Melanie Manchot’s ‘THE GIFT’, currently showing at Bloomberg SPACE, is an installation comprising photography, video and object display that involves the viewer in a dialogue surrounding the valuation, evolution and variation of material culture in the City of London. Through the investigation of objects belonging to city tailors, gardeners and musicians in particular, ‘THE GIFT’ intelligently mediates on how these sub-structural industries partake in the formation and transformation of material culture, while commenting on contemporary attitudes toward the subject more generally.
Entering the space, we first find a collection of objects on plinths. The display is both theatrical and museum-like, combining elements like the backdrop, the pedestal, the glass case and spot lighting to individually highlight each piece. At first, the objects appear categorically unrelated. There is an oversized pair of headphones, for instance, a book of plant specimens, a tiny ironing board, a bird’s nest. Techniques of display, however, link them with a certain shared quality: despite their contemporary origin they appear old-fashioned, even archaic. These objects belong to the gardeners, tailors and musicians of the city whose black and white portraits appear on the wall opposite. Unemotional and conservative, the portraits are arranged in a static grid, reminiscent of a talent agency show-wall where headshots of the dated and irrelevant are shown alongside those of the new.
Moving forward, visitors are invited to sit in cinema seats and watch a video installation. On three screens is a mock-televised studio conversation concerned with contemporary material culture. The dialogue, hosted by broadcaster Miranda Sawyer, and including Deyan Sudjic, Susanne Kuechler, and Roger Robson, evolves in response to digital images of the objects from the first display, as they glide along a conveyor belt, depicted on an elongated video underneath. Gardening gloves, for instance, prompt a discussion on gardening in the city as a preserved practice despite our shifting relationship to green space in urban centres. The oversized headphones generate a debate on music as a simultaneous proponent and critic of material culture, raising the point that the move from analogue to digital music production has rendered the album redundant to consumers, while musicians themselves maintain a practical devotion to the album as a ‘total’ artistic composition. Cleverly, Manchot presents this intellectual debate in a scenario staged to resemble a gameshow or breakfast television show - two forms of televised entertainment invested in gimmicks and material trends.
The conversation continues at length, as does the mesmerising procession of objects, gliding gracefully from one frame into the next, their images recycled on screen as they pass from beginning, to end, and back to beginning again. Indeed, ‘THE GIFT’ consistently draws attention back to those objects. As each disappears, to be miraculously replaced by another, we are reminded of the contemporary obsession with substituting, upgrading and replacing objects for a better version of themselves. In anxious reflection we realise that the risk of drowning in a sea of production is not limited to the tailors, musicians and gardeners of London, but is in fact a universal force that threatens culturally significant practices and tradespeople in societies everywhere.
‘THE GIFT’ functions not to find redundancy in the roles of professional tradesmen and craftsmen but to appreciate them. Through discourse and display, ‘THE GIFT’ raises issues of cultural preservation, relevance, antiquity and material consumption, while bringing attention to social roles that are intrinsic to London but risk being overtaken by the powerful current of its rapidly evolving material needs.