There’s nothing quite like having an international festival on your doorstep to make you feel a bit of national importance.There’s even people up from London for Christ’s sake, people who’ve got on a train to get here and everything! It’s even more exciting when one of the major events is less than half a mile from your house, in an area of town where you usually spend a lot of time chewing on the end of a pencil and staring out of a café window while pretending to do some work.

Whitworth Art Gallery has seriously pushed out the metaphorical boat for the Manchester International Festival this year and it’s got very good reason – the gallery is shutting in September for the completion of the new wing. A good excuse to throw open its doors for the entire opening weekend of the festival and show off not only its new summer exhibitions and gems from its own collection but also its central MIF piece – a 65-hour performance from Nikhil Chopra, Coal On Cotton.

The Calcutta-born artist’s work often takes inspiration from the colonial relationship between England and India; this time his piece links Manchester’s wealth generated from the coal and cotton industries to its relationship with its immigrant workers. Beginning at 4.48am on Friday morning (sunrise), it ended on Sunday at 9.37pm (sundown).

Chopra’s mammoth performance is situated out the back of the gallery in a half built section of the new gallery space. Despite the low rumble of building work and the amount of media people with cameras and note books, inside it’s a strangely calming space. A canvas tent has been created from cream-hued cotton sheeting smeared with the dust and mud of the building toil going on outside. In the centre of the space is a low mattress on which, as I entered the room, was Chopra in character as a mill worker having a well-earned nap. Eventually he stretches languorously and begins to fiddle with some of his meagre belongings – to hand by the bed is water, a teapot, a little food and a mysterious bundle. Then, unexpectedly, he rises and casually leaves the room. There’s something strangely comedic about this action especially as the people observing take the opportunity to go and have a closer look at his belongings, too polite or scared to do it while he was there. Later I almost let out a squeak of delight when Chopra wanders past me in the gallery with a tiny cup in his hand, apparently on another excursion from his space.

Elsewhere in the gallery are two new exhibitions. Idle Thoughts by locally based Czech artist Pavel Büchler displays pages of his diary overwritten so many times they form a pattern rather than words. It’s an interesting idea, perhaps more interesting in theory than practice, though the ‘blank’ pages showing the indentation of the words have a pleasingly delicate and ghostly feel to them. Upstairs the Blackburn born Alison Wilding’s Deep Water, an imposing metal and linen structure, dominates the centre of the airy, meditative space that is the sculpture gallery.

Pablo Picasso, Le Repas Frugal (The Frugal Meal), 1904The exhibition of European art Continental Drift showcases pieces from the Whitworth’s fine collection of work. There are many not-so-famous and thus often more interesting pieces by great artists to be found here: etchings, studies and quick works that are fascinating in their revelation of the artistic process. Picasso’s simple pen and ink Poverty catches your breath. Then there are some three variations of de Chirico’s The Philosopher, a lovely comparison between a later self-portrait in oil by Lucian Freud with one of his early sketches of himself, and be sure to peer closely to take in the full macabre of La Morgue, Paris by Charles Meryon.

Grouped together back downstairs – and unified in displaying the intensity of their use of light – are pieces from the collection by disparate artists: William Blake, JMW Turner and Anish Kapoor’s etchings Blackness from her Womb. Moving into the South gallery you’ll find Construction, a grouping of abstract works from the likes of Victor Pasmore.

The Whitworth is well known for its textiles and wallpaper collections so be sure to catch them too while you’re here, after all they’re going to be wearing dust sheets for a few months. But it’ll be worth the wait, I’m sure.

Review by Marissa Burgess


What: Summer season at The Whitworth Art Gallery

Where: Oxford Road, Manchester