Five unforgettable exhibitions – Bren O’Callaghan’s HOME birthday picks

HOME’s curator Bren O’Callaghan chooses five incredible art moments – from robots and rat-girls to undersea discos and David Lynch.

Rachel Maclean

Working with Rachel Maclean was a dream come true. Years before, I’d wandered into Edinburgh Printmakers gallery to see her show I Heart Scotland and was blown away by her film ‘The Lion and The Unicorn’. So much so, I signed up to the Own Art scheme on the spot to buy a print of one of Rachel’s works that still hangs in my bedroom, an ominous ancestral figure. Little did I know that just a few years later I’d be standing in a green screen film set, alongside Rachel dressed as a terrifying rat-girl hybrid, assistant directing a new HOME Artist Film commission. The film, It’s What’s Inside That Counts, formed the centrepiece to Rachel’s first UK solo exhibition, Wot u :-) about? co-curated by myself and Sarah Perks.

I love getting hands-on and grabbing any opportunity for learning. Rachel is a powerhouse artist who conceives, writes, designs, directs, creates all the costumes and very often plays all the character parts herself. She’s inspiring to be around, and anyone who knows her will tell you that she is much quieter than the extreme, exaggerated figures she depicts! Using the fairytale genre to examine the murky boundary between childhood and adulthood, Rachel explores ideas of happiness and childhood as qualities that can be packaged and sold. Her work is deceptively accessible – you can’t tear yourself away. Days later the line from one of her musical numbers can appear in your dreams as it wriggles like a panicked worm, exposed in full-sun.

The Manchester Open

As Curator at HOME I receive more proposals and applications for shows than we can possibly accommodate. While we offer a window upon emerging and mid-career artists, I was born and bred in this double-headed city region (let’s not forget Salford where I grew up!) What this means is I feel a special affinity with those who, like myself, begin by feeling shut out and estranged by the monster under the bed that is ‘the art world’. We can so easily feel it has no relevance to our lived experience. I now know that isn’t true. My own interests lie in championing those who may be overlooked or actively sidelined by formal routes of validation. I’m struck by the strength of an idea and execution, more than any perceived pedigree or stamp of approval.

Open exhibitions can get a bad rap, stigmatised as somehow being parochial or hobbyist, as if the hyperlocal were a bad thing. I beg to differ. In devising the Manchester Open, I hoped others would agree. The response was phenomenal – thousands of submissions from across all 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester, which we had to whittle down to approximately 500 in order to fit as many as we could into HOME. On the opening night, a queue of 2,000 snaked inside, outside, and around the block, smashing all prior records and subsequently becoming the most popular exhibition in the 5-year history of HOME. More than any big name. More than any gimmick or celebrity. Local artists, supported by local audiences. There is no argument that can deflate this. It’s here to stay. The Manchester Open could yet outlive us all…

Enchantment Under The Sea

This was by far the largest party we’ve ever thrown at HOME. It was a response to a 1980s festive film season, with Back to the Future one of the featured titles. My idea was to combine the different years of the movie – 1985 and 1955 – but anchor the theme in the Enchantment Under The Sea school dance sequence. We dressed the bar as a reef filled with spilt treasure, seaweed fronts and lights, casting projections of tropical shoals across the lobby. Our Wardrobe Technician, Nikki Wragg, made lightweight jellyfish skins with trailing tentacles that slipped over giant balloons, and a huge balloon net bulged across the dancefloor. The cherry on the cake was a replica of the DeLorean time machine parked under the canopy in a mist of dry ice with the soundtrack pumping, which people could sit inside for a photo opportunity.

Vintage 78 provided the music to the first half using vintage gramophones and rock ‘n roll tracks from the period, before Pop Curious? adopted the second half of the party to deliver their trademark 1980s cheese. There’s footage online of me lifting our hostess and drag queen Tilly Skreams on my shoulders for her to release the balloons in a terrifying salvo of delighted whoops and popping (they don’t last long in the frenzied response), and another clip of hundreds singing Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer. I fear these gatherings won’t be seen for a while, but it has gone down in city party lore as a moment to remember.

Robot Body Pop

Lots of artists explore the use of an alternative persona – stepping into the shoes of an imagined character – to interrogate concepts of identity. This allows us to exit our shell and push beyond perceived limitations. I roped in Stef and Laura of The Ultra Violets, enthusiastic costumed heroines, to capitalize upon their immense crafting and choreography skills. We came up with the idea of encouraging children to become robots, because who doesn’t love a robot?! We spent days painting dozens of cardboard torsos and helmets (I was especially fond of the zig-zag, pipe cleaner, electricity bolts that topped each head), which miniature humans – also known as kids – could decorate in their own style, adding buttons and grills and switches and dials.

We encouraged them to decide what type of robots they were – aliens, superheroes, mechanics, doctor droids, even a footy-bot – and then came the special event. Marching in a caterpillar chain down the central stairwell of HOME to the tune of Kraftwerks We are the Robots, causing diners in the restaurant to drop jaws agog, we gathered by box office to perform a choreographed dance routine to Snap’s The Power. There was a moment during this when the lift doors opened and the people inside were so shocked at the scene that greeted them they forgot to get out, and the doors closed again. That was a great day. I can still do the dance moves every time I hear that song!

David Lynch

Five favourite moments are too few, but there was no way I couldn’t include this. What. An. Experience. Presenting the UK’s largest solo show of artwork by the acclaimed cult film director to date in collaboration with Manchester International Festival. More renowned for his landmark television universe Twin Peaks, and such films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, David Lynch is also a prolific artist across multiple mediums, ranging from painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture. Supported by his gallery, close personal staff, conservators, specialist transportation agents, collectors, museums and galleries who own his work, we shared a rare opportunity to investigate his expanded world and glimpse into a perversely peculiar, yet beguiling imagination.

As a teenager I’d fallen under Lynch’s dark spell, exploiting my job in a video rental shop to access his back catalogue, mopping up not only titles then available but exploring the soundscapes, musicians and related creative artists. From Julee Cruise to Angelo Badalamenti, Chris Isaak to Isabelle Rosselini, door after door opened and my own interior landscape bloomed (a black-and-white carpet of Killer Bob-headed blossoms), as a direct result of the crumbs he had left for others to follow. In 2019 I found myself standing on the concrete doorstep of a property in L.A. The door opened, and we were led through a cinema room, recording booth, a kitchen with a coffee percolator, out into the garden. Up a dirt path, towards an outdoor studio. Inside, a man with a wild, white quiff and cigarette stood up to greet us.