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.