Pump House Gallery has been looking a little drab of late: an elegant, four-storey Victorian tower that was renovated as a gallery in the 1980s, until recently its fitting and fixtures were a motley collection of dark-panelled doors, pine railings and garish yellow lighting. Christian Jankowski, an artist more used to gleaming white cubes, clearly found it unbearable. So he called in an expert: television presenter Gordon Whistance, who is instantly recognizable to British television audiences as the host of such venerable home improvement shows as Changing Rooms and Love the Place You’re In.
As the title of the show suggested, Whistance’s brief was to turn Pump House into ‘The Perfect Gallery’. A documentary video – made to television standards but not intended for broadcast – recounts the drama of gallery renovation with a breathlessly enthusiastic voice-over. With only five weeks to go, will the team get the work done on time? Gordon (first names are a must on TV) is apprehensive, confessing that, ‘my style of designing is all about making people comfortable – not art’; he worries about the budget, which is only £15,000, and the looming deadline. Work begins immediately: builders start constructing a false wall; a glass front entrance goes in; lighting rigs are installed; the raw wooden A-frame is painted white. The latter upsets long-time staff member Cath, who snaps at Gordon, telling him he’s ruined the space and warning (a little melodramatically): ‘You live in hope and die in despair.’ Thankfully, when Christian arrives on site, he’s happy with the results (‘It’s super-nice!’). Christian and Gordon high-five.
So what do the results look like? Well, to be frank, the haste and limited budget of the renovation are evident: the walls don’t float gracefully above floor height as they should, and the balustrade on the upper level has been daubed with a layer of white paint that does little to hide its distinctly unmodern curves. Whilst I was there, one visitor exclaimed: ‘I think they’ve ruined it!’ I guess there’s no pleasing some people. Personally, I think that the overall job is a good one: the space feels cleaner and more integrated, and the lighting is an improvement. The walls are painted in a subtle, warm off-white – ‘Jankowski Gallery White’ – that was created especially for the artist by Farrow & Ball. At a Prosecco-fuelled party for the completion of the renovated building (which is also shown in the video), in which various art-world luminaries wax lyrical about its merits, Whistance concludes: ‘We’ve got, and left, a fabulous legacy for future artists.’ Whistance’s optimism, however, has recently taken a blow: Pump House Gallery will close its doors at the end of the year due to local government spending cuts. Instead, this ‘perfect gallery’ will linger on as (to borrow the vague and euphemistic verbiage of a recent press statement) a ‘facility’ with a ‘broader programme of arts activities’.
But what to make of The Perfect Gallery as an art work? Firstly, it wasn’t that much of a departure for an artist whose practice is often a demagogic reprisal of institutional critique. Jankowski’s jocose deconstruction places him amongst a group of mid-career European artists – a group which includes Pawel Althamer, Roman Ondák and Tino Sehgal – whose work explores the strange pleasures hidden in the variegated folds of art’s different institutions. The idea at Pump House recalls Jankowski’s China Painters (2007), a set of commissioned paintings – copied from photographs by Chinese artists – of the unfinished shell of a Chinese art museum, to which the painters were asked to add painterly details of their ideal future exhibition. He has also previously placed television and art on the same playing field in both Kunstmarkt TV (Art Market TV, 2008), an art auction in the format of a home shopping channel, and Telemistica (created for the 1999 Venice Biennale), in which five Italian television fortune-tellers were asked to predict Jankowski’s success in the Biennale.
Secondly, there’s the matter of instrumentalization. Jankowski is certainly a controlling influence here – he doesn’t, for example, tell Whistance that he’s the real subject or object of the exhibition, until midway through the renovation job, at which point Whistance becomes aware that he’s being used by the artist like a ‘paintbrush’ (Whistance’s own term). This reminds me of Werner Herzog’s documentaries (such as Encounters at the End of the World, 2007), in which the use and abuse of subjects frequently transgresses the ethics of trust in ethnography and documentary making. To his credit, Jankowski seems to genuinely appreciate Whistance’s efforts and never allows his own authorial voice to have the ‘last say’ (as Herzog’s voice-overs often do). But, like Herzog, Jankowski does not call into question his own role as a controlling agent – he always remains on the outside, looking in. For all the undeniable wit of his work, I sometimes wish Jankowski would ask a few more fundamental questions.