Dispatches: London

If we want a diversity of art spaces we need to vote with our feet

BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Critic's Guides | 26 MAY 17

What if, instead of a ‘general election artist’, as Cornelia Parker has been named for the UK’s polling in June, each party had their own artist? In the build up to the election, as Theresa May continually makes what can only be seen as facetious promises to those groups she has been calculatingly crippling, disabling and deporting for at least seven years now, I’ve wondered what a ‘strong and stable’ monument might look like, or maybe more what it would do. Robert Smithson seems to have identified it long in advance: ‘Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future.’ Smithson’s remarks on some of the angular sculptures being made in the late 1960s – work that would later be reluctantly labelled under minimalism – hint at a kind of amnesia, the sculptures acting as blinkers that trap us in a perpetual present. At one point later in his gnomic 1966 essay ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’, he implies that ‘cold glass box’ architecture and vast, anodyne lobbies are the appropriate settings for such work, suitably atemporal and blank. It’s a suggestion that, 50 years ago, might have seemed wilfully out-there and paradoxically progressive, embracing the nascent weirdness of corporate culture; though now walking around any city’s financial district, or peering into any hotel lobby or ‘luxury’ apartment receptions for that matter, to see the glittering rainbow deluge of lobby art, it’s clear that those lobbies were of course just an entrance: a perched, poised, hungrily awaiting mouth.

David Adamo, ‘David Adamo at Moorgate’, 2017, installation view, Finsbury Circus House, London. A show produced by Ibid Gallery, London/Los Angeles and HS Projects, London

Smithson’s timeless, shining lobby had come to mind even before the election was announced with Ibid Gallery’s announcement in March that it would be closing the doors on its London space on Margaret Street. While they’ll be keeping open their branch in Los Angeles and are looking to relocate to another space in London, Ibid’s founding director Magnus Edensvard stated, ‘there’s something in this [gallery] model that feels outdated.’ What he posited as one of the ‘new ways of existing’ away from a ‘traditional white-cube model’ was a display of four David Adamo sculptures in the lobby of Finsbury Circus House, a newly renovated office building just around the corner from Liverpool Street station, listed as an ‘Ibid Gallery London’ exhibition in collaboration with art consultancy HS Projects. Through the revolving glass doors, Adamo’s hacked-at chunks of cedar wood sit on cool, grey marble floors, backdropped by cream marble walls lit from both above and below to highlight the oversized engraved leafy branches that span a whole wall. Adamo’s balancing beams of wood, that in other locations manage to muster a bit of violence at least, here just feel like unfinished modernist abstractions that wandered in dottily from the park by accident, a bit lost and out of place. Which is how I feel too, smiling weakly to the lobby attendant.

Wilkinson Gallery, exterior view, Vyner Street, London

Yesterday brought the news that the owners of Wilkinson Gallery are closing the gallery and going their separate ways after working together since 1998. This spring saw a spate of smaller, younger London commercial galleries closing their doors – from Ibid (established in 2004), to Limoncello (set up, after a year long programme as the project space Associates, in 2007), and Vilma Gold (est. 2000). In gallery terms, it felt soon after MOT’s closure last July (est. 2002), as well as Supplement (est. 2010) closing its London space last December (moving, with Arcadia Missa [est. 2011], to a temporary project space in New York’s Lower East Side). The exigencies of life and art mean galleries come and go (and there is a perverse pride around the temporality of exhibition spaces, as if the shorter the time it ran the cooler it must have been); though this felt more like a punctuation, a marked shift from the London of the early century that re-defined itself as one of the centres of the European, and global, art world. In a mailout sent the day before Ibid’s announcement, Rachel Williams of Vilma Gold spoke of ‘working towards a new model of collaboration with both living artists and estates’, keeping their offices running while closing their exhibition space. While the (smaller to mid-sized) white cube is closing, Smithson’s amnesiac lobby is here to stay, where we perpetually forget the future and constantly evoke the vision of models-to-come with utopian fervour, without ever actually proposing new models.

Condo London 2017. Map design by Sam de Groot

So what models, whether practically, conceptually, or even wildly optimistically, do we have? The question is – inevitably, perpetually – a rhetorical one; in part because so many alternatives to the white cube already exist. Perhaps the question is more, how might smaller galleries survive, and continue to support artists working and exhibiting, at a time which seems to reward franchising, homogeneity and predictability? Back when Vilma Gold and MOT were setting up shop, as it were, clothes retailers in LA were setting up temporary stalls to sell their wares for a few days, weeks or months. The restaurant industry caught on soon after; the ‘pop-up’ model has since become urban planners’ favoured way to deal with anything ‘creatives’ might do. Supplement gallery last month re-opened a London space in Hackney Wick, though they have also indicated that more pop-up style programming, such as in New York, is something they’ll be working on more and more. The Condo project, sharing space between galleries internationally, suggests a more communal version of this format of co-hosting, spreading and sharing resources (though the exhibitions the two London versions of the project so far yielded were anything but experimental; the first edition of Condo in New York will run at the end of June). And the art fair, perhaps the main shift of the past five decades in restructuring how galleries operate, is the ur-pop-up.

Bedwyr Williams, Writ Stink, 2015, installation view, Limoncello, London (their former space on Kingsland Road). Courtesy: Limoncello, London

The irony of the pop-up is that it has necessitated the use of the term ‘bricks and mortar’, as if an actual, real life location were secondary to the event of ‘popping’. And of course, the pop-up is just the recent commodification of what artists have been doing for at least the past hundred years anyway: making do in squats and warehouses, setting up happenings and shows in disused shops and empties council flats. Beyond boom or bust, London’s main energies and imaginative models, for me, reside in its project spaces and events; there’s also a history waiting to be written of London’s own innovation of recent decades, the curator-led project space (related to, but distinct from its funkier and more celebrated sister, the artist-led space, and more ephemeral, floating artist organization). But it would seem the people willing to have a go are less eager to start project spaces anymore, favouring a more commercial model from the outset. So, if so many more people are investing (ideologically, at least) in the white cube model, why is there is so much hand-wringing about finding alternatives to it?

Anna Zacharoff and Natalia Goncharova, ‘So far so food’, 2017, installation view, Vilma Gold, London. The last show in their space on Minerva Street, London

Part of it is how we choose to invest in the spaces where we see art. At the enjoyable risk of being obviously and wildly naïve, I would say the question of how smaller galleries might survive is often displaced onto just to those who are able to purchase works. But the deeper question is also, how do we let a wider range of artists create meaningful, long-term relationships with audiences? We support these spaces and shows through visiting them; thought; conversation; creative responses; that’s where actual meaning is created. The focus on the dissolution of the white cube is a MacGuffin; while the smaller galleries are forced to close, the space for viewing art is concentrating into the larger galleries and foundations, spaces that now seem to be posing as public museum spaces. If we want to see a wider range of artists in a wide range of spaces, white cube or not, we need to actually go and see them; otherwise, the way things are going, the only places left to view art will be museums – real or otherwise – or art fairs. So while the lead up to the national election goes on, another choice is underway, and one where you have to vote with your actual feet. I might suggest, as the Green Party have been imploring, a bit of tactical voting.

Main image: David Adamo, ‘David Adamo at Moorgate’, 2017, installation view, Finsbury Circus House, London. A show produced by Ibid Gallery, London/Los Angeles and HS Projects, London

Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and critic who lives in London, UK.