Matthew Darbyshire: An Exhibition for Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery - ELEPHANT

‘Give me a theme, I’ll give you an elephant to go with it.’ For the artist Matthew Darbyshire, the elephant is the homogenous design object par excellence: a blank canvas onto which to project your personality. His new show at Manchester Art Gallery is infested with them.

Elephants come in varnished wood, weighty chrome and pink flock. Cool Britannia elephants arrive emblazoned with Union Jacks, ethnic elephants are hand-painted and souvenir-sized. There are a fair few white elephants too.

The 1949 Exhibition for Modern Living at the Detroit Institute of Arts set the tone for today’s trade shows with its installation islands: each custom-made interior provided a template to follow and an opportunity for personal expression. For his largest solo show to date, Matthew Darbyshire takes both the name and the format of the original exhibition to display ten installations created over the last eight years. The rigid layout presents a cross section of contemporary taste, investigating the political and economic agendas which inform our value judgments.  

Walk into How Darbyshire Sees Us (2015), a circular panorama inspired by Saul Steinberg’s illustrations of urban life, and you’ll receive the artist’s diagnosis of the modern malaise. The physical symptoms are a rash of magenta (the branding colour of choice), ergonomic swellings (think elephants and Egg Chairs) and a longing for yoga-friendly loungewear. The vibe is failed idealism. Feeling low? Don’t worry, the sound of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight set to 16 different genres is guaranteed to improve your mood.

Darbyshire favours a hip and happy CMYK colour scheme for his pastiche interiors. The same palette appears in Elis, the faux construction-zone cladding which he wrapped around Herald St in 2010, when pre-Olympic regeneration was at its peak. The architectural renders promise a sky-high residential complex rising from a gleaming Tesco Express. You can imagine the interiors might resemble Blades House (2007): a jazzy bachelor pad complete with a Brompton, flocked bulldogs and sexy street art. CMYK stands for hope. Blur your eyes and it becomes the new grey.

We’re used to hearing that modernity means connectivity and Darbyshire offers us onesies, co-working hubs and community learning zones. Oak Effect (2013) plays taste tetris with flat-pack furniture and artefacts selected from Manchester’s collection, and Palac proposes a utopian museum foyer. First exhibited at Tate Britain in 2009, Palac is a hybrid of Will Alsop’s The Public (the ill-fated arts centre given the chop in 2013) and Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Stalinist sculptures are enlivened with chatty TV screens and neon lighting, and the soft-play building blocks aren’t so far from those in the Clore Learning Galleries downstairs.

As Ned Beauman puts it in his catalogue essay, ‘taste is the bait and class is the snare’. If the works in the exhibition make you feel nauseous it’s because you have your own idea of ideal living: you’re just as aspirational. The problem is, we don’t have the same aspirations as we did when the installations were first made. The panoramic view of How Darbyshire Sees Us is oddly myopic: magenta was a millennial phenomenon, and Farrow & Ball casts a dim view on CMYK. In the age of Corbyn and the beard, no one can remember the days of Blairite sheen: we want splinters in our reclaimed wood, our groceries must be wrapped in brown paper. Darbyshire’s work is doomed to be dated.

However, to say his work fails as satire would miss the point. The exhibition isn’t about condemning the mulch of modern living: it’s about invigorating, animating and even celebrating the ‘new grey’. For Darbyshire, form and materiality are the best antidote to emptiness. When asked about future projects he spoke of a desire to escape the ephemeral and embrace ‘solidity’ – to ‘just move to the South of France and make things from clay’. In fact, he started a pottery course this week. Maybe he’s not so out of touch with contemporary aspirations after all. Expect a handmade herd of elephants anytime soon.

An Exhibition for Modern Living is showing at Manchester Art Gallery until 10 January 2016. All images © Michael Pollard. Courtesy of the artist and Manchester Art Gallery

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