From Hair to Eternity


Left: Curator Andrew Renton. Right: Artist Spartacus Chetwynd. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

On Tuesday evening, the 36 bus was packed and stale with urban humanity. As it crept across South London, I strained for a glimpse of something other than housing estates broken by the occasional Georgian terrace, anything that might indicate art. South London Gallery (SLG) is geographically challenged, and yet, flanked by Camberwell College of Art, it is one of the most highly respected public galleries in Britain, with an historical pedigree and a finger-on-the-pulse program. Featuring abundant natural light and elegant proportions, the SLG space, according to many artists and curators, is the best exhibition room in London.

My journey south was eventually rewarded with a precurtain peek at SLG’s latest exhibition—a group show, curated by Andrew Renton, titled “Stay Forever and Ever and Ever.” Intrigued by the relationships between objects, memories, and nostalgia, Renton selected eleven international artists whose practices look at how memories are stored within objects and at how objects can arouse memories. So far, so good.

While staff and hired-gun students from next door scurried about making last-minute adjustments, SLG director Margot Heller remained fashionably elusive. In lieu, her majordomo offered the ten-pence tour. It was barely under way when Renton himself swept in with the panache of an Italian playboy—Savile Row jacket and good, no, great, shoulder-length curly hair. Striding over to a huge vase of flowers atop a plinth at the center of the room, he tweaked the blossoms. (This turned out to be the show’s central work, de Rijke/de Rooij’s Bouquet II, 2003.) “I’m always telling my MA students that curating is not flower arranging,” he deadpanned. At best, curating a good group show is tricky; at worst, it is summertime program filler. Occasionally, though, a curator has a vision so focused and thought-through that the artworks come together in one glorious, lyric aria.

Left: South London Gallery curator Kit Hammond with artist Michael Fullerton. Right: South London Gallery director Margot Heller.

But Kylie Minogue? The title of the exhibition is taken from one of her hits. With a straight face, Renton asserted, “Kylie Minogue is the most important artist of this generation.” A few titters and a collective shifting of feet followed as his respectful audience awaited the punch line. This was bewildering stuff coming from the rigorously intellectual Renton, who wrote a Ph.D. on Samuel Beckett and is head of curating at Goldsmiths College, an institution responsible for roughly one out of every four artists Britain puts on the international map. But there was more. “Seriously,” he insisted, “Kylie Minogue is the Warhol of this generation. Like him, she is passive—an observer. Kylie is like tofu. With no flavor of her own, she masterfully absorbs the flavors around her.” So Renton finds weight and meaning where others find only fluff and lip gloss.

The doors opened to the public and the throng poured in. The wry, recently “rebranded” Spartacus Chetwynd’s sartorial statement rivaled that of her work—in Big Bird yellow, shocking pink, and animal print, she mugged for the camera in a wonky parody of a supermodel on the job. “Was I the only one being an arsehole?” she later sheepishly whispered to a mate. Rearranging her giant octopus so that he looked “happier,” she admitted that Hokusai’s Octapai, 2004, had just been purchased by dealer Sadie Coles.

Collector Muriel Salem, artist Martin Boyce, and collector John A. Smith. Right: Artist Abraham Cruzvillegas.

I intercepted Glaswegian artist Michael Fullerton, briefly out of the gaze of his eagle-eyed dealer Carl Freedman, sneaking out for a de rigueur cigarette. Artfully disheveled, with a distinctly “European” aroma, Fullerton confessed that the human hair in Experience (A Cautionary Tale: The Femme Fatale of Jurgen Hambrecht), 2007, belonged to the first girl he ever slept with. He has kept a box of her locks under his bed for years. He admitted to a long-standing Vidal Sassoon fixation, whereupon I asked whether he might have a hair fetish (his own is long and unkempt but miraculously shiny). A eureka moment passed across his face. It was time to move on.

Bookish Scot artist Martin Boyce chatted earnestly with collector and patron John A. Smith. He and his wife, Vicky Hughes, helped fund the exhibition, and they split the evening into his-and-hers shifts, citing pressing parental obligations. Synergistically, he took the early shift; she stayed on for the party, which took place in a tent at the back of the gallery. Sadly for the starving, the much-feted vegetarian Indian food didn’t live up to the maximal show. Suffice it to say . . . they didn’t serve tofu.

Lynne Gentle

Left: Dealer Stephen Friedman with curator Jo Stella-Sawicka. Right: South London Gallery's Ros Taylor and Artangel's Rachel Anderson.

Left: Filmmaker Nicholas Barker and Frieze cofounder Matthew Slotover. Right: Dealer Carl Freedman with art lawyer Daniel McClean.