‘Are there are any good Indian restaurants round here?” asks Frank Cohen, businessman, art collector and Mancunian.
He is standing in the middle of Manchester Art Gallery, with 10 of his 1,500-strong collection of artworks lying around him in various states of readiness. It is not an entirely bizarre question — it is lunchtime and we’re standing next to a life-size sculpture of a sleeping elephant called The Skin Speaks A Language Not Its Own by Indian artist Bharti Kher. The surface of the sculpture is made entirely of bindis — decorative jewellery worn on the forehead — which, from a distance, resemble the creases and wrinkles of the elephant’s skin but close up form a hypnotic pattern.
Facing East: Recent Works from China, India and Japan from the Frank Cohen Collection is a homecoming of sorts for the Jewish collector. Already famous within the art world for his voracious collecting appetite, he has acquired a new level of semi-celebrity by appearing as a judge on School of Saatchi, the recently aired Channel 4 series labelled the “X-Factor for artists”. But Cohen is a local boy made good, and he is obviously thrilled about bringing his collection to the Manchester Art Gallery.
“I am Manchester born and based and have always maintained strong links to the north west and the Midlands,” he says. “I consider this city to be my home and have waited for this moment for a very long time.”
The exhibition is curated by David Thorp, who has worked with Cohen for many years, giving advice on the collection and curating shows at Cohen’s Wolverhamption gallery space, Initial Access. Thorp is keen to stress that Facing East is just a small taste of the vast collection.
“Frank collects across the board — it’s all contemporary but from many different countries and many different genres and media. This is really just one way in to look at the collection. Frank started collecting Chinese and Indian works about five years ago, before it had become really fashionable.”
Thorp wants to underline this point as focusing on Asian art by country has been attacked as a western collector’s disease and kind of cultural tourism. This is often a criticism levelled at the exhibitions programme at Charles Saatchi’s gallery in London, with its geographically charged themes and titles.
The Manchester Art Gallery exhibition is different, seeking to explore how each of the artists has responded to popular culture, although the theme is not immediately obvious when you walk into the airy new gallery extension behind the museum’s austere Victorian facade. “All of the artists deal with the way that popular culture manifests itself slightly differently in each country,” says Thorpe. Some of the art looks familiar — Takashi Murakami’s colours recall the neons of the 1960s, while young Indian duo Thukral and Tagra make reference to commercial advertising.
Other pieces are less immediately accessible.Yoshitomo Nara’s Mayfair House was only half completed when I visited but the chipboard construction offers the viewer a chance to climb in and explore — it is a bit like a surreal bungalow, with a series of small walls sectioning off a tiny space that will be filled with the artist’s ephemera — sketches and maquettes.
Nara is most commonly known for his Manga-inspired paintings and large cartoonish sculptures, but his house is more restrained and less instantly inviting. His faux naive canvasses are often comic and easy to read but his house is more interesting and you feel nosey or even voyeuristic poking around in it. It is the first time the piece has been able to be properly displayed.
The most disconcerting canvas in the room is Yue Minjun’s Between Men and Animal. Minjun is the most sought-after living Chinese artist, whose work sells for millions of pounds. His paintings always involve a self-portrait, either alone or repeated over and over again. His face is always stuck in the same creepy howl of laughter and yet each figure seems to take on a very different persona.
The atmosphere at the gallery is one of excitement — not least because the curatorial team are keen to show that collecting art is not just a southerner’s game and that one of their own is investing in new talent.
Cohen himself is critical of the southern bias. “The art world in the UK is centred on London but there are a whole range of great opportunities to see interesting contemporary art outside London. The north of England and the West Midlands are home to prestigious art institutions: Manchester Art Gallery, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, the New Art Gallery Walsall and Crompton Verney in Warwickshire.”
He is right, and there are also 1,499 Indian restaurants in the Greater Manchester area. I checked. At least one has to be good.