A Ghost Story for the Digital Age, Dark Matters, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Text by Liz Buckley

It is by the ghostly light of Daniel Rozin’s Snow Mirror that visitors enters Dark Matters at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. This haunting new exhibition is an amalgamation of digital installations, paintings, film and a variety of other media, all of which have a dark and mysterious undertone. All the works explore themes of shadows, memory, solitude, loss, mystery and magic, as well as how mechanical and scientific developments are increasingly impacting upon visual culture. What could once only be experienced by a paranormal encounter can now be recreated with technology. However, the major pieces within the Dark Matters exhibition still maintain that initial magic and wonder that came with the first optical inventions.

Away from the glow of the atrium, the viewer is immersed in darkness. As mentioned the first piece is Daniel Rozin’s Snow Mirror (2006), a large scale projection on silk, which gives the first room of the exhibit an ethereal glow. As people pass, their images are conjured in the screen’s snowy static; a spectacle that could only be experienced by seeing it for oneself. This digital installation begins a thread of several quite unnerving pieces throughout the rest of the gallery, such as: Francis Bacon’s Portrait of Lucien Freud (1951), a leaning man immersed in black and silver whose suited body almost becomes part of the shadows behind him; Pascal Grandmaison’s Fake Imagery of a World Upside Down (2009), a disturbing ultrachrome image of a man falling into black depths; and Pavel Büchler’s Short Stories: Human Breath (2002), a shaded in outline of somebody’s breath on a surface, exploring the often chilling traces that human life can leave behind.

There is an overwhelming feeling of what once was in this exhibition, many of the pieces suggest loss, and that which is just out of reach. Idris Khan’s illuminated digital prints show the blurred pages of important literary texts. These are just blurred enough that we cannot make out the words, reminiscent of a memory which is almost forgotten. The viewer is barely able to make out the ghostly figures behind the texts, perhaps symbolising the translucent presence in our minds of those who are gone. The second room holds a host of pieces from the major exhibiting artists. Another by Daniel Rozin entitled Peg Mirror (2007), a large circle of wooden pieces which create the viewers’ silhouette as they pass, by flickering slightly. This for me was perhaps the most playful and fascinating piece of the exhibition, and like Rozin’s other installation in Dark Matters, the piece requires the viewer’s participation to be complete. Also in this room one can find several pieces by Elin O’Hara Slavick. Her photographic negatives are related to Hiroshima, and show objects damaged by the atom bomb. These works highlight the relation between impressions not only left by an image in a camera but by horrific events on a community. Other artists to be found in this part of the gallery include Ja-Young Ku, and the haunting video installations of Hiraki Sawa and R. Luke DuBois.

The third part of the exhibition is dedicated to the work of Barnaby Hosking. In the centre of the room visitors are confronted by Black Flood (2006), a daunting installation consisting of four ceiling-high screens of black carpet creating a cube of dark space. Projected on the inner walls are bands of light which move in a way that makes the carpet appear to be black water, filling the space and highlighting darkness as a place of uncertainty, which may or may not swallow us up. Stepping inside the space is indeed intimidating, as the high walls are dark and consuming. However Hosking’s piece shows that, like others within Dark Matters, using different mediums to create a piece, as well as involving the viewers, can change our ways of perceiving art.

Around the walls of the room holding Black Flood, are small butterfly wings made of bronze, copper, brass and stainless steel. These butterflies make up another piece by Hosking entitled Thoughts: Butterflies (2010), and by creating both shadows and light on the wall with the use of materials, shows the contrast of both the negative and positive aspects of human identity.

Upstairs holds a large group of paintings, drawings and prints from the Whitworth’s existing collection, all of which embody the themes that are dominant within dark matters. Such artists include Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Henry Spencer Moore, William Hogarth, Paul Morrison, Anthony Gormley and Colin Self, among many others. While many of these pieces have religious connotations I feel this entire exhibition is not a matter of Science vs. Religion but in fact Science vs. Superstition. The ingenious way in which artists like Daniel Rozin have incorporated both technological advances with what turns out to be quite a ghostly experience is what makes this exhibition so innovative. The chilling silhouettes and velvety darkness of Dark Matters certainly does create a ghost story for the digital age.

Dark Matters continues at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, until the 15 January 2012.

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Snow Mirror
Daniel Rozin
Photo by John Berens
Image courtesy Bitform Gallery NYC