by Rhys Edwards
Rhys Edwards opens up about his alienating search for contemporary art in the UK this summer.
I travelled to the United Kingdom earlier this summer, where I took the opportunity to visit a variety of contemporary art institutions. In taking the trip, I had hoped to expand my visual horizons, while gaining firsthand experience with the work of some of the most innovative and exciting artists in the world.
Although I did see some truly spectacular art, the entire experience was soured by the at times insidious facade of the British contemporary art institution itself.
I had originally wanted to write a review of a show in Glasgow, featuring the Mexican installation artist Teresa Margolles, for Satellite’s blog. Some readers may remember that Margolles was featured in a previous exhibition at Satellite, Broken Borders, just a few months ago, and as such I felt that a review of Margolles’ recent sculpture exhibition in Glasgow would lend a more global perspective to the Satellite show. Despite spending three days in Glasgow, however, I never got the chance to see her work.
This is because I spent several hours looking for the gallery in which Margolles’ work was located. I should stress that the day I arrived in Glasgow was, coincidentally, one of the hottest days on record in Scotland, and that the sweltering heat lasted my entire visit. Stumbling from one vacant industrial district to another, under the sweltering sun, I had only a vague sense of where the gallery was to be found, and what it was called. When I finally found it, after an exhaustive amount of walking and a missed bus stop, it was as if I had stumbled upon an oasis in a desert.
My relief was short-lived, however. The gallery was located on the ground level of a large, isolated office tower near a stretch of manufacturing plants and deserted warehouses. There was no indication that there was even anything worth looking at in this part of town; I found it purely because I had exhausted every alternative location within the area. I should note that I did not actually see the gallery itself. Rather, I learned of its existence only from a construction worker, who was working on the unpaved, altogether desolate space surrounding the tower. On approaching the building, I quickly sensed that my efforts had been fruitless. The worker confirmed my suspicions, telling me that the gallery was currently closed, and that it was only open from Friday to Sunday during limited hours.
In all fairness, it is my own fault that I could not enter the gallery. There is, however, still something about the affair that bothers me: how utterly isolated I felt upon approaching the gallery space. Even if the gallery had been open, I felt as if I was not meant to find it. The ambiguity surrounding the gallery, what little I could glean about it from asking around, and its limited opening hours, suggested a contrived periphery, i.e., an intentioned distance from the view of the public at large.
If the above story was the only instance in which I had felt this sentiment of alienation, I would not have bothered to mention it. Unfortunately, it was not.
A week previously, I had visited Cambridge Heath Road in London. Situated within the East End, home of much of London’s creative community as well as leading contemporary art institutions such as Whitechapel and the White Cube, Cambridge Heath hosts a mile long stretch of smaller art establishments.
There are eight or so galleries on the stretch; of those, about three of them were closed (on a weekday, no less). The galleries were sequestered from public view; though I had a small map with me to indicate approximately where each one was located, I found myself snooping around doorways and alleys, as if a detective. There was a small thrill involved, as a knock on the wrong door could lead to a meeting with a rather angry Londoner.
The first gallery was located inside an unassuming grey building, on which all the ground floor windows had been covered up. The only sign that indicated the presence of the gallery was a minute sheet of paper, plastered on the solid metal doors of the building. Next to the doors was a small metal box with a buzzer. Finding the doors locked, I cautiously pressed the buzzer. A voice came over the intercom.
“Hello… can I come in?”
A loud click followed, as the doors were unlocked from the inside. A young woman greeted me and escorted me to the second floor of the sterile building—it seemed that in a previous life the gallery had been a warehouse of some sort—before receding into an inner sanctum. I was left alone in a large white room with a concrete floor (not dissimilar to Satellite Gallery, but with the presence of windows), in which a series of sculptures, prints, and paintings from several artists had been installed. The work was based on an obscure theme, the life and corpus of a little-known late Italian modernist of some kind, as evinced by a pile of papers meekly placed on a nearby windowsill; no other decorum, in the form of labels or signs, infringed upon the pristine aridity of the space.
I found some of the work quite engaging. Yet, upon leaving the gallery, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth. I could not possibly hope to have understood the aesthetic or intellectual connotations of the exhibition on any serious level, or at least, I did not understand its relevance to anything outside of its walls. Perhaps it is because I am used to having a ‘hand-held’ gallery experience in Vancouver, wherein an interpretive framework is readily provided for critics and connoisseurs. Such a framework was available, to a limited extent, in the form of the documentation accompanying this exhibition. But this framework was mediated by the experience of the space itself: isolated, seemingly autonomous, and disinterested. I received the essential impression that it was the responsibility of the gallery-goer to imbibe any sort of meaningful response from the space, or to assume, at the very least, that the implicit existence of this distended space (regardless of what might be found inside) in and of itself constituted its importance within contemporary art discourse.
My experience was repeated throughout Cambridge Heath. Some of the galleries had more public facades, with signage and transparent windows, but I was still surprised to find that each one employed the use of a buzzer system to permit entry. I can only speculate what the reason for the consistent use of this mechanism is. The work was generally not worthy of theft (how would a thief be able to sell a work of stolen contemporary art on a secondary market?), nor would the locks have been used to prevent an influx of eager visitors or prospective buyers from crowding the space, for there were hardly people lining up outside to enter.
I certainly do not expect to be waited upon in a gallery, in the UK or anywhere else. Yet I was left with the distinct impression that whether anyone actually enters one of these galleries is of no importance to their daily operations (except collectors and dealers, perhaps). I can only surmise that the individuals who operate these spaces bear markedly little interest in members of the public at large perusing their exhibitions. I recall one gallerist almost chasing me away, after she had observed me climbing a fire escape to what I had thought was the entrance of the space, so ambivalent was the exterior of the building.
My alienation reached its climax on Vyner Street, a side road that connects to Cambridge Heath. Vyner has a reputation as one of the most important artistic centres in East London. On the first Thursday of each month, thousands of people will flock to see the openings of each of the galleries on Vyner; many of Britain’s hottest artists have launched their careers on one of these nights. When I visited, however, the street was largely barren, with the exception of a few workers wandering around. I gradually picked my way through each of the open galleries, noting that the quality of the exhibitions was generally higher than those I had seen on Cambridge Heath.
As I approached the end of the road, I had only one gallery left to see, known simply as the Wilkinson Space. Consulting my map, I speculated that the gallery no longer existed, or had been marked incorrectly. Wandering back and forth, I nearly gave up until I happened to glance at a large black structure I had assumed was merely another desolate warehouse. The building was devoid of any architectural features, with the exception of an impressive set of monolithic double doors, two storeys in height. Looking closely at the doorway, I found a minimalist label denoting that this was, indeed, the gallery in question. I pressed yet another button, and was met with a far more impressive click than I had previously encountered. Despite their size, the doors pushed inward gently.
The experience was not unlike entering a postmodern cathedral. The entrance hall, also two storeys in height, was completely empty save for a plain white desk at the far end of the hall. Partially hidden by the desk was another young woman, who gave me a furtive glance before looking back to her monitor; evidently, I was not worthy of greeting. My footsteps echoed throughout the vast, imposing space. The artwork itself was on display in two adjacent rooms, one of which was reached by hidden stairwell. On the first floor was a series of large, plain paintings, copied from photographs. On the second floor was an installation consisting of several windshields, a metal pole attached to the ground, and an extension ladder suspended from the ceiling by a series of ropes. As in every other gallery I had seen that day, the walls were bereft of any kind of text.
The austere architecture, the almost inhuman purity, the total silence—these elements colluded to create a vacuum of external reference, leaving only the aura of the gallery itself. The artwork, it seemed, inhabited a perfect realm of being, a liminal space in which all homeostatic processes are suspended for the duration of one’s stay. In such a space, the art becomes all-powerful, and the viewer supposedly perceives the work in all its formal resplendence. These, I suspect, are the precepts which govern the design of galleries, such as the Wilkinson Space, which reconcile the vapidity of the artwork with the grandeur of the gallery.
While such a critique has been made by many others, what is significant in my own experience is not so much that I found the Wilkinson splendidly repulsive, but rather, that I understood that the Wilkinson can and will subsist regardless of what I or anyone with an income below a certain threshold thinks about it. It, like the smaller galleries that surround it, is impassive to the interests of the public.
I am aware that the spaces I am discussing probably appeal to a minority of the population. I sympathize with the efforts of galleries to exhibit work that is challenging, that forces audiences to evaluate their own prejudices and conceptions of meaning and value. These efforts countervail those of larger, more public institutions, like the Tate Modern or the Vancouver Art Gallery. Every year, these places are compelled to produce blockbuster exhibitions, featuring safe or gratifying artists, for the purposes of entertaining the masses and thereby generating revenue in the absence of government funding. The result of this ‘edutainment’ is an aesthetic and discursive singularity consisting of large installations, pretty colours, and a sort of institutionalised iconoclasm.
What bothers me is the irreverence of these spaces. Public opinion about contemporary art remains a fickle thing, and funding for artistic institutions is ever rescinding—these issues are particularly salient in the UK. Yet, unless I am an exceptionally unusual sort of gallery visitor, these establishments do not feel compelled even slightly to address the interests of the average person. I do not feel that galleries have an obligation to explain themselves to people who have only a limited conception of art. But this does not mean that a tacit disgust at the gaze of the public eye, as implied by the insular nature of such galleries, is conducive to the appreciation of art in any way.
The impetus for such seclusion is compelled by the need to historicize important contemporary artists, for historicizing a work makes it much more valuable, and gives it greater bargaining power within the market. Since works which are widely disseminated in the public domain must appeal to the masses, they cannot (according to modernist thinking) be of significant historical relevance. Thus, works in peripheral gallery spaces are connoted with the avant-garde, and the experimental; in virtue of their designation, and through the corroboration of dense statements, catalogues and manifestos, they become rigorous in concept and execution. These connotations suggest, to those who ‘matter,’ that they are historically important. I say that this is a paradox because I cannot understand how an artist can deign to contribute to the development of art history, in any authentic sense, when the cutting-edge ‘dialogue’ which supposedly informs his oeuvre has been orchestrated by a series of powerful individuals.