PRINT Summer 2008


Between Bridges and London’s alternative spaces

ALONG WITH THE ARRIVAL of the supersize gallery in London, the past few years have witnessed the opening of a handful of galleries that barely warrant the term space, given that they are so entirely lacking in square footage. For example, Ancient & Modern, run by Rob Tufnell and Bruce Haines, is situated in no more than a corridor off Old Street; Associates, the yearlong project run by artist Ryan Gander that closed in 2007, took place in a boxlike storefront on Hoxton Street; and the Bethnal Green gallery Between Bridges is located in what can only be described as a stairwell leading to artist Wolfgang Tillmans’s studio. What these spaces lack in size, however, they have made up for in program, presentation, and attitude—the limitations in scale becoming a framework within which to work rather than a hindrance. In accordance with their choice of minimal venue, the galleries have worked against the various mainstreams to bring us the forgotten, the overlooked, the marginalized, and the just emerging.

A mere five years ago these galleries might not have appeared quite so out of place in the London art world. While the Frieze Art Fair and commercial titans such as Hauser & Wirth and Gagosian Gallery have brought a much-needed internationalism to this inward-looking island’s shores, they have taken over a scene that once contained numerous artist-run spaces—City Racing was perhaps the most celebrated of these, but other notable noncommercial groups and galleries included the artist collective BANK, which curated various exhibitions; artist Richard Crow’s private residence–cum–exhibition space Institution of Rot, cofounded with writer Nick Couldry; and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Maria Lind, and Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt’s Salon 3, in a low-budget shopping mall in Elephant and Castle.

Albeit a commercial gallery, Ancient & Modern seems indelibly affected by the curatorial leanings of its two directors: Tufnell was formerly a curator at Turner Contemporary, Margate, while Haines still curates at Camden Arts Centre. The gallery’s artists are imaginatively paired in exhibitions with kindred spirits from earlier generations (Alan Kane with Humphrey Spender, Scott Myles with László Moholy-Nagy); upcoming exhibitions include a show of the performative and research-based work of Ruth Ewan. At Associates, 100 percent of all sales went entirely to the twelve artists given one-month shows, their first solo exhibitions in London. (The gallery itself was supported by a mix of private and corporate sponsors.) The yearlong exercise was followed by an appearance at Zoo Art Fair, also in London, but the booth had a fairly conceptual framework: Visitors had to enter through the dislocated door of the Hoxton Street premises. Since then, the New York space of Phillips de Pury has held a miniretrospective of the gallery’s shows, and rising stars Alice Channer and Sean Edwards were both featured in a group show Gander curated at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York.

Although consciously operating on the periphery, Ancient & Modern focuses on the contemporary, as did Associates; Between Bridges, on the other hand, has pursued a decidedly historical route. Taking its name from one of Tillmans’s photo- graphs, the gallery is sited between two aboveground railroads and is part of a close group in Bethnal Green that includes the adjacent gallery Herald St, the much-loved bookshop Conor Donlon Books (owned by a former assistant of Tillmans’s), and, across the road, Maureen Paley (which represents Tillmans). But Between Bridges’ program bears little resemblance to those of its neighbors. In eight solo exhibitions since opening in April 2006, Tillmans has presented politically and socially committed work by artists rarely seen in London’s commercial spaces. For example, the opening exhibition featured the work of American artist David Wojnarowicz, whom Tillmans hoped to introduce to a younger, depoliticized generation of artists; a similar impulse motivated a show of 1960s screenprints by Sister Corita.

Not all the artists at Between Bridges necessarily fit into the activist category. Other exhibitions have showcased the painterly and performative production of Josef Kramhöller, a German artist who lived in London and committed suicide in 2000 at the age of thirty-one; and books, collages, and posters by American Charles Henri Ford, which were presented alongside issues of his fabled magazine View. One standout was a revelatory exhibition of work by the late German artist Charlotte Posenenske—predating Posenenske’s extensive Documenta 12 display—in which the artist’s industrially influenced “Vierkantrohre Serie DW” (Square Tubes, DW Series), 1967, fit seamlessly into the unusual space of the gallery. For every show, Between Bridges features books by the artists or on their work, videos exploring the nature of their practice, and a gallery assistant (a member of Tillmans’s studio staff) ready to field questions while perched beneath the spiral staircase.

As many of these shows reveal, Tillmans is committed to presenting the work of artists who died young. This interest is in part personal: His partner, artist Jochen Klein, died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1997 at the age of thirty. Tillmans has maintained his estate ever since, determined that Klein’s work not pass into obscurity, a fate of many artists whose careers are cut short. Indeed, Between Bridges seeks to preserve what could be lost as the art world becomes ever future-minded—a historical interest that might be seen to connect the gallery to Orchard in New York, which closed last month after a three-year program that continued the legacy of Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts gallery. Between Bridges, in fact, recently held a small survey of the work of Art Club 2000, a collective of Cooper Union students inspired by de Land.

Tillmans has said that his gallery emerged in part from his observations of the art world and its relations (or lack thereof) to a broader horizon of social activities and political engagement. He is interested in an examination of “making, showing, and dissemination; what gets noticed, what travels, and what doesn’t.” This interest in the dispersal of ideas and the filtration of information has a parallel in Tillmans’s own practice, which has consistently extended beyond the production of isolated photographic works. The artist has long sought ways to disseminate ideas and images outside the gallery and museum system: He has worked with magazines—including i-D, to which he has contributed both images and editorial ideas—and produced numerous postcards with publisher Walther König in an attempt to place his work within another system of circulation.

Perhaps, unlike artists working in other media, a photographer is arguably always engaged in the process of selection and elimination—no other medium involves discarding so much of an artist’s production. The process is akin, then, to the curatorial task. And Tillmans’s own installations of his images—alternately framed and unframed, pinned to the wall, printed in a variety of scales and formats, and positioned in a complex process of association and conceptual play (from formal to thematic, social to abstract)—manifest an engagement with exhibition making beyond the discrete production of individual works; he has been a curator of his own work for some time. Illustrative of this is his current exhibition at the Hamburger Banhof, Berlin, which brings together both Tillmans’s Turner Prize–winning installation from 2000 (a complex combination of wall-based and vitrine-presented imagery) and a series of tables first exhibited at Maureen Paley in 2005 that feature a combination of his own photographs as well as newspaper images and other ephemera (from news reports to a restaurant menu). The work becomes a biographical archive, interlinking personal memory, political event, and found image in a horizontal and accumulative format—a mind map of the artist and his interests.

Between Bridges’ most recent show—“Ground Zero (2),” featuring a new series by Isa Genzken of paint and collage on printed, laminated fabric—might seem to represent turn toward more recognized art-world names and more marketable work, especially as it coincided with an exhibition of Genzken’s at Hauser & Wirth (called simply “Ground Zero”). But while the West End gallery showed a number of sculptures, Genzken’s work at Between Bridges was much more minimal and had a particular relation to the context of the East End location. A multitude of prints bearing the letters XXL might have not only a political dimension, referring to oversize American ambitions and appetites, but a local one as well, pointing to Bethnal Green’s history as a garment district. The gallery’s program will soon gaze backward again, as Tillmans is planning an exhibition of the work of German painter Wilhelm Leibl, a contemporary and acquaintance of Gustave Courbet; Tillmans describes Leibl’s paintings as a form of “realism that is political.” As each exhibition leaves a trace on this space, Between Bridges promises to take on the complexity of Tillmans’s own practice, embracing the abstract and the representational, the contemporary and the historical, the social and the individual. Perhaps with real estate prices now dropping, it’s possible that more independent- minded galleries will be able to carve out a small space in London.

Jessica Morgan is curator of contemporary art, Tate Modern, London.