A Barbara Nice Afternoon

Have you visited our current Rashid Rana exhibition yet? Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Ben Williams treated himself to an alternative tour…

An art gallery can sometimes be a slightly intimidating place. They’re often quiet and populated with people who seem to know something I don’t. Despite studying art most of my life, I’m not always entirely sure if a fire extinguisher is there to stop the building burning down, or say something about ‘the nanny state’. When Mrs Barbara Nice led a group of us on an alternative tour of Rashid Rana’s exhibition the other week, I realised that I’m not alone.

Those of us who arrived early for the tour stood politely in our little groups and waited in a very English silence. When Barbara Nice arrived, she quickly mixed things up. Her, ‘Hiya, how is everyone?’ produced a half-hearted, slightly embarrassed, response from the group. This wouldn’t do. Barbara made each member of the group introduce themselves and asked everyone to discuss the meaning of the exhibition title, Everything Is Happening At Once, with the person on their right. Gone were our British inhibitions – excellently played Mrs Nice.

Stockport’s favorite housewife led us through the exhibition, stopping at each piece to give us her thoughts and ask us our own. Like the best teachers, Barbara remembered all our names and visitors, like Mickey, quickly became stars in our own classroom sitcom. Although some of Rashid’s work is difficult and controversial, Barbara never let us get embarrassed, or be afraid to speak our minds. It was a funny and engaging experience and so entertaining, that I had to stop and remind myself I was in an art gallery.

Barbara made a challenging exhibition accessible and asked the kind of questions we all think but might be too embarrassed to ask. We discussed everything from the meaning of the work, to whether we would want it in our house and was it worth the money? It was great to openly have these discussions with the people in the gallery, there was no pretension and it broke down the kind of barriers that might have previously distanced people from art.

The exhibition reached a climax at Rashid’s impressive, Desperately Seeking Paradise II, installation. As the group stood back in awe, Barbara turned to Cornerhouse’s  Visual Arts Programme Manager, Bren O’ Callaghan, and asked ‘How do you clean that?’. Bren was good to get out the feather dusters and we finished this unique tour dusting a quarter of a million pound piece of art.

I came away thinking that galleries shouldn’t be a quiet place and those people ‘who seem to know something I don’t’ are probably just as intimidated by me. If you’ve not been down to see the exhibition yet, make sure you do. Rashid’s work is incredible. If you want to really enjoy it, take a leaf out of Barbara’s book and talk about it with the person next to you.

Rashid Rana: Everything Is Happening At Once runs until Sun 18 Dec 2011. And for more insights from the wonderful Mrs Barbara Nice follow her on Twitter @BarbaraNice