The last few months of events and exhibitions at Manchester’s Rogue Studios have been starkly geopolitical. For its 21st Anniversary Open Studios in October, resident artist Hilary Jack created a partition wall of corrugated iron across her studio, daubed with the words ‘WE ARE NOT FOR SALE’ in white paint. The work – which acted both as a barrier and shield to Jack’s production space – was a response to the forthcoming redevelopment of Crusader Mill, the building that acts as home to Rogue’s 90+ contemporary artists and artist collectives. Purchased by property developers Capital & Centric in December 2015, work will begin to turn the mill into 201 luxury apartments in May 2017, after Rogue Studios’ lease ends and the artists have moved out. No alternative site has yet been found; the conversion of Crusader Mill may signal the dispersal of what is currently the largest artists’ studios in the UK outside of London.
Division of Labour, the exhibition that concludes Rogue Project Space’s 2016 artistic programme, has clear combative themes. Whereas Jack’s work took a directly confrontational stance, however, Division of Labour addresses issues around Manchester industry with poignant subtlety. Curated by Lucy Harvey, a studio holder, it’s an admirably outward-looking show: rather than focusing specifically on the Rogue artists’ plight, the exhibition explores the shifting place and purpose of production in the city more generally. Works such as Helen Wheeler’s ‘What Was Is No Longer’, a nostalgic image of factory towers disappearing into over-exposure on a tear drop-shaped piece of photosensitive glass, make the tacit argument that industry, once the mainstay of Manchester’s identity, is steadily being eliminated. The original functionality of the factory is translated into a decorative object, highlighting the irony of the ‘industrial chic’ aesthetic that prevails in mills repurposed for commercial and residential use.
Jenny Walker’s statement on the wall alongside her work ‘The Land Behind’ makes this concern explicit, questioning ‘what our modern city is for, and perhaps more importantly who it is for?’. Walker points out that artists both support development in a city and need space in which to work, tapping into an ongoing conversation within the industry about the disconnect between the ascendance of Manchester’s major, award-winning galleries and the threats to its grassroots arts scene. It is in Robin Megannity’s work that the act of production really goes missing, however. The artist sets up a contrast between the seeming mundanity of a rough ball of blackened plasticine on a wooden plinth with a polished painting of this composition in oils, framed and mounted on a nearby wall. The process by which one is translated into the other is implied without being represented, a reminder not to forget the mechanism by which incidental objects are transformed into art.
Jenny Steele also gestures towards manufacturing in her works ‘Hella, Arcadia to Dunoon’, ‘The Green Room’ and ‘Vaudeville’, in which pieces of screen printed cotton are draped sculpturally over two wooden drying racks as though their patterns were still wet. By placing modernist textiles that would once have been available to the mass market within the context of an exhibition, Steele also complicates the boundary between art, craft and commerce.
Perhaps the most literal piece in Division of Labour, though, is ‘The Mayfield Imaginarium’, a scaled, bird’s eye view model of the multi-million pound Mayfield Development Site surrounding Piccadilly Station, of which Crusader Mill is part. Designed by the architectural practice, architecture:unknown (who were invited to exhibit by Walker), this replica offers visitors the chance to rearrange wooden blocks representing the buildings in the area, reflecting architecture:unknown’s practice of inviting members of the public to influence city policy. It’s this piece that suggests an alternative way of reading the exhibition’s title, most obviously a reference to the economic concept whereby tasks are divided between individuals to encourage specialisation. ‘Division of Labour’ may also be a way of asking who will undertake the necessary work of challenging property development conventions when, as with Rogue Studios, they come to threaten artistic endeavour.
Polly Checkland Harding is Exhibitions Editor at Creative Tourist and a freelance journalist.
Division of Labour, Rogue Studies, 1-10 December 2016.
Image: Jenny Steele, ‘Hella, Arcadia to Dunoon’, 2016 (courtesy of Rogue Studios).