Saturday, 19 December 2015

Less is More?

On a visit to the Manchester Art Gallery this week I came across a small temporary exhibition called The Absence of Presence. It’s based on the tortuous premise that the works displayed have one thing in common – the requirement on the part of the viewer for a “heightened level of looking” in order to discover in them traces of that which is absent. The idea is inspired by a Callum Innes canvas Exposed Painting: Green Lake in which the artist has deliberately scraped off the top layer of paint, leaving only a trace of what he had previously laid. I left more puzzled than enlightened.

In another space there is a more straightforward exhibition, House Proud, which is easier to understand in that it examines the influence various artists have had on the design and decoration of some house-wares which are in the Gallery’s collections. Some of the artists had been commissioned by manufacturers to work within constraint of reasonable production costs, while others had a free hand. The exhibits therefore comprise a nice mix of the practical and the impractical, the affordable and the collectible, the mass-produced and the hand-crafted. Inevitably I coveted some of the items - although I need none of them. But I was reminded that I do need a new teapot. (The one I use is chipped and the basket inside it which holds the tea-leaves is no longer as porous as it was, having become coated with a thick layer of tannin). I later went in search of one but, despite its renown as a regional retail hub, this city has little to offer in the way of teapots for the discerning. I eventually settled for one that met at least some of my requirements, although it was obvious that no artist had been involved in the design process.

It wasn’t the only disappointment of the week. I went to see Spielberg’s latest film Bridge of Spies, a story of prisoner-exchange between the USA and the USSR in 1964. Slick and entertaining though it is, the ending - a superfluous addendum of unadulterated schmaltz - lets it down. Nevertheless the story reminds me essentially of just how tense relations were during the cold war and, with the passage of time, how relatively relaxed they have become. On Tuesday the news was all about three astronauts – a Russian, an American and a Brit – being transported from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station in a 1960’s era Soviet rocket. Who would have thought it possible? Even someone with Spielberg’s imagination could not have foreseen such co-operation.

The next morning at breakfast I used the ugly new teapot for the first time. The occasion was tinged with anxiety because, it being slightly bigger than the old one, I had to gauge the correct proportions of tea and water. As it turned out my angst was in vain: it is impossible to get right as the basket is actually too small for the volume of the pot. It’s just as well, I thought, that I haven’t yet discarded the old teapot. This new one is definitely earmarked for the charity shop.

So, over a disappointingly weak cup of tea, I sought to console myself with the previous day’s unfinished “quick crossword”, starting with the correction of several brave but misguided entries made by my dyslexic partner. I got stuck for a while on one of those tricky clues that requires a phrase: That’s all there is to it (4,4,5). As I pondered, it occurred to me that perhaps this is what that curator was getting at: the absence of presence is precisely the relationship between the empty spaces and the clues. There, I thought, I have it: Bob’s your uncle!

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