Speech Acts at Manchester Art Gallery: dom sylvester houédard on tour

Fran Horner, a postgraduate student studying the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, tells us more about her internship at The John Rylands Library working with the dom sylvester houédard archive.

What is on display in an art gallery? What isn’t on display? Who is represented in an art gallery? Who isn’t represented? What narratives are presented and explored?

The new exhibition Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination- Repetition opened at Manchester Art Gallery on 25 May 2018. The exhibition challenges traditional ways that institutions exhibit art work, allowing new meanings and perspectives to surface in the exhibition’s shared narrative without relying on the conventional frames of artists’ biographies and identities.

It features work from 43 artists, including some poetry and a sculpture poem by dom sylvester houédard (or dsh as he preferred to be known) which is on loan from The John Rylands Library. I have been working with dsh’s literary archive since January this year and was fascinated to see how his archival material was to be transported and installed in the exhibition. The Conservation team very kindly let me observe the process at Manchester Art Gallery.

Photograph of vinyl interpretation to be stuck to the wall in the Speech Acts exhibition. Photograph taken by the author.

Firstly, each piece of archive material had to undertake condition checks at The John Rylands Library in which the material was inspected, and any noticeable flaws or conservation work were recorded. The condition checks are very important because they can trace where and when a piece of work sustains any damage.

The archive material was then securely packaged using special acid-free archival envelopes and boxes to be transported to the art gallery.

Once the material reached the art gallery, it then had to experience an acclimatisation period where the material adapted to its new environmental surroundings and conditions. The temperature and relative humidity had to be at certain levels in order for the material to be satisfactorily exhibited in the gallery and so as not to incur any damage.

Photograph of conservators consulting the condition report of a piece of dsh archive material. Photograph taken by the author.

Once the material had successfully acclimatised, its condition was checked by both the John Rylands Library and Manchester Art Gallery Conservators (the material’s condition will also be checked on departure of exhibition venue and on return at The John Rylands Library). The material could then be installed.

dsh’s poetry is carefully displayed in a glass case allowing visitors to look closely at the object without damaging it. The poetry is flat and is placed on custom-made archival mounts. Other items in the same case require cradles (3D mounts) to be exhibited and properly seen. The sculpture poem Wind Grove Mind Alone (1974) is displayed in acrylic box suspended from the wall allowing visitors to clearly see its clever, optical illusion from different angles.


 Photographs of installation of dsh archive material and sculpture poem. Photographs taken by the author.

dsh’s work sits in the exhibition in relation to the work of friend and fellow artist Li-Yuan chia (1929-1994). dsh supported Li-Yuan chia’s creation of the LYC Museum in Cumbria, 1972, which functioned as a centre for the local creative community. The LYC Museum embodied Li-Yuan chia’s interpretation of art as a form of social interaction and experimentation which this exhibition positions as a model for the modern public art gallery. The LYC children’s art room has been recreated in Manchester Art Gallery’s Clore Art Studio in which everybody is invited to have a game of ping pong, draw something and watch artist-filmmaker Helen Petts’ film Space & Freedom.

 Photograph of recreation of LYC Museum sign in the Speech Acts exhibition. Photograph taken by the author.

Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination- Repetition is free to visit at Manchester Art Gallery until 22 April 2019. Curated by Hammad Nasar with Kate Jesson.


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