Unlocking Modern Art: The London Open @The Whitechapel Gallery

Rachel Whiteread’s Tree Of Life 2012 now adorns the Whitechapel Gallery’s facade

      The London Open at the Whitechapel Gallery, ‘showcasing the most dynamic work being made in London in 2012’ as its summer open submission exhibition, makes some pretty grand claims. Like, what summer? It hasn’t stopped raining since May.

That aside, The Open is many things, and dynamic is certainly one of them. I would quibble that a lot of the pieces on show were created between 2006 and 2009, with a minority bearing the authentic 2012 stamp, but this is slicing hairs.

The TV screen of Amikan Toren’s 16 Evelyn House 2008 shows busy workmen redecorating the outside of the eponymous address. A RP accented voice-over reads out the letters sent to Toren at his long term home, which are gathered in a file next to the TV. It’s spellbinding to flick through the correspondence detailing, among other things, an opted out of pension scheme, rejections and acceptances of Toren’s art, and an impassioned epistle from a friend getting a divorce. Reading these private letters is like looking over the addressee’s shoulder. Now I understand the phrase ‘Peeping Tom.’

Just as simple in conception and intriguing in execution is Martin John Callanan’s Letters 2004 – 2006: Confirmation That You Still Exist; I Respect Your Authority; When Will It End?  Callanan sent a formal letter to a governmental department head bearing only the first phrase, to various presidents bearing only the second phrase and to representatives of world religions bearing the third. The responses to these vary from delight (‘I am honoured to acknowledge the receipt of and thank you for your letter’), to bemusement (‘I would appreciate it if you would explain and elaborate in more detail’), to anger (‘I don’t really understand what you are trying to say to me’). The counterpoint between Callanan’s ironic challenge and the earnest literal-mindedness of institutional bureacracy is delicious. There is a similar challenge to authority at work in Chris Coombes’ Law Enforcement Slogans 2011, an international list of police department and their slogans that towers roof-high. Incongruity and irony are again pitted against earnest credulity.

Peter Abrahams triptych of photographs of everyday objects are a triumph of composition and tone. Nioholas Cobb’s Untitled 2010, from the series Car Park, are photographs of an imagined riot at a shopping centre, and it’s only upon closer scrutiny that you realise his photographs are of miniature model figures and not real people after all. Leigh Clarke’s imposing Heads of State 2012, showing 30 reverse casts of latex masks of well known world leaders, also distorts our idea of humanity, to eerie effect.

Leigh Clarke’s Heads of State 2012

        There is a great deal of film to watch. Heather Phillipson’s mesmerizing installation A is to D what E is to H 2011 features a disembodied narrative voice that intentionally leaves the listener unsure whether the topic is French cuisine or French kissing, then tells us, ‘the world is full of abandoned meanings.’  You said it, sister.
       On the other hand, Sarah Dobai’s Nettlecomb 2008 made me wonder how exciting a video showing a wind machine blowing over an English garden could be. Not very, is the answer. This meditation on artifice and Englishness is blown away (pun intended) by Beth Collar’s Medieval Window 2011 video, in which a woman in a medieval hat and gown and with a regional accent, presumably at one of those awful historical reconstructions, attempts to commentate upon an unseen jousting match, fumbling with her notes and her microphone in front of a car park, supremely unaware of her own ludicrousness. The epitome of Englishness, indeed.
           Sol Archer’s palace on the left 2011, originally intended as part of an online exhibition and apparently ‘mimicking the free flow of information on the web,’ is a HD series of intense images nominally held together by a robotic voice that offers a surplus of (useless?) information. Speaking of useless, Sriwhana Spong’s film Costume for a Mourner 2010, recreating in black and white a scene from a forgotten ballet in a recreation of a costume designed by Matisse, is every bit as dull and pretentious as it sounds. I sat through it so you wouldn’t have to.
          A whole room is dedicated to sculpture, which, like the film on show, ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime. I didn’t know what to make of Caroline Achaintre’s child-like pieces Tie-Man and Russ-Nuts, which are probably meant to be playful, but I missed the joke. Ana Genoves’ small, misshapen blocks just bored me silly -really, who cares?- but Alice Channer’s Slip 2012, a stainless steel foldout screen, is a thing of height and beauty. Paul Westcombe’s dirty takeaway coffee cups inscribed with intricate comic-strip style cartoons are at least something different, as is Shaun Doyle and Mally Mallison’s Wendy Squat 2004, a child’s plastic dollhouse with barred doors and concreted windows. Outsider art indeed.
        The London Open comes highly recommended. It takes the temperature of our capital’s art scene, and if we’re not quite on fire, we are pretty damn hot.
Keep up with my blog – follow me on Twitter @bitesizedmary

About Mary-Claire W

Writer, reader and art fiend View all posts by Mary-Claire W

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