Artists Dan Hays, Jane Lawson and Claire Tindale explore the opportunities and challenges that arise as we adapt to new technological formats for storing and sharing information. Over five centuries ago, Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the mechanical printing press revolutionised access to literature, and with it, all aspects of society - from politics and religion to science and education. The subsequent development of libraries and global publishing made it possible for millions of people to access texts from all over the world and now, new innovations allow us to hold entire libraries in the palm of our hand - and transfer them across continents in seconds.
As digital humans, we find ourselves in a world of virtual bookshelves, navigating a course through a seemingly infinite sea of data. While digitisation projects strive to store as much data as possible in the Cloud, what will be the role of books and libraries? Will they eventually become obsolete, or are there particular benefits they will always retain, and how will we, as digital humans, continue to react and adapt our behaviour?
The fantastical creatures illustrated in the 16th-century encyclopaedia Historiae Animalium have influenced countless writers and scholars through the centuries and form the starting point for The Portico Library’s 2018 exhibition, Beautiful Monsters. The book’s author, Conrad Gessner, included actual and mythological animals side-by-side, including many labelled ‘monsters’, with little distinction between the real and the imaginary. Six international exhibitors have responded to this and other volumes in the library’s collection with new works incorporating drawing, painting, textiles, robotics and artists’ books, considering where the idea of the monstrous sits within themes of history, mythology and 21st-century life.
The Portico Library’s first Secretary, Peter Mark Roget, was a medical doctor, inventor, linguist and mathematician. His contribution to the English language is hard to overstate, with over 30 million copies of his eponymous Thesaurus empowering generations since its first publication in 1852. The Thesaurus was designed, in his words, “to facilitate the expression of ideas” and as such has played a significant part in our ability to communicate, and to negotiate the perils and possibilities of language. As part of the library’s 2018 Information is Power project, funded by The Zochonis Charitable Trust, three contemporary artists have created new works based on research into Roget’s legacy – the role of vocabulary in the 21st century; the power of words; the uses and abuses of text and speech.
Sophie Tyrrell is a painter, sculptor and performance artist with a background in theatre and storytelling. Her Magnificent Menagerie of Mrs Strange, a group of larger-than-life wearable artworks created for the National Trust in 2017, comes to The Portico Library this February alongside prints, paintings and researches into the library’s collection. Through books and artworks, Sophie illuminates the links between diverse traditions in myth, folklore and popular culture, exploring the idea of ‘uncivilisation’ and the alternative histories we share across borders and among peoples.
Sculptor and performance artist Nicola Dale enquires into the difference between knowledge and information in this new body of work created for The Portico Library. Developed through research at the Portico, Warburg and John Rylands libraries, this new hybrid piece considers the points at which text, symbol, sign and meaning collide. As we walk, sit and read among a series of mysterious plaster fragments installed throughout the library, we are invited to consider the past, present and future of language, and the parallels between the early modern period and our current digital age.
The Portico Library’s bookshelves and archives are home to more than 25,000 historical volumes across a world of different subjects, containing countless beautiful illustrations and illuminations.
The Portico Library opened its doors in 1806, just months before parliament first voted to abolish the Atlantic Slave Trade. These two events might seem relatively unrelated, but the library’s founding members included both high-profile abolitionists and pro-slavery activists. Although it was not a port city directly involved in the slave trade like Liverpool or Bristol, Manchester’s dramatic growth in population and prosperity in this era was closely linked to slavery, and as a result many Mancunians were passionate supporters of the system, while others were equally committed to its abolition. 'Bittersweet: Legacies of Slavery & Abolition in Manchester' shares the story of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its consequences in Manchester and around the world, with original artefacts, contemporary artworks and new research from The Portico Library, Manchester Art Gallery, Tiwani Contemporary and private collections. This exhibition focuses on the ways in which late Georgian concepts of gentility rested upon the practices and profits of slavery. It also includes works in various media, created by artists of African descent, which dramatise the relationships between “home” and “away,” empire and colony, and slavery and freedom, all topics of constant debate within The Portico Library and on the streets of Manchester at the dawn of the nineteenth century. With Mary Evans, Keith Piper and Lubaina Himid.
Accompanying the 2017 Portico Library Reminiscence Project for people with dementia and their carers, five contemporary artists consider different aspects of ‘memory’. Asia Triennial Manchester Director Alnoor Mitha, Neo Artists’ Maggie Hargreaves, Jameel Prize nominee Saima Rasheed, Bankley Studios’ Stacey Coughlin and Cult Party’s Leo Robinson offer a variety of starting points for thinking about what memory is and the role that it plays in our lives: where it comforts or troubles us; where it motivates us to preserve our world; where it helps to build culture and identity; where it brings us together; where it gives form to our personal stories.
From the ‘Waters of Lethe’ of Ancient Greek myth to Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’; from intimate Mughal miniatures to the Preservation movement’s founding thinkers, art and literature continually return to themes of memory.
Acclaimed North West photographer Andrew Brooks has explored the hidden spaces of The Portico Library and its collection to create a new site-specific body of work for MANIFEST festival 2017. Running across multiple city-centre venues and forming part of Red-Eye Network's Summer of Northern Photography, this exhibition takes the form of a series of micro-landscapes, all available to buy to support the library.
Cut Cloth is an exhibition, publication and series of workshops that examine the shifting role of textiles within contemporary feminist art practices.
Cut Cloth contemplates the rise in popularity of art textiles and its impact on its value as a specifically feminist mode of expression. Once a belittled and marginalized medium, it was a radical act [in itself] to bring women’s work into the gallery space. Artists looked to both subvert and celebrate textiles in order to disrupt the very femininities that it played a role in constructing. This project of reclamation and elevation is by no means finished- textiles still sit in an ambiguous space between art, craft, private and public space. However the increasing popularity and commercialisation of textiles, and of feminism in art and culture must be reflected upon. Cut cloth looks toward strategies that respond to these new challenges, drawing upon feminist legacies whilst acknowledging the shifting politics of cloth in contemporary culture.
Exhibiting artists: Hannah Hill, Katie Lundie, Rebecca Halliwel Sutton, Sarah-Joy Ford, Sophie King, Eleanor Edwardes, Orly Cogan, Wendy Huhn, Tilleke Schwarz & Bethan Hughes. Contributing writers: Professor Janis Jefferies, Elizabeth Emery, Charlotte Cullen, Dr Julia Skelly, Dr Alexandra Kokoli, Dr Christine Checinska, Gill Crawshaw & Jesse Harrod. The project is led by Sarah-Joy Ford and is kindly supported by Arts Council England.
What is it to read? What is it to write? What is a living collection?
Made in Translation is a collaborative project between craft practitioners and researchers in Manchester Metropolitan University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and The Portico Library. Manchester School of Art and the University’s Manchester Writing School joined colleagues in Humanities to respond to a chosen text or texts. From Captain Cook's travels, to the Shaker movement, hot air ballooning and fern collecting, The Portico Library provided a rich source for creative responses. With new writing and objects, performances and photographs, Made In Translation was not only a presentation of works but also an artist book catalogue.
Carolyn Curtis-Magri's complex and painstaking drawing process reflects the work of crime fiction and forensic science that are her inspiration. She has developed a practice that incorporates elements of criminal investigation with the minutiae of life 'inside'. Her paintings, sculptures and installations draw on Portico Library visitor Thomas De Quincey's 1827 'On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts' and her own observations of imagery including x-rays, polymer chains, scars and fragments of evidence.
One of the seminal works of English literature, Paradise Lost and its themes have inspired generations of artists, writers and thinkers. A portrait of its author, John Milton, sits opposite that of William Shakespeare in The Portico Library’s main space and the collection holds a first illustrated copy of the original text. To mark 350 years since its initial publication in 1667, we have invited responses from a group of contemporary female artists, addressing the historical gendered imbalance of depictions of its central stories of Adam & Eve and the Fall from Grace, including Kate Shaw, Chloë Manasseh, Helen Mather and Ilona Kiss. Their works will be shown alongside historic illustrations and associated books from the collection and partner libraries.
U.S. based Indian photographer Shreepad Joglekar's series Non-Places of Intelligence records military 'Live Fire Villages' - training facilities built in the American wilderness to simulate conflict sites in the Middle East. Intended to help personnel prepare for deployment, these compounds reveal enlightening and at times disturbing information about the strategies and perspectives of the armed forces and the tasks with which they're charged. Although Joglekar’s straightforward documents illuminate through their candour and restraint the significance of these sites’ purpose, it is not primarily a political effect the series generates, but rather a long-view consideration of broader issues around filtering, presentation, and the virtual real. Nonetheless, this exhibition offers extensive scope for debate and engagement with timely and important themes.
In the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Prêmio Marcantônio Vilaça award winner Gê Orthof undertook a residency at The Portico and created works responding to its collection and visitors. Enchanted by books and their power to unlock new worlds of potential, Gê transformed the entire gallery space into one extraordinary temporary installation, with cardboard walls and miniature dioramas placing us down among the characters, imaginging their stories unfold.
Inspired by the story of Thompson Vitor, a boy in Brazil whose Mother salvaged old books from the streets, allowing her son to study and pass his college entrance exams, Gê's project used discarded and donated books and a number of allusions to other historic "Thompsons" from the library's collection and elsewhere.
Supported by Manchester School of Art, HOME and Plano Cultural.
Held in collections alongside David Hockney, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud and having received awards, commissions and mentoring from Callum Innes, Arts Council England and The European Sovereign Art Fund, Susan's paintings were shown at The Portico for the first time in her native North West, with support by Castlefield Gallery's New Art Spaces.
In February 2016 Syrian paper-sculptor and printmaker Ousama Lazkani brought his exquisite installations and artist books to The Portico Library. Developed in Damascus, Beijing and the UK and incorporating Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, this body of work builds on Lazkani's research into Eastern and Western belief-systems and symbols through depictions of 'The Four Guardians of the Sky' - Dragon, Phoenix, White Tiger and Turtle. A 2016 book of the artist's work published by The Portico accompanied the exhibition.
For centuries, Gothic art and literature have captured the imaginations of millions and influenced every field of culture, from architecture and music to drama, film and fashion. In January 2016 The Portico hosted original props and artefacts from Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride alongside works by contemporary artists Julianne French, Marion Kuit and Jonathan Hargreaves with fascinating rare books and prints from our collection.
Award-winning contemporary artist Helen Wheeler creates fragile, functionless objects, frozen in a state of imminent change or collapse, which explore the relationships between mortality, the body and science. Helen won the 2013 NADFAS North West Bursary Award for Fine Art and was also the recipient of the Leonard James Little Fine Art Prize. Since then, she has continued her studies at Manchester School of Art where she is currently reading for an MFA in Fine Art.