Written by and Photographed by Mollie Balshaw.
Object translation, instances of time and material processes: ‘Flat Instance’ curated by Soft Spot from the basement of Mirabel Studios should be at the top of your list for shows to visit in the aftermath of lockdown.
Since March this year, the art world has had a much needed kick up the arse. With the physical actuality and implications of lockdown changing the way we address and consume art, culture in Manchester has been understandably slow to come back to life – venues impacted greatly by the events of the Spring and Summer. Nevertheless, one by one, each space has implemented new rules and begun welcoming back hungry art lovers to the ‘real world’ again. Being given the time to consider and analyse what these moments being back in physical spaces will be and look like, I hope I speak for many of us when I say I’m ready to stop overthinking for a little while, and start doing and seeing again. ‘Flat Instance’ gave me everything I was looking for on my return to the city.
Soft Spot, the group behind this show, are an artist-led collective run by Alfie Sellers, Bryony Dawson, Edward Gwyn Jones, Jay Mulholland, Rosie Jones-Burslem and Saoirse Lewis. Based in the underbelly of Mirabel Studios, at what feels like the lands’ end of culture in the city centre, their aim is to catalyse conversation, collaboration and interchange over their 12-month residential takeover. In this small pocket of space, Soft Spot diligently toil away and experiment with ideas like Dr Frankenstein (a fitting comparison I hope you’ll note, due to their collective interest in science fiction), producing unique and nuanced shows and happenings. Each venture across the digital and physical realms have well-rounded concepts which are often the brainchild of one or more of the group. It’s the maddest edges of a city and its contemporary art scene where things really start to get interesting; and this show is absolutely no exception.
As I walk through a very rainy Salford (one day in, and autumn in Greater Manchester is already in full swing), I think about the last time I visited the space, nearly a full year ago on top of the almost unmentionable lockdown months; which make it feel like a lifetime. The route brings back pleasant memories of exhibitions past, and I spend most of the short walk over reminiscing, flicking through hazy recollections of tipsy conversations with cold fingers and warm wine.
Jay Mulholland from the Soft Spot gang is kind enough to let me in for a look outside of usual opening hours, so the space is quiet, and I have ample browsing time to take in what is my first proper exhibition visit since the start of the year. The space usually bustles with life, but as Covid-19 restrictions are firmly placed across galleries for what will be the foreseeable future, the true beauty of a ‘proper nosy’ becomes apparent. Earlier in the year, the very popular opening night for the Manchester Open hammered home (no pun intended) for me the often-overlooked unpleasantness and inaccessibility of preview events. To have time to breath with a show in all its entirety, feels well overdue.
Before even entering the space, you’re met by the distant hum of Owen Herbert‘s ‘13:43’ which echoes lightly up the staircase, a soundscape comparable to the welcome of organ music at a funeral procession; slow, patient and hospitable. At a funeral, everyone recognises the intended meaning of that occasion, you’re there to share a collective feeling of memoriam, to get a bit emotional, or not. It’s an experience you interpret for yourself. This show feels that way too.
‘Flat Instance’ comes at a time where artists – in particular recent arts graduates – are realising the immense value of physical space, and are doing all they can to access it. The loss of degree shows and graduation ceremonies has been a palpable blow for the class of 2020. Babs Smith and Ben Allen are presenting their works hot off the press from their undergraduate study, and the tone in this basement reverberates with a distinct solemnness. Despite this, I feel a sense of encouragement.
In the first room, Smith presents ‘Signs of Life’ – an installation comprised of ethereal Perspex sculptures, which intend to interrogate human existence itself. This is a piece that seems to pulse with life. Beams of light cast reflections on the surrounding walls that resemble petri dishes as if seen through a microscope. The sculptural details of this work are exquisite, and the theoretical complexity is unambiguous in its presentation. There is no other place a piece like this would feel so perfect as a dark, empty basement tucked away from civilisation. It feels like a living, breathing organism sucking the life-force from the earth beneath our feet.
Elsewhere, Allen presents a myriad of work across sculpture, video and print. ‘IMPERVIOUS TO ALL WEATHER CONDITIONS’ is a constellation of rocks dipped in a thick, matte, black coating of rubber, accentuating and preserving their details permanently. With one decision, they become art objects with mere signifiers of the spaces they once inhabited. ‘Undoing’ shows the “skin” of culturally significant sculptures peeled back and laid out digitally and on the page, as a new means of interacting with historical art. The depth of Allen’s conceptual knowledge, and the research which underpins these works is impeccable and insightful.
In this second room the space is more visually restrained, but this minimalism is a welcomed and smart curatorial decision, allowing room for thought, and considering Herbert’s omnipresent soundscape. This piece ties the whole show together, the sound born from the physical dips and craters in its fabricated plaster, steel and MDF ‘instrument’. Using a crater recognition software, Herbert has generated a score from raindrops which fell on the plaster cast placed outside of Mirabel Studios in 2020. He explains that the outcomes, despite the scientific precision of their making, “retain the ephemerality and poetic contingency of rainfall”. It is at once conceptually, visually and audibly beautiful; it’s everything you could want from a great piece of art.
It’s already becoming to feel like a cliché to acknowledge how nice it is to be seeing “real” art again, but if any show deserves that acknowledgement, it’s this one. The show feels so comfortable in this space, like it was made for it. There’s no desire here to overcrowd or overload our senses. In this bunker, Soft Spot create a little bit of magic, and if you can only make it out to see one exhibition in the city this Autumn, in my opinion, theirs is the one to beat.
Our guest blogger is Mollie Balshaw, an artist, curator and writer based at Islington Mill in Salford. As well as their practice as a painter, they are Co-Director of Short Supply; an artist-led curatorial collective established for the purpose of generating creative opportunities, and facilitating and curating collaborative events specifically for emerging artists.