The London Open 2018 @ the Whitechapel Gallery

Every three years the Whitechapel Gallery just next to Aldgate East Tube station holds an art competition. It’s open to artists of any nationality so long as they are aged 26 or over, and live in one of London’s 32 boroughs.

The triannual event fell due this year and attracted over 2,600 submissions. The judges whittled these down to a selection of works by 22 artists. The London Open thus amounts to a fascinating snapshot of what young(ish) contemporary London-based artists are up to, what they’re thinking about, how they’re expressing themselves, and what media they’re choosing to do it in.

Or, as the press release puts it:

The exhibition features a diverse selection of 22 artists working in London and engaging with topical concerns; from the rapidly changing urban context, the environment, technology, gender to race representation, human relations, activism and post-colonial histories. Many artists work in unprecedented ways and across different artistic forms, ranging from painting, video and sound to installation, sculpture, performance and work online.

Downstairs

The first thing you see when you walk into the main gallery downstairs is a large frame from which hangs a kind of collage of fabrics, shreds and patches of all shapes, all rather drab in colour, with holes and gaps. It is The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin, born in California in 1976.

The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

This screen is in fact the ‘set’ against which three actors, wearing similarly styled clothes made from shreds and patches of fabric, perform a sort of play.

Costumes for The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

Costumes for The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

According to the exhibition guide, this

large-scale installation deconstructs the limits of painting, sculpture and performance. The piece will be activated by actors and dancers as part of a series of live events accompanying the exhibition, The London Open Live.

Walking past it you encounter probably the most striking piece in the show, New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion, born in New York in 1982. From a small sea of building site rubble dotted with weeds emerge three large sculptures which echo the shapes of new high-rise buildings which are being built on the New Spring Gardens site at Vauxhall.

New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion

New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion

I was intrigued by what appeared to be live weeds growing from the rubble. How are they going to be fed during the exhibition, or are they very realistic plastic models?

On the left of the gallery I was taken by a set of three smallish sculptures by Renee So, born in Hong Kong in 1974. They are, from left to right, Cross-Legged Man (2018), Boot (2016), Woman (2018).

Three sculptures by Renee So

Three sculptures by Renee So

According to the guide, So:

bestows both monumental grandeur but also caricatural qualities to the figures in her works, which weave together a pattern of cross-cultural references.

Yes, I liked the humour implicit in the compositions and their squat, just-so, presence.

Beyond these was a complex installation by Rachel Pimm, born in Harare in 1984. The most prominent elements are a set of blue metal shelves containing various fragments of rock and numerous photos, next to a big screen showing a series of films. All of them concern the process of mining materials and minerals from the ground. To be precise:

Her installation tracks the fabrication of high-end architectural ceramic tiles, from initial mineral extraction to the fine finishing or rejection at the end of the production line.

Diagenetic Sequence Shelf (2017) by Rachel Pimm

Diagenetic Sequence Shelf (2017) by Rachel Pimm

On the opposite wall I warmed to a sequence of paintings by Des Lawrence, born in Wiltshire in 1970. Des takes inspiration from the obituary columns in newspapers, and then paints highly finished (as you can see) portraits relating to the subject’s career or achievements, painting with oil onto aluminium. In their photographic accuracy all four of his works here had an immediately strong visual impact.

Alexandr Serberov (2017) by Des Lawrence. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Todd White

Alexandr Serberov (2017) by Des Lawrence. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Todd White

Hanging from a nearby pillar was a clutch of headphones next to some chairs. You are invited to sit down, make yourself comfortable, slip on the headphones and listen to Grey Granular Fist, by the duo French and Mottershead – consisting of Rebecca French born in 1973 in London. and Andrew Mottershead born 1968 in Manchester.

Grey Granular Fist is from a series of audioworks with the overall title of Afterlife. It’s a 21-minute-long audiowork consisting of a soothing male voice reading out a quiet, methodical and spooky imagining of your own dead body sitting in a chair in a museum, slowly decomposing, and becoming incorporated into the other exhibits, with conservators competing with the natural process of physical decomposition to make your corpse into a sculpture, slowly ageing over time.

Grey Granular Fist is related to another work of theirs, Homebody, a 27-minute-long audio work in which the actress Lily Lowe Myers reads out a script inviting you to imagine yourself lying in your own bed, in your own home, surrounded by familiar objects except that, once again, you are dead. The voice proceeds to describe in loving detail how your body decomposes over days, years and centuries, alongside the disintegration of all your personal and social connections. Homebody can be enjoyed in its entirety online.

Placed in several locations around the ground floor gallery were sculptures by Jonathan Trayte, born in 1980 in Huddersfield. Trayte’s work:

reinterprets modern consumer behaviour and explores the psychology of desire through surface, material and light.

In fact, they are bizarrely shaped but working lights or lamps, made from a variety of materials of which plastic foam and soft fabrics are the most noticeable elements.

Lamps by Jonathan Trayte

Lamps by Jonathan Trayte

As noticeable as the lamps themselves was the way each one stands on a box covered with a kind of green carpet and the way this carpeting extends down across the floor to create a kind of ‘island’ for each set of his works, a carpet you must be careful not to tread on…

Pride of place at the end of the main gallery is an enormous red neon sign displaying a sequence of numbers.

This Much I'm Worth (The Self-Evaluating Art Work) by Rachel Ara (2017)

This Much I’m Worth (The Self-Evaluating Art Work) by Rachel Ara (2017)

The aim of the piece was to use a variety of algorithms to calculate the changing value of a piece of art like this. I wasn’t much impressed because this idea – that almost before it’s been created, a work of modern art is categorised and valued – strikes me as being very old: it is the modern cynic’s view of art going back from Damian Hirst via Jeff Koons to Andy Warhol who said, ‘Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’

Indeed, one of the most famous things about modern art, to the outsider, is the ridiculous amounts of money nowadays being paid for it. The art market is a fascinating area of study in itself, related to, for example, the disposable income of Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern Wealth Funds, as well as to the assessment of wealth managers as to whether this or that piece represents a good investment, related to whether the artist has managed to create a successful ‘look’ and style, has made themselves into a brand, has got a good contract with dealers in London, New York, Beijing and so on.

If any of this – the existence and value of art out there in the real world of buyers and sellers, in the international marketplace of art –  was present in the piece it really didn’t come across. What was more evident and visible was the extraordinary array of computers required along the bottom of the display, as well as the extremely messy tangle of wires and cables.

It seemed to me that the piece was much more about its own construction than about any particular meaning.

But, to quote the guide:

Rachel Ara’s monumental neon sculpture continually displays its own value, calculated from a series of algorithms that reflect criteria such as age, gender, sexuality, race and provenance. The value of the artwork, displayed in brightly lit numbers, will change continually over the course of the exhibition. Ara’s practice draws on her former career as a computer system designer and is concerned with feminism and queer theory.

It seems to me symptomatic of the art world as a whole to obsess about gender and sexuality, race and post-colonialism, and simply ignore the world of economics – the real world which, at all levels (personal, national, international), determines our day to day activity (do I have a job? how much money am I getting? can I afford my rent?), the state of our societies (the impact of the age of Austerity and government cuts which we all live in), and the climate of international affairs (poverty and austerity driving xenophobia and populism in nations from America to Hungary). As usual, it seems to me a deliberately small, self-referencing world, a world obsessed with bodies, usually the artist’s own body, and skin colour, as if that is enough.

Upstairs – gallery 9

These kinds of thoughts were encouraged by the exhibition itself because politics is very much the theme of the first of the two upstairs galleries.

As far as I could make out, this big room is entirely devoted to works by film-maker and political activist, Andrea Luka Zimmerman, born in 1969 in Munich. Walking up the stairs the tone is set by a couple of uncompromising fabrics hanging from the walls.

Liars

Liars

And

Sex work is work

Sex work is work

The gallery is lined with an impressive collection of left-wing activist posters, some dating back decades – there’s an invitation to take part in a Women’s Day march in 1975, for women to meet at Greenham Common in 1983, posters showing the revolutionary poster-boy Che Guevara, and much more.

Wall of left wing posters

Wall of left-wing posters in the Andrea Luka Zimmerman room

On a table in the middle of the room is a board game based on snakes and ladders which Zimmerman has adapted so that the players advance up ladders or slide down snakes according to whether various activist causes thrive or hit setbacks. You’re encouraged to sit down and play, which is quite fun.

The whole room is in semi-darkness because one end is dominated by a big screen on which is projected a 28 minute long film, Civil Rites set in Newcastle.

Zimmerman spent months in the city, researching a really deep historical review of all the moments of civil protest and resistance which had taken place in the city going right back to the Civil War, taking in riots at the time of the French Revolution or during the depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Chartist agitation, protests for shorter hours and better pay, to extend the suffrage, for women’s rights and the vote for women, through the Suffragettes, and on into the era of contemporary political activism from the late 1960s onwards.

As far as possible she has tracked down locations in the modern city where these events happened and films them in a classic square-on style, the camera completely static facing, say, an old Methodist chapel or a modern office block, behind railings, next to a busy street, while the English rain falls and unhappy looking people slouch by, a dog stops for a wee, and so on.

Comfy sofa in front of Civil Rites by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (2017)

The comfy sofa in front of Civil Rites by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (2017)

During the weeks of filming she asked passersby for their views on three issues raised by Martin Luther King Jnr in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. He had called, back in 1968, for the abolition of three big evils – Poverty, Racism and War. What did people walking the streets of rainy Newcastle make of his call fifty years later?

And so, while the screen shows hypnotically static shots of Newcastle buildings, with a slow procession of captions commemorating all the moments of protest and civil resistance in the city’s long history, we hear on the soundtrack – but never see – all sorts of voices, rough working class voices, black voices, heavily accented Geordie voices, at least one American tourist or passerby – all giving their views on the current state of society and its ills.

It sounds pretentious but I found it completely absorbing. Not many other people were about so I was able to plonk myself on the comfy sofa, itself placed on the homely carpet, which is set in front of the screen, and watch the entire 28 minute film through once, and I began to watch it a second time before duty called and I had to move on.

The classic, square-on framing of the shots and the fact that each one lingers for quite a long time, so that there’s no frenetic cutting, fades or dissolves, no shaky hand-held shots – meant that visually the film was slow and secure and very calming.

What a relief, what a welcome change, to be watching an art film which is not about New York or blacks in the Deep South or transvestites in Mexico, but about ordinary English people in a very ordinary English city, Newcastle, a place which rarely features in ‘art’ exhibitions of any kind.

Your response to the politics, to the walls of old posters, will vary according to temperament and beliefs. But I thought the film was one of the best ‘art’ videos I’ve seen for a long time.

Upstairs – gallery 8

You walk through double doors out of the darkened politics room into gallery 8, which is light and spacious and long, with room for displays by another eight or so artists.

To be honest, I was feeling quite full by this stage, especially filled by the host of memories and thoughts about English history and English politics triggered by the Zimmerman room – so I didn’t have enough capacity left to really pay full attention to the artists here.

Uriel Orlow was represented by a big slide projection showing still from a 1963 documentary about the South African Botanical Gardens which featured white scientists and tourists celebrating the 50th anniversary of the garden, while African people only appear in the film as workers. Orlow invited actor Lindiwe Matshikiza to pose in front of blow-ups of these photos and ‘physically confront this archival material from the Apartheid era’.

The Fairest Heritage by Uriel Orlow (2016-17) Digital film still. Courtesy of the artist

The Fairest Heritage by Uriel Orlow (2016-17) Digital film still. Courtesy of the artist

Also ‘investigating the effects of colonialism’ is Larry Achiampong. The artist himself was in attendance to explain the idea behind his film Relic 1 (2017) which was showing in a purpose-built alcove. Relic 1 shows a black woman wearing a space helmet and bearing a pan-African flag exploring the ruins and wreckage of a white Europe which has collapsed and decayed, leaving only scattered objects and concrete ruins. According to the guide, Achiampong’s work reflects on:

the impact of colonial histories, exploring notions around race, class and culture in the digital age.

It reminded me of the experimental film I saw at Into the Unknown, the Barbican’s excellent exhibition of science fiction, Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu.

As a plot, arrival from somewhere else arrives to investigate the ruins of Western society / human civilisation, strikes me as being one of the oldest storylines in science fiction, although it is shot in a very slow, beautiful style. Here’s a flavour:

I came in towards the end and so caught the list of credits at the end of the film. Right at the end the film is dedicated to two named individuals (friends/colleagues of Achiampong?) and ‘to Grenfell’.

It made me reflect how quickly and totally the Grenfell Tower disaster has been assimilated into the canon of left-wing, post-colonial, right-on grievances, as swiftly and efficiently as medieval saints were assimilated, canonised and venerated by the medieval church, and for much the same reason – because it provides one more building block for a self-reinforcing framework of belief, for a rhetoric of opposition, for a discourse of radical anger.

Further along the gallery was a suite of paintings by Hannah Brown, born 1977 in Salisbury, who does surprisingly ‘conventional’ paintings of rural scenes, although sometimes with a contemporary kick in the title. As a keen walker in the countryside around London, and author of a walking blog, I appreciated these bucolic paintings for their composition and technical proficiency.

The field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on, 1 (2016-17) Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Anna Arca

The field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on, 1 (2016-17) Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Anna Arca

The exhibition closes with a video and sound installation by Tom Lock titled Within (2017). This is shown in a large darkened space around which are hung four big screens showing what amounts to a sequence of animations of zoomorphic patterns and shapes. There are no chairs or benches, but a couple of beanbags to slump in. All quite psychedelic and trippy.

Within by Tom Lock (2017)

Within by Tom Lock (2017)

Over the gently moving and evolving shapes is a voiceover speaking a narrative based on science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s 1987 novel, Lilith’s Brood. The narrative appears to be about the human race dying out and its only future being to cross-breed with an alien life form, thus creating a new hybrid species, the animations somehow depicting the new shapes and patterns this hybrid would take. Or see. Or think – it wasn’t very clear.

Either way, Within was a very soothing, restful end to the show, and an interesting counterpoint to the very human political concerns of the Zimmerman film earlier on.

Now I think about it, the leading feature of the three art films I’ve mentioned is how restful, slow and peaceful all of them are.

Conclusion

The London Open is FREE. Go along and see what cutting-edge, right up-to-the-minute artists are doing.

Although I am routinely amused and sometimes dismayed by the art world’s tiny-minded concerns with a very limited set of ‘issues’ – to quote the exhibition guide, various artists are ‘concerned with…’

  • notions around race, class and culture
  • the psychology of desire
  • relationships between gender, technology and systems of power
  • the politics of racial identity
  • an intimate female perspective on desire

– nonetheless, I am grateful to institutes like the Whitechapel for their commitment to select, showcase and explain contemporary and cutting-edge art from around the world.

22 artists

I’ve only mentioned the work of about half the artists in the exhibition, generally the larger-scale more eye-catching ones. The full list of London Open 2018 artists is:

  • Larry Achiampong
  • Rachel Ara
  • Gabriella Boyd
  • Hannah Brown
  • Rachael Champion
  • Gary Colclough
  • George Eksts
  • Ayan Farah
  • French & Mottershead
  • Vikesh Govind
  • Richard Healy
  • Des Lawrence
  • Tom Lock
  • Céline Manz
  • Uriel Orlow
  • Rachel Pimm
  • Renee So
  • Alexis Teplin
  • Elisabeth Tomlinson
  • Jonathan Trayte
  • Tom Varley
  • Andrea Luka Zimmerman

The curators

The London Open 2018 is curated by Emily Butler, Mahera and Mohammad Abu Ghazaleh Curator, Whitechapel Gallery with Cameron Foote, Assistant Curator, Whitechapel Gallery. As to the selection criteria, Butler is quoted as saying:

With recent debates about political, religious, gender and racial representation, we were drawn to artists whose work genuinely engages with the subjects explored in it.


Related links

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

165 Annual Open Exhibition @ The Royal West of England Academy

Open exhibitions like this are a pleasure to stroll round because there is no narrative, no history or biography or grand issues to engage with: just art and your reactions to it.

The Royal West of England Academy was founded in the 1840s. The current building was built in the 1850s with details added just before the Great War. The academy was granted its royal charter in 1913.

This is the 165th year of the RWA’s Annual Open Exhibition. Over 2,000 pieces were submitted from which the judges selected 624 pieces. It’s similar to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition except:

  • it’s held in Bristol
  • it’s held in the autumn, not the summer
  • it’s smaller

There are paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, mixed media and videos. As at the RA Summer Exhibition, almost all the pieces are on sale.

Main room at RWA 165

Main room at RWA 165

The majority of the works are paintings. I liked the mysterious forest fragility of this one.

Swimming with mules by Nicola Bealing. Oil and spray paint on linen (£19,000)

Swimming with mules by Nicola Bealing. Oil and spray paint on linen (£19,000)

On the Antiques Roadshow the other day an expert referred to a painting very like this next one in appearance as a good example of the ‘New English Art Club’ style, meaning blotchily realistic. There are always entries like this at the RA. It seems to be a permanent style or ‘look’ in English art. Unflatterinb realism.

The nurseryman by Martin Bentham. Oil on linen (£4,850)

The nurseryman by Martin Bentham. Oil on linen (£4,850)

At the other extreme (maybe) is ‘conceptual’ art, in this case a series of photos of several rolls of tape with words on – I think they all have ‘menopause’ written on them which allows the artist to create verbal and visual puns.

The Menses Tapes by Rachel Ara. Digital print (£340)

The Menses Tapes by Rachel Ara. Digital print (£340)

Jason Lane had several entertaining sculptures of birds made from random bits of waste metal.

Circus Bird by Jason Lane. Reclaimed steel (£1,450)

Circus Bird by Jason Lane. Reclaimed steel (£1,450)

In fact I found myself drawn much more to the sculptures than the paintings and drawings. They seem more engaging, more varied, and often more obviously humorous as in this collection of cartoon figures by John Butler.

Limewood sculptures by John Butler (£480)

Limewood sculptures by John Butler (£480)

Or this joke piece by Bev Knowlden

Pop Up Moses by Bev Knowlden. Iron resin (£350)

Pop Up Moses by Bev Knowlden. Iron resin (£350)

That said, amid the flood of visual images I found myself drawn to this – as far as I can tell – completely naturalistic photo of a boxing ring – not something you see in art much – framed in the flat, complete, square-on style I like most in my photos.

Spaniorum Farm Gymnasium by Stephen Lewis. Digital print (£565)

Spaniorum Farm Gymnasium by Stephen Lewis. Digital print (£565)

There are several featured artists in the show and one is the photographer Tom Hunter, represented by three haunting big prints made of abandoned quarries. Unfortunately too high up on the wall and too reflective of the gallery lights to be worth snapping.

One of the visitor guides explained that over the past few years it’s become a custom for the second (smallish) room in the show to be entirely of works in black and white – the monochrome room. What a good idea.

The monochrome room

The monochrome room

The pieces varied from straightforward (if imaginative) black and white photos…

On King's Play Hill, Wiltshire by Richard Draper. Giclée print on archival paper (£480)

On King’s Play Hill, Wiltshire by Richard Draper. Giclée print on archival paper (£480)

… to a stunning sculpture which reminded me of the taut early carvings of Jacob Epstein/Eric Gill…

Odysseus by Reece Ingram. Marble (£4,750)

Odysseus by Reece Ingram. Marble (£4,750)

… through to this simple but striking and humorous piece…

Coming Out by David Backhouse. Bronze (£6,000)

Coming Out by David Backhouse. Bronze (£6,000)

… and this extraordinary work which is made entirely of poppy seeds and which won the show’s Creativity Award.

Seeds to the wind by Jon England. poppy seeds and varnish (£2,200)

Seeds to the wind by Jon England. Poppy seeds and varnish (£2,200)

Through the doors and back in the world of colour was a crazy cubist-looking piece which, on closer examination, turned out to be made entirely from old wooden school rulers.

Lost and Found by Rose Vickers. Wooden rulers (£2,900)

Lost and Found by Rose Vickers. Wooden rulers (£2,900)

I made an effort to look beyond all the fun sculptures to the flat images, the paintings and photos and drawings and prints. Probably the most striking of these was the stunningly good-looking Dominique by Philip Munoz. This is actually what the world of images outside art galleries often looks like – adverts on buses, hoardings, in newspapers and magazines – glamour, fashion, movies, models, music videso.

This image raises the question of why so much contemporary art so determinedly turns its back on the real world ‘out there’, in favour of deliberately abstract or fragmented or degraded images. Maybe it feels it can’t compete. But it can, as Philip Munoz’s amazing painting shows.

Dominique by Philip Munoz. Oil on linen (£7,500)

Dominique by Philip Munoz. Oil on linen (£7,500)

When I go round the RA Summer exhibition with the kids we play various games to keep ourselves motivated, including Find the most expensive work (alongside find the smallest/largest work). As far as I could see this appears to be the priciest item on display, by none other than Christopher le Brun who is the current president of the Royal Academy and one of the ‘invited artists’ featured in the show.

Paean by Christopher Le Brun. Oil on canvas (£72,000)

Paean by Christopher Le Brun. Oil on canvas (£72,000)

The Le Brun piece perhaps explains why it’s easier to relate to sculptures: by definition, sculptures have to be free standing, they have to have a presence in the world. Maybe it’s harder to make a rubbish sculpture than a rubbish painting. Maybe three-dimensional objects are always more interesting than two-dimensional ones because they present more angles and information to our restless, calculating, predator brains.

For whatever reason, I kept being attracted away from the paintings on the wall towards the sculptures in the hall.

Etch by Linda Kieft. Stoneware (£1,800)

Etch by Linda Kieft. Stoneware (£1,800)

And a lot of them seemed to be both figurative and humorous. Because I saw an Ai Weiwei sculpture up the road at the Bristol Art Gallery the day before, I still had his work in mind. Ai has done scores and scores of sculptures which are not funny or amusing. Clever, visually striking, yes – but not sympatico. Here in Bristol, for some reason, almost all the sculptures had a winning warmth and humour.

Uprising by Tom Astley. Clay, paint, jesmonite and bronze resin (£1,850)

Uprising by Tom Astley. Clay, paint, jesmonite and bronze resin (£1,850)

I liked this entanglement of lizards, beautifully modelled, brightly coloured…

Alchemical fire by Manuel Calderon. Bronze casting (£35,600)

Alchemical fire by Manuel Calderon. Bronze casting (£35,600)

… and was very taken by these three guys on a bench. They’re the kind of undetailed slabby humanoid figures you often see not just in art galleries, but in life-sized humanoid sculptures around city streets. But here they were set off by the more detailed imagery in the paintings and drawings on the nearby walls, which gave them an extra sense of freedom and spaciousness. They made more sense in a gallery than on a street corner.

Trilogy by William Cramer. Bronze figure, aluminium figure, silver leaf resin figure on stone base (£2,000)

Trilogy by William Cramer. Bronze figure, aluminium figure, silver leaf resin figure on stone base (£2,000)

Then there’s plain quirky.

Launch of yellow skyrocket and sputniks by Morag MacInnes. Clay. (£600)

Launch of yellow skyrocket and sputniks by Morag MacInnes. Clay. (£600)

This exhibition is great fun, warm and humane, varied and stimulating, entertaining and thoughtful.

If you could have one and only one of these pieces free of charge – which one would you choose and why?


Related links

Reviews of other Bristol art shows

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