Feature article: Government/Michael Dean at the Henry Moore

(Article by Lizzie Donegan, @LizzieInLeeds)

Government | Michael Dean
Henry Moore Institute
12 April – 17 June 2012

Earlier this week I had a look around the Michael Dean exhibition, Government, at the Henry Moore Institute. There are some clever surprises in this show, which prior to proper investigation appears sparse and industrial. The first work you encounter on entering the gallery are the bespoke door handles, called Yes and No (I’m not sure which is which- left to right seems plausible!) which must be utilised if you’re to get inside. The visitors will leave their fingerprints on the handles whether the handles, and the visitors, like it or not. This fits with the title of the show- how we’re governed collectively despite our differences.

Strikingly, the gallery has been carpeted in a thick, beige pile and reminds me of moving house as a child, filling the space as it does with the rubbery, un-lived in smell of new builds and show homes. The carpet fulfils a practical function as well as an aesthetic one, acting as a support for three tall, imposing sculptures as they lean against the walls.

Called Education (working title), Health (working title) and Home (working title), these pieces were cast on site because they would have been too big to get through the doors. Visitors are invited to touch their cracked and bubbled surfaces, an irresistible offer! In a further break with convention, people are invited to tear a page out of 2 large paperback books in the second room, causing them to diminish in size. These are custom made and each page contains the same text as the last. Visitors may feel they are getting something for nothing when they help themselves to the pages; though they are working for the artist, adding something to the artwork as they take something away.

The literature that accompanies the exhibition states that Dean uses writing as a starting point for his work, but I’m not sure that the contents of the pages in the books matter much to those of us who tear them out. It seems to me that Dean creates the sculptural stuff for us, and the writing is more for him, as if the words are the feet paddling fast below the water to keep afloat the works we can touch and take.

Where the second room leads into the third, Home (working title) acts like a screen, blocking out the light and leaving just enough room for people to pass through. A large television standing on the floor shows a film of a piece of card with the image of a cabbage printed on it, positioned somewhere in the gallery. The folds in the card mimic those in the leaning sculptures (or vice versa). In front of the screen watching the film is Analogue Series (Cabbage), one of 3 head-sized sculptures that feature in the show, like too-big paperweights. So there’s a cabbage watching a cabbage, just like we (humans, collectively) watch ourselves.

In all the show feels unexpectedly warm and generous despite its difficult appearance. I really like it and recommend a visit; the touch-ability makes it ideal for kids too. The exhibits are thoughtfully economical in terms of numbers, and there’s a lot to be gained from looking, touching, pondering, watching and taking in that distinctive new house smell.

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