Today, I had one of those somewhat rare, inspirational days, which served to regenerate my enthusiasm for art.
My friend Catherine texted me this afternoon to ask if I fancied visiting some galleries in the Bethnal Green area. I was in two minds about going at first, it takes about an hour to get there and I’d already been out once that day and kind of felt like staying in and getting some reading done. But I also felt that I shouldn’t miss an opportunity to see some shows as college work has meant that I’ve been on some kind of hiatus for the past two months as far as visiting galleries goes. So an hour later I was in Bethnal Green, waiting to meet Catherine, and what looked like a grey and chilly day unexpectedly turned sunny and warm.
Catherine was brandishing a map published by Time Out magazine promoting firstthursdays, an initiative to promote East End galleries. The East End of London has always had that certain something which marks what might be an up-and-coming ‘art’ area. Unfortunately, it’s had it for a very long time – when I was on my Fine Art degree in the early ’90’s this was where the smaller galleries were just starting to get a foothold, but the area itself was still very much a down-market neigbourhood, and the galleries tended to stand out like sore thumbs in this environment. But things finally look like they’re happening, to the extent that the area seems to be undergoing an overall regeneration – new appartment blocks and offices are springing up amongst the industrial units and ex-council flats, this perhaps being the more obvious signs of an overall gentrification of the area (for better or worse).
We only had a couple of hours so we concentrated on a small area to the West of Cambridge Heath Road, starting on Old Bethnal Green Road at Hotel, showing a series of large-scale but intricately detailed drawings by Torsten Slama: “Illustrated Visions of the Future for the Survival and Maintenance of Monuments dedicated to the Memory of Humankind.”
The pieces showed painstakingly rendered pseudo-isometric drawings of single buildings, looking somewhat Modernist in idiom, following the disappearance of humanity and now being occupied and looked after by animals – cats, monkeys, horses etc. There was a lot going here, the prophetic scenario, the choice of building and their associated titles, the animals, all creating a dreamlike atmosphere, a visionary as the titles make clear.
Around the corner is E:vent, a small project space, which “creates spaces and frameworks for exploring emerging practices in contemporary art.” They are showing works by Cyril Lepetit, a French artist who uses performance and performance-related object-making to create somewhat ritualistic works, presenting remnants of the events which add up to a coherent presentation of the artist’s thought processes. The hair brushes, made from bristles plucked from his beard; the two small paintings, done during the opening performance of two member’s of the audience feet; the video of the artist reclining, naked amongst a pine forest; the circular, turfed platform which holds a copper disc, from the center of which a small fountain plays. Inset into the copper disc are impressions of the artist’s feet, into whic he placed himself during the performance. The show presents evocative traces of the artist’s activity and body in various media, encouraging the visitor to physically relate to the overall milieu, the option is there to literally step into the artist’s footsteps.
We continued on our way up to the Hackney Road and Gallery Primo Alonso where they were showing paintings and drawings by Rui Matsunaga. These pieces were characterised as “hypnotic” and they certainly have ecstatic overtones. The figures and animals lose their coherance, breaking up and blending into one another, the nature of the elements in the pictures remains forever ambiguous – bodies covered with shapes and images, but the images take on a life of their own outside the confines of the figure’s outlines. There’s something of the mystical in the symbolism used, pentagrams appear a lot. The animals are infused with shamanic meanings, and pseudomorphism abounds. To be honest, I didn’t like it, I almost think it was trying too hard to be meaningful. But you had to admire the technique (maybe?).
Just down the road was Gone Tomorrow Gallery, another of those hard-to-find spaces demanding keen eyesight to catch the tiny label on the door bell. After walking past a couple of times we eventually found the entrance and made our way into a set of artists studios, one of which had been converted into the gallery. They were showing works by Neil Zakiewicz which showed a lot of humour, playing with symbols of artistic endeavour and the detritus of smoking and drinking, but overall the group was too clever, I think, trying too hard and they left me feeling like I was witnessing a joke from the outside, unable to really relate to it.
We now made our way back to the Cambridge Heath Road and Wilkinson Gallery who were showing a series of works by Jacob Dahl Jürgensen (sorry, can’t link directly to the info – the site uses frames, bad, bad, bad). These all followed the theme of presenting a sort of ethnological review of the twentieth-centuries artefacts, as if reconstructed by an artist in the distant future, with the inevitable reappraisal and misunderstandings that that would entail. The artist draws on Modernist symbols, hinting at Constructivist structures, or tribal imagery, mystic shapes or just everyday materials infused with magical properties through their juxtaposition and arrangements. These hybrid works subvert whatever original meanings the objects may have for us at this point in time, taking them into a time when those meanings have been forgotten—or at least partially remembered—and being created anew by the future generation. We are witnessing the act of history in the making, with the partiality which that always entails.
Finally, just a few houses away, was cell project space, in a rather well presented bulding at rear of some industrial units. It’s amazing how planting some palm trees in disused air conditioning ducts can make the place seem almost tropical. At the risk of being hyperbolic, it was like stepping into another world when we walked through their gate.
The show could be heard a long time before you made it into the space, as you walk in there is a glass table in front of you with various electronic instruments and wiring laid out forming some kind of arcane contraption which was making a horendous whining noise. This piece by Athanasios Argianas is accompanied by a series of drawings laid out on stools which all suggest uncompleted projects, the drawings sketches for potential pieces or just records of factors involved in the pieces. The electronic piece has the potential to do something, although it sits there inertly whining furiously. It made me feel nervous having this exposed before me, and I couldn’t resist turning the acrylic wheel at the end too see what would happen. Embedded in the wheel are a series of what I took to be magnets, and the wheel was suspended over a large coil which I guess should have provided energy to keep the wheel in rotation given an initial input of energey from outside—i.e. my hand turning the wheel—but as the wheel turned there was massive crack from a spark jumping from the wheel to another part of the piece, at which point the sound began to oscillate in a worrying way before shutting down completely. At this point I made my excuses and left.
Overall, and against my expectations, I had a great time. I’ve been away from looking at art for so long that I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed wandering around, popping into galleries to see all this stuff. If I had to choose I’d say I liked the pieces at cell, their ‘fictions’ appealed to me greatly. But what really inspired me was the E:vent space where we got talking to the director about the work he was presenting and the space itself, and I felt really excited about what he was doing there. It gives me ideas…