Manchester

Elizabeth Price, KOHL, 2018, four-channel video projection, color, sound, 6 minutes.

Elizabeth Price, KOHL, 2018, four-channel video projection, color, sound, 6 minutes.

Elizabeth Price

The Whitworth

Walking into Elizabeth Price’s “A LONG MEMORY” is like entering a giant Rorschach test. A nearly symmetrical display containing two-dimensional works in the bright atrium gallery is complemented by darkened adjoining wings holding a miniretrospective of Price’s moving-image work. As a psychological mind map connecting the space between the left and right sides of the brain, so to speak, the central installation of three otherwise disparate recent works attempts to synthesize subjective dichotomies from past and present in Price’s oeuvre.

The central work in this space is The Albert Walker Archive, 2019, which presents photographs of British coal-mine shafts taken by the retired miner Albert Walker in the 1980s. They represent a fraction of what the exhibition guide calls a “cache,” a vast collection of albums (originally made for collecting family photos) that Walker used to archive the images. His project amounts to a vernacular equivalent of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s documentation of nineteenth-century industry as it collapsed in the late twentieth century. Shown in Manchester, his photographs addressing the specifically northern English subject of coal mining resonate profoundly with the Whitworth’s own northern English site, ineluctably summoning the memory of the miners’ strike of 1984–85 and its effects on the British psyche.

Of three recent video works shown in rotation on the three screens in the right gallery—together making up a trilogy titled SLOW DANS, 2019, itself suggestive of a relaxed, decelerated, or sustained multitemporal fluid concentration on history—KOHL, 2018, reembodies Walker’s images of coal mines flipped, upended, and in photographic negative, alongside a narrative asserting that the abandoned pits had filled with water and connected with each other to create a fluid network as a sonic medium, confronting us with a form of transformative subterranean entropy and a communication system between work sites redolent of our current digitally networked reality.

FELT TIP, 2018, and the newly commissioned THE TEACHERS, 2019, bring together historical narratives incorporating odd details, such as the idea that the term felt tip refers not to pens but to neckties worn by women, and addressing broad subjects such as the corporatization of education, evoked through the description of the emergence of a mysterious group who “didn’t use words” but became known as “THE TEACHERS.” The trilogy effectively adds up to a political satire of fiction, neoliberal art institutions, and the academy. With the room’s modernist-inspired furniture and an architectural setting nodding to the futuristic, alongside the robotic voices of the narrators, the whole experience feels like a didactic sci-fi class, especially when school groups troop through the museum.

As one could of Mark Leckey’s concurrent video installation at Tate Britain in London, which contains personal pop subject matter and a modernist motif—in his case taking the form of a huge motorway overpass—one could say that Price’s exhibition represents the nostalgia of a middle-aged white English person for the social and political history of their youth. What makes Price’s work more exigent than that of Leckey and other artists of their generation, such as Jeremy Deller (whose own project on the coal industry and British monuments such as Stonehenge presents a similar mixing of pop and folk cultures) is that her subjects are so erratically disparate as to form a surprisingly coherent political description of our bewildering digital age.

Back out in the sunlit central space, new works on paper augment this sublimely complex reality with sparse economy. Pinhole photographs capture the light projected through layered stencils to produce images of human tongues in GETT REDY, 2019, while in INKY SPIT, FLOPPY DISQ, VOX GERL, 2019, stencil prints made with water rather than ink inscribe the letters of the work’s title on black paper. Like the simplified gestures of Price’s videos, these elusive works effectively evoke prehistoric speech and even the idea of spit to dwell on a range of technologies, from ancient phonology to the digital image, in a curt and illicit union of languages.