The London art world would starve to death these days but for the culinary ministrations of Caprice Group’s Mark Hix, the chef of the moment and the man behind the menu at the Artangel Dinner, held on Saturday evening in the Great Hall at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Hosted by an anonymous “pair of angels,” the event celebrated Artangel’s artistic labors of love and the people who “inspire and support” them. Guests included the father of Pop art, Richard Hamilton, who delivered the evening’s keynote speech, as well as artists Ruth Ewan, Alan Kane, Clio Barnard, and Roger Hiorns, the latest beneficiaries of angel benevolence: Each was selected from last year’s Jerwood/Artangel Open, a new two-million-dollar commissioning initiative conceived as a platform for hitherto “unrecognized artistic potential.”
The first of these commissions was realized in October, when Ruth Ewan’s Did You Kiss the Foot That Kicked You, a performance piece based on composer Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad of Accounting,” enlisted more than one hundred London buskers to incorporate the song into their repertoires. These random recitals slipped quietly into the subconscious of frazzled rush-hour travelers. Hiorns’s in-progress project will likely have the opposite effect and will take his work to a dizzying new scale: He plans to cover an entire house, inside and out, with homegrown crystals. Both Kane and Barnard will present artworks as programming on Channel Four.
As Saturday night unfolded, the tireless and benevolent Artangel patron Judith Greer hosted the proceedings with military precision while codirectors James Lingwood and Michael Morris were everywhere at once, meeting and greeting guests. Among the first to arrive were Hamilton and his wife, painter Rita Donagh. Age has barely withered Hamilton, an engaging octogenarian who gamely held forth, fortified by a bracing glass or three of the free-flowing Perrier-Jouet champagne. By 8 PM, the stately venue was crawling with artists, some whose projects had already been lifted by angel’s wings, others whose paint-stained fingers remained firmly crossed.
The seated dinner for 165 was had by candlelight at three endless tables laden with huge antler-shaped candelabras. Though it is terribly fashionable to “cook British” these days, as an American who barely survived “prefood” Britain in the dark ages before celebrity chefs, my hungry heart sank a bit at the evening’s retro fare: black pudding with mushrooms on toast followed by Lancashire hot pot (with or without meat) with pickled raw cabbage, and apple and quince pie for dessert. Dilettante vegetarian and author Geoff Dyer, husband of Saatchi Online editor Rebecca Wilson, gave up waiting for his veggie option and made a desperate but aborted attempt on my plate. Later, a famished Dyer was delighted with the unexpected compensatory gift of an entire pie, boxed and ready to take home—or devour in the taxi.
In the interlude between courses, the debonair Hamilton held everyone’s attention with a talk that bore an undisputed authority, founded as it was on six decades in the belly of the beast. As he described the Pop-art movement as “transient and expendable,” artist Richard Wentworth, intent on drawing something of grave importance on the back of his menu, looked up from time to time to nod vigorously in agreement. Hamilton went on to proclaim Marcel Duchamp “the wittiest person I ever met.” (I’m fairly certain I heard him say “sexiest,” too, but an uncooperative microphone makes me loath to commit it to the record.) Suggesting that virtually all art is Pop art, he shrugged philosophically and noted, “At one end, you’ve got Elvis Presley. At the other, Picasso.”
Given that past Artangel endeavors have catapulted more than one artist onto the international radar—witness Jeremy Deller and his reenacted Battle of Orgreave, Michael Landy’s Breakdown, and Rachel Whiteread’s controversial House in East London—it will be fascinating to track the trajectory of Artangel’s latest wards. And, for that matter, the organization’s international presence as well: As I scanned the dark horizon for a taxi going my way, I overheard chatter about a major new project in the offing in, of all places, Detroit. Yet despite my best efforts—and the champagne—my discreet sources wouldn’t budge. Watch this space.