There’s palpable tension as you move from the spacious first room of British artist Matthew Darbyshire’s exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery into a second, densely-packed chamber.

An Exhibition for Modern Living – the artist’s largest show to date – is pitched as a contemporary (albeit more anxious) equivalent of the seminal 1949 show of the same name at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which set out post-war America’s consumerist ideals using site-specific room installations.

Perhaps this spatial tension is deliberate then? ‘I wasn’t trying to induce any repression,’ Darbyshire says, ‘I describe the first room as being like an archipelago and the second as a metropolis, more architectural. But it wasn’t deliberate – we’ve embraced the tight space.’

The show examines our changing relationships with objects and space, both in the home and in art institutions, and how mass consumerism and neo-liberalism has informed taste and value.

Installation view of Matthew Darbyshire’s An Exhibition for Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard. Courtesy of the artist and Manchester Art Gallery
Installation view of Matthew Darbyshire’s An Exhibition for Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard. Courtesy of the artist and Manchester Art Gallery

‘Take [Jacobson’s] egg chair: why does everyone want one? It’s not because it’s great design or because of its ergonomics. It’s because it’s so pervasive. It’s safe,’ says Darbyshire.

Representing a survey of ‘10 years of activity’ – definitely not a retrospective, it’s pointed out – the 10 reworked and remade environments and two new sculptures touch on dumbing down of the arts and conviction in design, as well as constructivist clothing and the post-millennial palette.

Darbyshire insists he’s not a satirist, however.

‘I’m not judging: I’ve got a lot of the things in the show. It’s taking these things and wondering what their meaning is – I’m not saying they’re “meaningless”. What are the agendas underlying these objects now?’

Darbyshire constructed the environments himself with the help of a small team. All are drawn from his experiences in the ever-changing homes of friends and his usual practice of ‘wandering around with a camera for three months’.

Installation view of Matthew Darbyshire’s An Exhibition for Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard. Courtesy of the artist and Manchester Art Gallery 5
Installation view of Matthew Darbyshire’s An Exhibition for Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard. Courtesy of the artist and Manchester Art Gallery

3D printing is also used as a technique several times, both in the main exhibition space and the gallery’s grand entrance hall. But what affect does Darbyshire see this technology eventually having on throwaway culture?

‘Think of our relationship to packaging, which uses many of the same materials – we just consume it,’ he says. ‘The impact of having a 3D printer in your home won’t be too different to that of mass production. We don’t collect and curate in our homes as much as we like to think we do. People are constantly making over and transforming their space.’

An Exhibition For Modern living runs at Manchester Art Gallery until 10 January 2016

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