McDonalds has never looked so appealing to me than in 2007, when, exhausted from traipsing around north London, I remembered the US chain had just rolled out its experimental redesign. I hadn’t eaten in 16 hours, and a cherry-red as-yet-unstained Arne Jacobsen Egg chair from Fritz Hansen (or not, as it were) sat unoccupied in the window. I settled in, inhaled a super-sized fries in front of half the neighbourhood’s commuters and thought to myself: you sucker.
While that is not exactly the message Matthew Darbyshire is sending out this week from his new retrospective 'An Exhibition for Modern Living', at the Manchester Art Gallery, the image of fast food winning over consumers with ‘curated’ interiors in fashionable London reflected a curious overlap in taste, class and accessibility that hasn’t been lost on the artist.
The exhibition borrows its name from a modern-design show at the Detroit Institute of Art back in 1949, a highly optimistic time when the city had America’s highest median income. The city is now, of course, broke – ruined from a combination of globalisation, inefficiency and its own hubris. And Darbyshire’s room sets of modern furniture and ersatz graffiti – Jacobsen chairs at centre – might as well be in the Next catalogue. How times have changed.
Next we are treated to a collection of hand-carved wood artifacts – drinking implements, abacus tribal figures – borrowed from the museum’s archives. Only they’re displayed in a room fully kitted out in synthetic oak that was transported, floor and all, from the show room of an Olympic Village residential building. Their new setting gives them a look that’s less museum-quality than ‘cigar-store indian’.
I like that Darbyshire opened his show smack in the middle of the London Design Festival, like the Greek chorus looking down from the North with cryptic dialogue about how we revere, consume, reproduce and ascribe quality to stuff. His most impressive new work is a 3D-printed polycarbonate figure of the Doryphoros of Polykleitos, a copy of a marble that’s been copied over and over since pre-modern times. It has a fuzzy, holographic appearance from afar but from up close almost disappears on account of the suspended layers of plastic – like a trompe l’oeil sculpture that comes together only when you view it from a certain point.
It’s not meant to put the other work to shame but in some ways the disappearing man appears the most substantial of all.