions.

The Cube Gallery is the Centre for the Urban Built Environment.  Its core costs are paid by the University of Salford.  Cube recently received £50,000 from the Arts Council’s lottery funded Grants for Arts scheme, part of which has enabled it to work with Nils Norman.

Nils Norman was born in Kent in 1966. His work has been exhibited across the world including London, New York, Switzerland and Denmark. He was featured in the British Art Show five years ago. He works across the disciplines of public art, architecture and urban planning.  He is currently developing two small-scale urban farming parks in The Hague, Netherlands.

Nils Norman: ‘Ode to Charles Fourier: towards a Phalanstery for Manchester’ is at Cube until 20th August.

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