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THIS UPDATE OF EYEWITNESS IN MANCHESTER is devoted to an amazing exhibition which opened in Manchester last Wednesday. This is the first time I've focused my attention on an art event, and this is no ordinary event.

"Dreams Woven with Silk" is a major exhibition by the French couture house Hermès, and is currently on show at the Upper Campfield Market, at the bottom of Deansgate. On display are a selection of Hermes scarves, set in a series of fantasy installations inspired by the design on each scarf. The exhibition is the work of the American artist Hilton McConnicko, who was asked by Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès, Chairman of Hermès, to choose scarves from their collection and design the exhibition.

The Manchester area has many galleries and at any one time there are scores of exhibitions in progress. I spend a lot of my time looking at pictures, sculptures and other types of creative visual media - they're an inspiration for my photography, providing new ideas and a view of the world through the eyes of people from other eras and cultures. In the case of some (but not all) contemporary exhibitions, I'm often irritated when confronted with the tiresome shock horror tactics, or the familiar PR exercise, geared towards the London art circle, which is given the label "Art".

This exhibition is different. It's not uncomfortable to look at, or difficult to understand, but it's certainly thought-provoking and stimulates the imagination. There are many different strands, running from contemporary art back through the century and into the past. It will appeal to both adults and children, and the children in adults.

The designs on many of the scarves exemplify a style of drawing that's very French. There's a joy in the play of line and colour that reminds me of childrens picture books, botanical and ornithological illustrations, and etchings from the 19th century and before. The fantasy settings dreamt up by Hilton McConnicko transport us into French perfume advert, a New York art space, a Byzantine palace, a windy field in Normandy at night, a Native American camp, an English rose garden, Mata Hari's boudoir, a hall of mirrors recreating the infinity of the cosmos, a scene from Alice in Wonderland, and more.

And when you've walked through the exhibition, you can see how the scarves are made, demonstrated by craftsmen brought over from the Hermes factory in Lyon. An interpreter is on hand, but people can also practice their French by asking questions as I did.

I only have a couple of criticisms. First, though big, it's not big enough - I'd love to enter a Hermes mega-labyrinth the size of G-Mex, a genuine maze where to find your way out, you have to decipher hidden messages. This would be possible, as Hermes have created more than 6000 scarf designs in the 60 or so years they've been making them, and I'm sure Hilton McConnicko can come up with many more of his fantasy scenarios. I wish there was an olfactory element - it would be great to smell the perfum "Eva", or the scent of roses, or the salty sting of the Normandy wind. Finally, I'd prefer the use of all real musical instruments for the ambient music, rather than synthesisers. But that's a just small point.

All in all, it's a remarkable and unique event, that's artistic, commercial and educational all at the same time

BUT THERE ARE MORE ISSUES AT STAKE HERE, particularly concerning Manchester and its current resurgence.

Nearly a year ago, Hermès, the family-run French couture house with over 160 years of history and 185 stores worldwid, chose to expand their UK base from London by opening a new stand-alone store not in Leeds, not in Edinburgh, not in Bath, Glasgow, Birmingham, Belfast or the Trafford Centre, but in Manchester city centre, on King Street to be exact. The Hermès shop is just in the centre of the panorama below.

The arrival of a new fashion boutique may not be a very remarkable event in some peoples eyes, but for Manchester, still in recovery mode after years of economic difficulties, it was a vote of confidence in the city.

And now, Hermes have chosen to locate the European premiere of their exhibition not in Paris, Berlin, Lugano, Florence or Brussels, some of the cities where they already have shops, but here in Manchester. This is a great privilege.

Contrary to the prejudices of the British tabloid press, the fact is that actually, French people are quite keen on the British in general, and on Manchester in particular, and vice versa.

Hermès chose to locate here as they were very impressed with the textile traditions of the city, the spirit of innovation and the attractive and vibrant city centre. And their commercial advisers would never have let them open a new outlet here if there weren't enough people in and around Manchester who can appreciate the uniquely French style and quality of Hermes products, and have the money to afford them.

And there's another issue: Manchester has some of the worst poverty and deprivation in the UK, so why make a fuss about an upmarket fashion boutique whose products are out of reach of all but a privileged few. After all, your typical Mancunian probably wouldn't be welcome at Hermès, would she - or he?- But that's where peoples prejudices (mine included) are wrong: Yes, the products are expensive - I saw mens ties for around £70 - but that's on account of the quality. The staff, particularly manageress Trudy Valentine, are quite friendly and welcoming. And as for the exhibition, entrance is free, and everyone is welcome.

So given all the time and expense that Hermès have put in, the least we can do is show our appreciation by undertaking the long and arduous journey down to the end of Deansgate and visiting the exhibition. That's why I've decided to do an Eyewitness special feature on it. Hastily put together, it only gives the tiniest flavour of the event. I've tried out a few visual ideas which I hope to develop in the months and years to come. In a spirit of internationalism, and to justify my degree subject, I've done parallel versions in French and German to be added after the English version.

With the quality of daily life constantly degraded by competing double glazing adverts on the radio, and a media obsession with a culture of the lowest-common-denominator, I often think people have lost the ability to use their imagination and think beyond the mundane reality around them.

For me "Dreams woven in Silk" is an antidote to all that, and I highly recommend it.

The photos on this page were taken this evening in the area round Deansgate and G-Mex, and earlier in the day on King St, apart from the shot of the Hermes store, which I took shortly after it opened last year.

Join Aidan on his Manchester Photo Walk.
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