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01 Nov 2023

The Manchester Contemporary 2023: Spotlighting the mechanics of making

The Manchester Contemporary 2023: Spotlighting the mechanics of making

Now in its 14th year, The Manchester Contemporary returns to Manchester Central from 17–19 November 2023. The white booths are back beneath the former railway depot’s vaulted ceiling – an installation that engages with the way art is transported and displayed in their midst. From a centrepiece made up of shipping pallets to two feature walls connecting the art fair to the 200th anniversary of Manchester Art Gallery’s collection, Curator of The Manchester Contemporary Nat Pitt is signalling an ongoing fascination with revealing the mechanics of the art world. “In some ways the fair has always been about ‘keeping it real’,” he says. “Perhaps the Manchester or Northern attitude toward culture is about demystifying art through inclusivity and openness. Our sculpture court is one way we express this; this year we take a look at the global and local movement and logistics of art.”

At the centre of the fair is said Sculpture Court with its focal installation: Pallet Show 12. Here, twelve handmade wooden pallets by artist-curator Daniel Pryde-Jarman are arranged in a grid; acting simultaneously as functional objects, artworks and plinths, they will host a rotating display of sculptures by invited artists. This curatorial project references the mass transit of artworks in the art market, evoking the logistics of movement by bearing markings related to the interconnected systems involved. An installation that appears temporary, under construction or itself in transit, Pallet Show reveals some of the workings behind The Manchester Contemporary itself becoming a site of display.

It will be host to 18 different artworks throughout the weekend, including found work gloves cast in bronze by Mark Houghton, a looped digital video of boxes rotating on a wrapping station by Nicola Ellis, and repurposed bollards by Faisal Hussain. The themes of these sculptures echo and extend the implications of the pallets themselves, and there may also be a “performative element to the changeover of works,” says Pitt. The installation is inspired by influences including Donald Judd’s furniture sculptures and Seth Siegelaub’s curatorial projects, and builds on last year’s centrepiece installations – Abstract Kab, a mobile gallery in the back of a van, and In Good Light by Manchester artists Richard Dean Hughes and Robin Megannity, which disrupted the conventional art booth.

Elsewhere, two feature walls mark the 10th anniversary of the University of Salford Graduate Scholarship Programme, the 40th anniversary of Castlefield Gallery, and Manchester Art Gallery’s 200th year of collecting – connecting the annual Manchester Contemporary directly to a wider history of scholarship, collection and display in the city. The walls will feature the first piece ever to be acquired for the people of Manchester by what was then the Royal Manchester Institution: James Northcote’s portrait of Ira Aldridge as Othello, dated 1826. Alongside this, a blank space for the new work or works to be acquired for Manchester Art Gallery’s permanent collection via this year's Manchester Contemporary Art Fund.

Founded in 2017 by Thom Hetherington, Chairman of Manchester Art Fair, the fund has raised over £33,000 and helped to acquire 18 artworks for Manchester Art Gallery since its inception. This year, the sum available for acquisitions has tripled, with works continuing to be chosen from exhibitors at The Manchester Contemporary by Manchester Art Gallery’s expert curators. On the increase in the figure raised, Hetherington says: “With it being Manchester Art Gallery’s 200th year of collecting, we felt it was an opportunity to dramatically ramp up the scale and the ambition of the fund, to in excess of £20,000.”

Its significance is not lost on Natasha Howes, Senior Curator and head of the selection panel at Manchester Art Gallery. “We usually acquire artworks through the generosity of gifts and bequests or by applying to trusts and foundations for support, but to have a fund available where we can make immediate decisions about what to buy, is unique. It enables us to collect with intention,” she says.

In this way, the fund continues to build on its aim of supporting an unbroken line of collecting for the public interest, with The Manchester Contemporary a fertile ground from which to choose leading contemporary artists. “The appetite of successful people to give back to the city has remained undimmed,” Hetherington explains, “but the pathways which connected them to the cultural ecology, which had existed since the heady days of Victorian industrialists bequeathing vast collections of priceless art, had somehow got lost along the way.” With the opportunity to join the fund open to all interested parties, it also shifts the process of collecting work from out of the private realm into a more public sphere – making The Manchester Contemporary the arena for a transparent selection process.

“This not-insubstantial amount will have a significant impact on all of the stakeholders in the process,” Hetherington adds, “increasing the scale and significance of works that the gallery is able to acquire.”

Among said stakeholders are galleries returning to The Manchester Contemporary in the wake of success from previous art fund acquisitions, such as The Second Act, which platforms work by Northern, working class and otherwise marginalised artists. With similar curatorial preoccupations is Jennifer Lauren Gallery, which exhibits disabled, neurodivergent, learning disabled, self-taught and overlooked artists from around the world – this year showing intricate leaf sculptures by self-taught Japanese artist Yoshihiro Watanabe and infinitely detailed paper-based works by British artist Kate Bradbury.

Vereda Tropical, a curatorial project from Venezuelan artist-curator Katherine Di Turi builds on the fair’s burgeoning cultural exchange with South America, staging contemporary video art from South and Central America, while the arrival of Simbart Projects from Turkey marks a brand new relationship for the Contemporary. Exhibiting at the fair for the first time, Simbart Projects is showcasing canvas and paper-based works by artists variously focused on the connections between humans and nature (Medine Irak), interpreting the imperfections of life (Melis Erdem), and dystopian spaces (Sibel Kirik).

There’s also a continued commitment to Manchester-based galleries, with ten listed among the exhibitors this year. Combined with other national and international galleries, this makes a rich pool for the art fund’s selection – with works being presented at a fair that is thinking self-reflexively about how its visitors experience the art it’s showing.

The Manchester Contemporary is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.