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Elizabeth Price's A Long Memory at the Whitworth Gallery

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Iím a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. keyworthdavid@gmail.com https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83 My debut poetry pamphlet is available at www.wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
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Priceless
An artwork which commemorates and explores a fatal fire in Manchester, is on show in the city for the first time.

In 1979, ten people died and 47 were hurt, after a damaged electrical cable ignited at Woolworths Piccadilly Gardens (now Morrisons).

Whitworth, University Of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Elizabeth Price, Woolworths Choir Of 1979
THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979, HD video, Elizabeth Price, 2012, Courtesy of/copyright the artist


The tragedy contributed to the 1988 The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations. The use of polyurethane foam had produced large amounts of thick toxic smoke, which caused breathing problems and obscured emergency exits.

The Woolworths Choir of 1979 film installation is part of a retrospective at the Whitworth Gallery of Elizabeth Price's at entitled A Long Memory.

Speaking about the 2012 Turner Prize-winning video at the exhibition launch, Elizabeth Price spoke of it as "a story which belongs to the city . . . which people have their own narrative about."

The 18-minute video starts as a kind of rapid-fire Open University primer about the features, origins and meanings of choir and quire. Gradually images of female dancers weave into the narrative. Then we start to see footage of subtitled 'talking heads' - witnesses to the tragedy.

Whitworth, University Of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Elizabeth Price, Woolworths Choir Of 1979
THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979, HD video, Elizabeth Price, 2012, Courtesy of/copyright the artist


One repeated image is of a hand waving amidst billowing smoke - it ominously foreshadows similar footage from New York, in the 9/11 tragedy.

Back in the natural light of the exhibition's central room, the exhibits on the white walls are in black and white. Gett Ready comprises photographs from a large pinhole camera, and various stencils and transparencies. Most feature found images of the human tongue.

They look as though they might have been discovered in a coal shed and never had the soot dusted off them. Perhaps they deliberately allude to the archive under glass cases in the adjoining room.

These are the photographs of miner Albert Walker (1932 - 1997) who was born in Barnsley and made redundant in 1985. He set up a darkroom in his shed with the aim of chronicling all the coal and tin mines in Britain. He was particularly interested in the towers used to haul miners up and down the shaft.

Although it is greatly to Elizabeth Price's credit that she has brought Walker's documents to wider attention (they are on loan from the National Coal Mining Museum for England), I wasn't entirely sure why she had included them in the exhibition, from a strictly artistic perspective.

Whitworth, University Of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Elizabeth Price, Woolworths Choir Of 1979
KOHL 2018, Four channel video projection, Courtesy of/copyright the artist


They are, though, directly relevant to Price's video - Kohl (2018), which uses Walker's photographs. Kohl features a screen split into four differently coloured panels. The text is best described as a prose poem, which tells us how abandoned coal mines have been redeveloped into "underground car parks of the big new builds" as well as wine cellars, data centres and gyms. Despite the modernisation, groundwater still rises up and fills the underground tunnel systems.

Felt Tip and The Teachers - the other two videos in the Slow Dans sequence (2019, ten channel video projection, 25 minutes) were, to me, less coherent than Kohl. The combination of rhythmic dance music, a voice-over and Teletext-style subtitles were though, hypnotic and made we want to return for another viewing.

The video projection, K (2015) is highly compelling, in a very unsettling way. There is something deeply creepy about an emotionless voice telling us about the Krystals - a group of professional mourners. In a recurrent motif throughout the exhibition, a collage of female singers and dancers offset the explanatory text.

Whitworth, University Of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Elizabeth Price, Woolworths Choir Of 1979
K, 2015, 2 channel HD video projection, Courtesy of/copyright the artist


At the House of Mr X (2007) - a single-channel video projection of 20 minutes - was one of Price's first major works (the exhibition title is, after all, A Long Memory). The video is like a highly stylised version of the ITV show Through the Keyhole - the camera leads us through the "beautiful vacated house" of an anonymous wealthy art collector (alluded to as the inventor of the first spiral mascara brush), which boasts work by Barbara Hepworth, Denis Mitchell, Mies Van Der Rohe and Enzo Plazzotta amongst other highly prized artists.


Whitworth, University Of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Elizabeth Price, Woolworths Choir Of 1979
AT THE HOUSE OF MR X, 2007, HD video, Courtesy of/copyright the artist.


For me, At the House of Mr X lacked the tension of the other videos. That said, there is a neat conceit in the way Price has brought a private collection into public view.

Bringing what is hidden, buried or forgotten back to the light is perhaps the guiding theme which unites the diverse new and old artworks in this memorable exhibition - which Price described as "the largest show of my work . . . what I have been doing with my time."

It is time well spent.

Whitworth, University Of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Elizabeth Price, Woolworths Choir Of 1979
THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979, HD video, Elizabeth Price, 2012, Courtesy of/copyright the artist
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Why? See Elizabeth Priceís memorable art for free
When: 25 October 2019 Ė 1 March 2020
Phone: 0161 275 7450
Where: The Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6ER
Cost: Free
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