Review of ExtraORDINARY at The Lowry, Manchester

From Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) to Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1988), contemporary artists have had a long standing – and often controversial – fascination with presenting everyday objects as art. What’s notable about how The Lowry’s new exhibition ExtraORDINARY picks up this theme, though, is that it takes a family-orientated angle; described as offering “inspiration for families of all ages,” the show includes Roelof Louw’s Soul City (1967), a pyramid of 5,500 oranges from which visitors can decide whether to take one home, as well as Karina Smigla-Bobinki’s ADA, a floating, three-metre diameter helium balloon with 300 sticks of charcoal attached to it, for people to draw with on the walls of the gallery. ExtraORDINARY is, then, amusing, interactive and fun – but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

For though this exhibition is also smallish in scale, the twelve artists it presents are international both in origin and renown. Their work questions and subverts the strict and often restrained ways in which art can be viewed; Soul City and ADA directly undermine the “do not touch” rule in a gallery, while Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures project (ongoing since the 1990s) goes one step further by asking the audience to become the art itself. Here, Wurm’s cramped handwriting and small, comical drawings instruct visitors to lie on the floor with their head on a plinth and “feel connected,” or to make a kind of stepladder of themselves by balancing philosophy books between their legs and outstretched arms. Which, as it turns out, is harder than the drawing makes it look.

What comes across immediately is the sense of humour at work behind ExtraORDINARY – but what takes longer to appreciate is how layered this is. Take Gavin Turk’s Rich Tea Biscuit (Unlimited edition, 2006); by taking a small bite out of a Rich Tea biscuit and then signing it, Turk plays on the idea of an artist’s signature work, at once provoking and confounding the belief that art is devalued by the use of everyday objects. Martha Rosler in her video work Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), by contrast, comically and ineffectually demonstrates an A to Z of kitchen utensils – many, like “ice pick” she stabs the air with, outdated – to challenge how the use of these objects has come to be understood and, by inference, the process of gendering of domestic roles.

It would be a mistake, then, to see ExtraORDINARY – with its Rich Tea biscuit, helium balloon and 5,500 oranges – as one-dimensionally entertaining. Instead, this is the best kind of comedy: funny, complex, enlarging the appeal of art to a wider range of visitors, and giving them more than just oranges to take away.

Polly Checkland Harding

ExtraORDINARY, until 18 October, The Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, M50 3AZ.

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1. Karina Smigla-Bobinski, ADA, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and The Lowry, Manchester.