Elizabeth Price: A Long Memory

Elizabeth Price’s new exhibition spans the Turner Prize-winning artist’s unplanned career

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“In 1972, I drew a picture of Jesus wearing flares in crayon. I was told that Jesus didn’t wear flares, to which I replied: ‘Well, he does in Jesus Christ Superstar. And he does in my picture.’”

Elizabeth Price’s rejection of convention and merging of ideas has not abated in the 48 years since. Her latest exhibition, A Long Memory, now on show at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, brings together 10 works created at different points in the artist’s career, each piece blurring the lines between old and new, past and present, traditional and anarchic, fiction and fact.

“I didn’t always want to be an artist,” says Price. “I had no idea what I wanted to be, even when I went to study art at Oxford. It seems mad saying this now but at the time, university was free, so it was enough that I was interested in it. I wanted to be lots of different things.”

It was at art school that Price co-founded anorak indie band Talulah Gosh, a channel of self-expression through which she came to cultivate her personal identity and, later, her artistic one.

“I was shy and chippy when I went to Oxford. I met a girl wearing the same badge as me in a club and we formed Talulah Gosh. I learnt to play the guitar I’d picked up at a jumble sale – and off we went! We made flexi discs and fanzines and were played on Radio 1 – it was inspiring and emancipating. It was all about us doing our thing: creating a scene, collaborating and shaping our own circumstances.

“I struggled for years to discover what kind of artist I was. Incorporating music into my work was a big part of finding out – something I’d developed completely outside of art school. Perhaps that’s why it took so long for music to find its way into my art – it seemed like my art and my music belonged to two separate contexts. But it’s when institutional thresholds are diminished that art is created.”

The refusal to be limited or defined by a fixed narrative extends to every facet of Price’s life, including her winning of the prestigious Turner Prize in 2012. “I’m very proud of the work I did, but talk about luck! My family loves that I won the award but it isn’t how I measure my art.”

A Long Memory features the prize-winning installation, The Woolworths Choir of 1979, which incorporates footage from the fatal fire that ripped through Manchester’s central Woolworths store that year, killing 10 people. This is the first time the work has been shown in the city.

The range of topics covered in Price’s art – technology, gender, sexuality, social history, politics – emanates from her use of contrasting archive materials. By combining and embellishing them through different mediums – largely video, music and photographs – something new is created and, with it, new meaning.

“I’m not shy about the concurrent beauty and violence of projecting and editing,” she says. “I want to remind people what lies beneath the surface of these archives – real experience, real trauma, real emotion.”

Price and her family moved from Bradford to Bedfordshire when she was five. “When I was a kid, I glamorised the north a lot. It’s part of my family history and I don’t feel like a southerner.” Now aged 54, she lives in south-east London with her partner, an artist and professor, spending most of her time in her studio.

“I work quite intensely. It usually takes a year for me to complete whatever it is I’m doing. Sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming but it is a choice. I feel like I don’t see my friends or family enough because of the very solitary, hermetic way I work. But I also feel that my art comes out of that. If I didn’t work in that way, it wouldn’t be the same. Nine to five wouldn’t work.”

The holistic message that comes through in A Long Memory – that everything bleeds into everything else – and the chaotic manner in which Price puts it across would fall flat were it designed for praise or acclaim.

“Small amounts of power are heavily concentrated in any institution, including the art world. I don’t really care if anyone likes my art! This is my shit, it’s me, it’s how I talk, it’s the issues I care about, it’s the jokes I find funny and the cheap and gaudy things that give me pleasure.”

Elizabeth Price: A Long Memory is at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester until 1 March 2020

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