PRINT December 2005

Stuart Comer

AS I EMERGED FROM the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale this July, the airconditioned drafts that trailed me out the door were less chilling than the news I received upon reaching the building’s terrace overlooking the Giardini: A second wave of bombs had just gone off in London—and this while the rhythmic chanting of the phrase “This is so contemporary, contemporary, CONTEMPORARY . . .” drifted over absurdly from Tino Sehgal’s project in the German pavilion next door. The initial reports located the attack on Hackney Road, one of the main arteries in the network of East End streets frequented by many members of the city’s art world, including Gilbert & George, the artists who represented Britain at the Biennale this year. (As it later turned out, of course, the attack was botched and the bombs mostly harmless, but that did little to soothe the nerves of jittery Londoners just two weeks after the events of July 7.)

In the moments preceding this disturbing revelation, I had fixated on Cited Gents, 2005, possibly the most convincing work in “Ginkgo Pictures,” Gilbert & George’s uneven but rewarding exhibition showcasing their relatively recent interest in digitally manipulated imagery. Recalling the sharpness of observation in some of their strongest work about London, such as the gritty “Dirty Words Pictures” of three decades ago, Cited Gents depicts the artists’ trademark bespoke suits morphing into security-camera surveillance footage of Bangladeshi men roaming the streets near Brick Lane. Gilbert & George have resided in the East End’s Spitalfields district since the late ’60s, when the neighborhood began its transformation from a predominantly Jewish enclave to a stronghold of the city’s Bangladeshi community. In recent years, the area’s fashionably decrepit Huguenot dwellings have become some of the most desirable housing in London, pushing the previous inhabitants into council estates further afield. The once Dickensian slum, which was frequently used by filmmakers to depict the blight of inner-city London, now follows, with alarming intensity, the familiar script of urban gentrification.

Gilbert & George have consistently drawn on the spirited multicultural disposition of their surroundings to develop unique strategies for merging art with daily life. Amalgamating the duo’s self-portraits with the closed-circuit-television images through which their community is increasingly observed and managed, Cited Gents is immediately appreciable as a painful emblem of the artists’ identification with the area and, perhaps, their inadvertent role in its transformation. In the aftermath of this summer’s bombings, the work has become a prescient icon of London’s heightened climate of fear and control. The forensic, legislative, and journalistic use value of surveillance imagery reached blue-chip levels this year, making it impossible for the average Londoner to ignore the long-prophesied collapse of digital and physical space. Nor can London’s artists afford not to critically reconcile a historical perspective on the city with the urgent and global responsibilities confronting them as contemporary Londoners.

For all the column inches that have bemoaned Britain’s navel-gazing, parochial tendencies over the decades, 2005 was a year in which London’s international stakes became more apparent. As the city returned, with characteristic efficiency and resolve (and a healthy dose of denial), to “business as usual” after the summer violence, one couldn’t help but have a renewed awareness that much of that business was driven by the influx of cheap labor that has poured in from Eastern European countries recently admitted to the EU. If Israeli-Palestinian discord has replaced the Berlin Wall and the cold war as the defining conflict of our moment, there is still a palpable post-Soviet aura to London, as Baltic and Slavic cultures increasingly inflect the city’s already polyglot mix.

The show that offered the most comprehensive gloss on London’s (and the UK’s) ever more cosmopolitan makeup was actually held, as it happens, in the northern city of Gateshead. “British Art Show,” a substantial survey exhibition that takes place every five years, opened at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art this autumn with work by approximately fifty artists and collaborative groups. Almost half of the participants in this year’s show, which was curated by Alex Farquharson and Andrea Schlieker, were born outside the UK, and most now live and work in London, including Ervin Çavuşoğlu, a Turkish video artist whose statement in the show’s catalogue seems a relevant corollary to the city’s emotional tenor in 2005. Çavuşoğlu suggests how being under surveillance makes one more acutely conscious of one’s location and movement in space: “When I came to live in Turkey and then in London, under totally different conditions, I had to define a new territory, and define myself within that territory.”

Attempting to define and map the different positions and movements within the infinite territory of the capital became the province of more exhibitions and artists’ projects than usual this year. Farquharson and Schlieker, while acknowledging the much-elaborated pitfalls of putting national identity on display, forged ahead with a show that classified work into three categories, or “discussions”: “Revisitations: Ideology, Fiction, Style,” “Love and War: Geopolitics and the Camera,” and “Relations: Audiences, Institutions, Values.” In many ways the relational impulse behind this last grouping pervaded the entire show. The curators delineated a dichotomy within recent practice between “overtly aesthetic, subjective, and physical” work and art that was “political, social, and dematerialized” and were especially concerned with “desegregating” these tendencies and facilitating discourse between them. The first camp included the appealingly dysfunctional utopian reverie of California-born Daria Martin’s engaging films, which reload the “aggressive avant-garde thinking” of the early twentieth century and incorporate references ranging from Oskar Schlemmer to Carolee Schneemann. Foregrounding the less tangible but more user-friendly quality of the second camp were Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska’s foray into the use of Creative Commons’s public-domain copyright licenses and Carey Young’s training course in negotiating skills for the exhibition’s curators. Within the show’s various taxonomies, and the curators’ attempts to connect them, a distinct longing for community manifested itself, whether through critical nostalgia for the mythologized experimental collectives of the past, or through deadpan witnessing of—or playful interventions in—the social spaces of the present.

Compared with this concise, analytical topography of recent practice, the Institute of Contemporary Arts took a distinctly more subjective approach to defining indefinable London. Driven by ICA exhibition director Jens Hoffmann’s curiosity about the paradoxes of London’s political (or more specifically apolitical) and cultural situation, “London in Six Easy Steps” staged, in rapid-fire succession, six individually curated, one-week takes on the city. Hoffmann, who moved to London just under two years ago, has made his mark through conceptually “delegational” shows constructed from multiple viewpoints, and his examination of London followed suit. The first installment was Catherine Wood’s elegant “Emblematic Display,” a thoughtful engagement with London’s heraldic past that offered tempting, highly aestheticized models for thinking through its complex present. In its address to London’s monumentality and excess, the installation of work by Cerith Wyn Evans, Pablo Bronstein, David Thorpe, and others reminded me of a phrase in a text accompanying Rem Koolhaas’s 1972 collaborative project about London, Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture: “It is the hedonistic science of designing collective facilities that fully accommodate individual desires . . . [T]he life inside produces a continuous state of ornamental frenzy and decorative delirium, an overdose of symbols.”

Much like “British Art Show,” the ICA exhibitions grappled with questions of how to facilitate a more vital sense of community in a city that tends to thwart such efforts with aloof ambivalence. Wood’s show was followed by generally engaging curatorial offerings by the collective B+B, Tom Morton and Catharine Patha, Guy Brett, and Gilane Tawadros. Gregor Muir closed the series with the importation of a bit of East End debauchery from the fabled George and Dragon Public House, which was resituated in the ICA’s galleries. Over the years I have met more Scandinavian curators at the original location of this boozer than one might on a residency at IASPIS and more Latin American artists than I met during my ten years as a resident of Los Angeles (and more than my lifetime quota of London fashion stylists). Its reconstitution here was clearly more than an attempt to promote Tom Marioni–inspired pint-swilling. After more than a decade of anonymous “platforms” for social engagement endlessly filling well-funded art spaces across Europe and North America, the George and Dragon’s West End moment offered the chance to transpose what some would consider the single most colorful slice of London to an institutional situation that obviously and inevitably should have killed it. Such symbolic suicide was a perhaps inebriated but poignant admission that the elusiveness and impossibility of representing London is still its greatest strength.

The lifespan of many projects and exhibitions this year was brief, as curators and artists alike discovered that nomadic and temporary situations are often better suited to London’s particularly daunting makeup. The city is so freighted with history, how better to inhabit structures that can never really be one’s own? Morton and Patha steered their roving “Man in the Holocene” project across London, touching down in Trafalgar Square, at a boxing club in Dalston, and at a series of East End spaces and culminating at ex-Gagosianite Jonathan Viner’s recently opened DIY kunsthalle, Fortescue Avenue. Curators Emily Pethick and Kit Hammond’s publishing fair, “Publish and Be Damned,” was situated in a church crypt in Clerkenwell for only a single Sunday afternoon. But the lively selection of independent printing presses and laptop upstarts, ranging from Amsterdam’s DOT DOT DOT to Zurich’s WeAreTheArtists, generated a tremendous energy which spilled into the pubs for the evening and then into the hearts, minds, and bookshelves of those with a few pounds to spare.

This kind of initiative stole the thunder from more traditional artist-run spaces, many of which seemed primarily concerned, over the course of the year, with figuring out how to cram their wares into the tight spaces at the Zoo Art Fair or the only slightly more capacious confines of ~scope and Pilot. These miniexpos all piggybacked onto Frieze during a mid-October week that challenged even the most accomplished multitaskers. But in many ways the fairs have the potential to be more beneficial to London than one might wish to admit, and not only in the sense of developing collectors, high sales, and civic boosterism. After all, London is a market town. For every hyperbranded megastore on the high street, there remain a handful of ancient weekly bazaars that fill the contours of small byways throughout the city and play out the fragments of London’s past against the rising tide of gentrification. For every outpost of Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Sprüth Magers Lee, or the numerous other top-drawer international galleries that have taken root in London in recent years, there also now seems to be an art fair. These fairs, though they may not always present the most scintillating work, attempt to counter the intimidating experience of navigating the vast expanses (and expenses) of London, consolidating brief moments of collectivity vital to such an unknowable city. If artists could learn to exploit such temporary structures for more than simply commercial gain, the fairs could become a viable model of opposition to the deeply solidified real-estate situation in the city, providing stages for more dynamic international exchange and creating apertures of possibility for the active engagement of London’s uncanny fluidity.

Outside the tents, zoos, and hotels, the old white-walled galleries had few very surprising debuts this year, although Daniel Sinsel’s sweetly sadistic paintings at Sadie Coles still resonate. Blow de la Barra—newly opened across the hall from Coles—promised a steady stream of young Latin American work; Stefan Kalmár’s summer show “I REALLY SHOULD . . .” at Lisson Gallery included London’s introduction to Mathias Poledna; Steven Claydon made heads spin happily at Hotel; Rosalind Nashashibi showed a brave face at Counter; and Alexandra Bircken’s woolly constructions warmed up both Herald Street and Maureen Paley. Bircken has been an occasional presence in photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans, whose exhibition “Truth Study Center” at Paley’s gallery was a tour de force and the best installation art of the year.

Most of these galleries are located in the East End, which continues to boom, and new ventures are pushing the neighborhood’s parameters deeper into Hackney. Whether the commercialization of an old bohemian quarter will help artists remains to be seen. On the other end of town, Chelsea awaits the imminent arrival of the Saatchi Gallery, which, in the wake of a nasty tenant-landlord dispute, announced plans to close shop on the Thames. As the art world’s borders expand, so do the number of projects compelled to traverse the distances between them, including those by non-Londoners trying to come to grips with the city. This year witnessed Francis Alÿs’s superb Artangel commission “Seven Walks” and New York collective 16 Beaver’s fascinating challenge to the conventional clock, C of the Willing, 2005, a twenty-four-hour series of “countercartographies” and “chimerical walks.”

But the highlight of all this perambulating was positioned in a show about tourism—during a year in which the powers that be feared tourists might not come at all. Matthew Buckingham’s clever film installation A Man of the Crowd, 2003, included in the Hayward Gallery’s manifestation of Francesco Bonami’s exhibition “Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye,” was a revelation. The work has been circulating internationally for over a year, with stops in New York and Vienna (where it was shot), but here seemed finally to have found its rightful home. The film roughly recreates Poe’s 1840 short story “The Man of the Crowd,” which was a strong influence on Walter Benjamin’s conception of the flaneur and, as it happens, is set in the first industrialized metropolis: London.

The narrative, and Buckingham’s camera, details a circular journey, an impenetrable mystery in which a man follows another, older man through the streets of the city in order to categorize him within a system he has devised to classify passersby. Eventually returning to the point of departure outside of a café before separating from his quarry, the younger man gazes directly into the wanderer’s face, but his glance goes unnoticed and is not returned. The fellow he has been following becomes an emblem of the unreadable city in Poe’s archive of urban phenomena. Each man provides a shadow double of the other, facilitating a reflective glance between the past and the present which is forever looped without closure. Rather than concern itself with a realistic picture of the city, the story prioritizes the ambivalent experience of the narrator-protagonist, who remains an observer, a reader of traces uprooted and abandoned in an unknowable metropolis. Buckingham’s use of mirrored glass in his installation implicates the viewer in a game of doubling and shadows that, during a year in which the past haunted the present more than usual and pressing questions of community abounded, seemed remarkably profound.

Stuart Comer is curator of film and events at Tate Modern, London.