Hard though it is to credit, Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery is fast approaching its ruby anniversary. Such landmarks can often provide the pretext for cheap nostalgia, the reassuring equivalent of a clip show on BBC Four, but, true to its spirit, the Castlefield seems more minded to heed the story of Lot, and, in doing so, deftly avoid the petrification that comes of only looking backwards.
Curated by Thomas Dukes, in bringing the gallery’s records to light Archives at Play seeks not just to dust them off, but, like a Lazarus woken from cryogenic suspension, to give them a new lease of life in our present and, in doing so, keep one eye open towards the future.
The four artists who contribute to this group show engage in this collective reanimation in a variety of ways, although crucially their effectiveness is not wholly dependent on their brief. You do not need to know the theory to appreciate the practice, although the shift in perspective it allows can bring an extra resonance.
For instance, Dr Yan Wang Preston’s English Gardens, a series of elegantly composed monochrome prints depicting still lives of austerely beautiful flora, have a decorative appeal that immediately draws the eye. Being privy to the flowers’ lineage, however, allows appreciation to penetrate the surface. Knowing that many of the species were originally non-native to the UK, where once transplanted they were renamed and their original significance subsumed by the arrogant ‘verities’ of British culture, inevitably brings to mind parallels with colonialism. Still, the flowers’ persistence, their perennial blossoming, meanwhile quietly insists on the inevitable failure of colonisation. The very breadth of life blooms forth against the attempt to trample it into monotony.
There is more budding of a very physical kind in Gregory Herbert’s Entangled Ways Of Being, a witty extension of the gallery’s plumbing system. Redolent of primary school experiments in cultivation with blotting paper and cress, it seems to take a kind of naïve delight in subverting the background functionality of piping to make it visible as the source of irrigation for the lichen, moss and fungus that, if it had not been cultivated intentionally, might well have been treated as a less welcome guest.
Chester Tenneson’s contributions are twofold, although both equally informed from an outsider’s vantage point, wryly observing the unintended absurdities of institutions with a fixed and narrow definition of what’s normal and, by extension, desirable. His sculptural works take an absurdist delight in confounding expectations; despite being marshalled protectively inside a pool triangle, a clutch of eggs seem all the more fragile for being in the dead centre of a trampoline. Alongside these, a series of painted boards, placard-like, declaim the sometimes empty phraseology of catalogue language, making visible the clichés which might otherwise pass subliminally by.
The last piece, geographically speaking, within the Castlefield’s topography is by Kelly Jayne Jones. Pulling aside its curtain to enter, there’s a sense of passing into a quieter, twilit space, adrift from the frenetic anxiety of the lull in Covid and the barbarity in Ukraine. Apparently assembled from detritus accumulated by the gallery across the decades, it makes of them a place of simultaneity that could be both no time and every time. A projected circle shifts from being lunar to symbolic, a backdrop of sounds at times coalesces into slowed human speech, a sculpture evokes both de Chirico and an unfinished game of Hangman. Its achievement is that this apparent superfluity never feels too much.
Perhaps more explicitly than its companion pieces, Jones’s work, with its tableaux of divination, suggests that the future is something that needs to be actively envisaged in order for it to manifest. It is exactly such creative thinking that has been at the root of Castlefield Gallery’s 37 years. All the signs are that it will continue to grow, root and branch, shifting with and informing the times, reaching upward and outward for whatever comes next.
Main image: Chester Tenneson The Beat Goes On 2022, Archives at Play, Castlefield Gallery, March 2022 © Rob Battersby.
Archives at Play is at Castlefield Gallery until April 24, 2022. For more information, visit the website.