Artist's Statement: Matthew Darbyshire on Tate, shopping malls, smoking shelters and student halls

By Ben Miller | 29 September 2015

As An Exhibition For Modern Living opens at Manchester Art Gallery, Matthew Darbyshire looks back at a few of his works

A photo of a glowing sign reading Palac as part of Matthew Darbyshire's An Exhibition For Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery
Palac (Altermodern, Tate Modern, 2009)

“I made this for an exhibition in the Duveen Galleries with Subodh Gupta. It was pretty frightening. At the time I was making a show at the Hayward Gallery called Fun House which was looking at Cedric Price’s Fun Palace plans of the 1960s on the now-Olympic site in Stratford.

It was a sort of collision. I was over in Warsaw doing some research at the Palace of Culture for my Hayward project, which I realised was uncannily similar to Tate Britain. They had these really weird architectural crossovers with everything from the entrances to the floors, columns, the emblems in the floors, so many things. There was this uncannily similar, American-built neoclassical building in London next to this one built by Rudnev in 1955.

At the time I was very into Andrew Brighton’s writing – he’d written a book called Managerial State which was basically drawing comparisons between the New Labour arts policy and that under Stalin. Obviously it’s a soft analogy but he was talking about how artists were trying to meet certain goals set by government, trying to uphold ideology.

An overhead photo of a series of wooden sculptures in a gallery as part of Matthew Darbyshire's An Exhibition For Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery
© Michael Pollard, courtesy Matthew Darbyshire / Manchester Art Gallery
I was just out of art school, two years in, with 15 failed Arts Council applications under my belt. I was starting to feel like I wasn’t able to toe the line and perhaps I did need to do more…if I didn’t do kids’ workshops I probably wasn’t going to get a gig. And so I drew this phonetic link which gave me licence to move forward.

When you walk in under this sign you’re walking into the palace’s first floor. Will Alsop, our sort of flavour of the month artist at the time, who had just designed The Public in West Bromwich, the ultimate art institution at the time - we thought, for a few months, until it went wrong - conducted a facelift on it so it welcomed people.

It was a sort of take on what I was I was seeing as the Disneyfication, the infantilisation of the arts in the public realm, becoming too simplified and reductive and childlike.”

An overhead photo of a series of wooden sculptures in a gallery as part of Matthew Darbyshire's An Exhibition For Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery
© Michael Pollard, courtesy Matthew Darbyshire / Manchester Art Gallery
Call of the Mall (Utrecht, 2013)

“About ten artists were commissioned to work around a late brutalist modern shopping mall in Utrecht. The whole show was trying to deal with this mall that was sort of deemed ugly, in the middle of the station in the old town. The locals didn’t know quite what to do with it, what to think of it – a bit like the Palace of Culture.

I decided to make it a kind of lesson in looking without bringing in anything new. I spent a few trips going to the mall trying to find objects which summed up, to me, the past, present and future predicament of the mall. There’s the 60s neon with the heart, and more biomorphic logos. Then it’s looking at the lost craftsmen, stores almost rubbing our noses in it with their designs from lost craft industries.

I’ve looked at the cleanliness, the paranoia about germs, the antiseptic nature of all these new, almost airless environments that we walk through.”

A photo of a wooden smoking shelter with chairs in a gallery as part of Matthew Darbyshire's An Exhibition For Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery
Smoking Shelter (Tramway, 2012)

“There was a local, very conservative architectural company which was using this ‘Mockintosh’ style which everyone was doing under the Tories at the time. It was that sort of localism feel and it was all about sympathy with the surroundings, so you had these token motifs of local heroes and things.

I designed this almost bogus, sinister village, a cul-de-sac as you walked around Tramway. It’s such a vast space that I didn’t really know what else to do other than wrap it around, using the columns in Tramway to demarcate my urban landscape.

It was a very simple, easy solution to the space. I was anxious that it was an opportunity to really just make an ego thing, something massive, and I didn’t want it to be embarrassing.

A photo of a wooden smoking shelter with chairs in a gallery as part of Matthew Darbyshire's An Exhibition For Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery
© Michael Pollard, courtesy Matthew Darbyshire / Manchester Art Gallery
It felt premature. So I got all of my favourite thinkers at the time – Owen Hatherley, the writer, Scott King, the graphic designer, a student of mine called Jacob Farrell and Rupert Ackroyd, who I was at art school with, to make a collaboration with me along these networks of streets, these pockets I’d created.

This is the one with Rupert. We tried to make something in earnest, that we really thought was a good thing. We tried to take the cynical attitude of a local council, to cash in and use it, but really mean it.

We take all these motifs from Mackintosh’s celebrated buildings and…it wasn’t really that important what we made but I was a smoker at the time and you couldn’t smoke unless you were outside the pub, so I wanted to make a smoking shelter.”

A photo of a series of clothing designs in a gallery as part of Matthew Darbyshire's An Exhibition For Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery
Standardised Production Clothing Versions 1–10 (2009)

“When I left art school in 2005 I was really struggling with the most excruciating back trouble. When you’re making a show or trying to finish a degree, you’re not going to surrender until the end. It was no coincidence that a month after graduating I was floored.

The neurosurgeons and osteopaths and chiropractors had all given up, it looked like I couldn’t avoid the knife. I ended up having a hideous couple of years. One of the problems I had was that I wasn’t allowed to wear trousers, so I decided to make this outfit which was my sort of uniform at the time.

I was wearing Reebok Classics, Levis 501s and polo shirts, that was my uniform at art school. I decided to make a Rodchenko-style suit. I started making them out of quilted fabrics and other things, it sort of grew.

I ended up making these uniforms for society. Pinstripes, outdoor-type tweed, worker denim, rudeboy…I made them all by hand but I’ve had the chance to remake them, I’m glad to say, with a seamstress.”

A photo of a poster for student halls as part of Matthew Darbyshire's An Exhibition For Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery
Elis (2010); An Exhibition for Modern Living (2010)

“This was for my first commercial exhibition, in 2010. At the time I wasn’t sure what to do, art school hadn’t taught me to like white cube spaces. I was living in East London at the time and it was being sort of wrecked by all these…I suppose they’re quite well-meaning, the student halls, if you can afford to live there. But there were a lot of these really flimsy, crap, decorated sheds appearing. They were part of the regeneration for the Olympics.

I decided to shut down the gallery for the duration of the show and work with some architects to design a dystopian 21st century new build, using the gallery as its plinth and extruding up to a large height. There was a secure break-out zone, a lifelong learning centre, everything.

It wasn’t so much that I had it in for these places, but they were becoming the new grey. I took those images and pushed the satire. It was quite convincing, apparently there were people ringing them up going ‘you’ve shut down, I’m so sorry to hear, another one’s gone again.’

A photo of a large curved pink chair in a gallery as part of Matthew Darbyshire's An Exhibition For Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery
I wasn’t sure whether I liked that position. It went beyond my expectations and that wasn’t the intention. There was still a formal dimension to this, it was as much about form and composition as it was about social critique. But it seemed to be taken on such a different level.

I remember the writer, Jonathan Griffin, had been in touch with me talking about satire. At the time I was almost too defensive – I thought that was like saying it’s illustrative, if it’s satirical. It was an awful faux pas. I was writing to Jonathan every day saying that I wasn’t a satirist, it was about form.

I was sick of anyone with a copy of the Guardian under their arm, who gets regeneration and has a position on it, loving the work and sort of all chuckling together. That isn’t why I make art and I’m not best placed to make those sort of critiques.

I’d spent ten years swimming around in plaster and MDF dust. I don’t want to be a polemicist; I wish I was but it’s not me. So I had a couple of months with my camera and I went around.

This sort of zig-zaggy structure seemed to be in vogue. Shelves with a bit of bling or chrome in them. I suddenly realised, after the New Labour party was over, the colour had all gone and it was just magenta. It was awareness campaigns, shopfronts, everything. And there was a lot of shabby chic appearing.

I adopted this palette and then with the British Art Show I took one section and contemporarised it in today’s materials.”

  • Matthew Darbyshire: An Exhibition for Modern Living is at Manchester Art Gallery until January 10 2016.

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