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PRINT May 2011

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Artangel’s twentieth anniversary

Šejla Kamerić and Anri Sala, 1395 Days Without Red, 2011, color HD video, 60 minutes. Production still. Photo: Milomir Kovačević Strašni

IF YOU’VE PAID ATTENTION to contemporary art in Britain since the early 1990s, the chances are good that Artangel—the exemplary, catalytic, London-based arts trust currently marking its twentieth anniversary—has gifted you with some indelible memories. Numerous spikes in the graph of my own spectatorship correspond to site-specific projects that codirectors James Lingwood and Michael Morris have commissioned, financed, and helped conceptualize. 1993: Rachel Whiteread’s House, a spectral plaster cast of the interior of an East London house, last survivor of a demolished terrace and awaiting its own kiss from the wrecking ball. 1995: a titanic volley of arrows, suspended in the air, in H.G., Robert Wilson and Hans Peter Kuhn’s suite of bad-dream tableaux in a former medieval prison near London Bridge. 2001: Break Down, wherein Michael Landy systematically destroyed all 7,227 of his possessions in what was then a defunct department store on Oxford Street. 2004: Gregor Schneider’s Die Familie Schneider, two adjoining houses in Whitechapel, to be entered alone, their interiors (and the ritual-enacting figures populating them) summoning abstract dread. 2008: Roger Hiorns’s Seizure, a South London council flat wholly bedizened with copper sulfate crystals, transmogrified into a glowing blue grotto . . .

But perhaps it’s foolhardy to generalize about the eighty-plus projects Artangel has orchestrated since 1991—the official year zero of the organization’s history, when Lingwood and Morris assumed codirectorship from Roger Took, who founded the company in 1985—which elsewhere, in the realm of non-site-specific works, have ranged from Jem Finer’s thousand-year-long, nonrepetitive sound composition (Longplayer, 1999–2999) to Clio Barnard’s recent award-winning biopic of working-class playwright Andrea Dunbar (The Arbor, 2010, reviewed in these pages in April). If Artangel has repeatedly tilted toward something approximating public art, then the full scope of its projects complicates the picture, blurring lines between public and private spaces, media, and even durations. Consistently notable, though, is that even those undertakings that achieve the biggest footfalls—like Seizure, which had hundreds of visitors daily and reopened the following year thanks to public demand—avoid pandering spectacle while remaining attention-grabbing. This tricky calibration reflects a directorial character—and one (or, more likely, two) favoring deep tactical thinking.

Rather than accept proposals, Lingwood and Morris almost invariably select their artists and brainstorm lengthily with them (sometimes for years), and certain themes recur. Artangel favors austere approaches to memory, for instance. Compare its idea of a parade—a candlelit promenade through Imber, an English village evacuated during World War II, a ghost town ever since—with that of its nearest transatlantic equivalent, the Public Art Fund, which commissioned Francis Alÿs’s carnivalesque march from Manhattan to Queens, The Modern Procession, 2002. (For Artangel three years later, Alÿs presented the much quieter, psychogeography-flavored, London-traversing Seven Walks, 2005; no Peruvian brass bands involved.) This abiding sobriety and thoughtfulness extends to the organization’s two-decade anniversary, which is being used as a pretext for something rather less self-celebratory and rather more purposeful.

Alongside onetime-only pieces, Artangel has continually midwifed moving-image work—from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 4, 1994, to Kutluğ Ataman’s multi-monitor installation Küba, 2005. In March, Lingwood and Morris announced the Artangel Collection, a collaboration with the Tate, which already owns seven Artangel-commissioned film and video works (including Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis’s The Battle of Orgreave, 2001; Bethan Huws’s Singing to the Sea, 1993; and Steve McQueen’s Carib’s Leap/Western Deep, 2002). Now Artangel is giving the Tate a further nine commissioned film and video works—by artists including Douglas Gordon, Cameron Jamie, Tony Oursler, and Catherine Yass—and working on five new co-commissions, with the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, and the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, over the next three years. The first two of these, Yael Bartana’s Lying in State and Anri Sala and Šejla Kamerić’s 1395 Days Without Red, will premiere respectively at the Venice Biennale in June and the Manchester International Festival in July. Provided the artists consent, the Tate will be offered all five new works in five years’ time; ideally, it will only be the beginning of a long-term partnership.

These programs, then, is a savvy shoring-up against the vicissitudes of history on the part of an organization that, despite working in a manner ill suited to a permanent exhibition space, has nonetheless occasioned some lasting works in film and video along the way. Yet it can also hardly be irrelevant that the Artangel Collection has been announced amid scything cuts to cultural funding in the UK, both to institutions and to the funding of moving-image work. “I would certainly think,” Morris said, “that the broader cultural picture is more significant than any anniversary of ours—that was just a way of marking it. Moving image is one area where there is a huge amount of interesting work, and it needs producing. It would be a huge source of anxiety if the potential in this area—where we’ve seen arguably the biggest changes in the last ten or fifteen years—was shortchanged because of the current predicaments of funding.”

For Artangel, building coalitions of backers is not a novel specialty. (Though the trust does receive some Arts Council funding—and was one of the winners in the redistribution of funds announced at the end of March, seeing its award increased by 19.3 percent in real terms for the next year—that’s only the first echelon of the organization’s financial structure.) The collection, though, is also designed to tour, offering outstanding art to regional institutions increasingly strafed by the current government’s austerity measures. So, in one fell swoop, an era-shaping but effectively nomadic locus of production gets a greater purchase on posterity, a central institution and regional ones get major art, and artist-filmmakers get funded. Artangel, it appears, just became exemplary in a whole new way.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, UK.