on spaces and voids
Many galleries situated in the Hackney/East London area have a unique approach to presenting art: rather than the typical large gallery spaces with the well-oiled mechanisms of art shops, curators, directors and assistants, all of which help to create the distinct impression that art is some kind of functional institution, these small and often hard to find nooks and crannies flout and redesign the “laws” of the gallery space as they wish. Likewise, the artists that are exhibited, I generally find, are either enthusiastic upcoming artists with lots of talent or rather commercial work made for the express purpose of being placed snugly in someone’s upholstered living room.
The Ragged School is located not too far from Mile End tube station, nearby cuisine of which includes Subway, Nandos and such like. Word is that one shouldn’t even attempt to venture out alone in the streets after 4PM. However, it is notable that the university Queen Mary is located in this area, and as I traveled by bus to the Ragged School, the area was largely populated by educational or sporting facilities: a skating park, a racecar track, a forlorn-looking tennis court, and right in front of my destination were the King George V Playing Fields. A placard placed in the park spelt out the general feeling of the neighbourhood: converted factories and open spaces, a lot of which are now used to facilitate the needs of children and young people.
It comes as no surprise that the Ragged School (named appropriately after the deteriorated dress-state of the orphaned children sent here in Victorian times) embodies the charitable nature of education and shelter for youths. The building itself is a renovated Victorian building made of dark brown brickwork: industrial and functional in its ordered façade and straight rows of fenestration. It is largely undecorated except for the triangular pediment on top, harking back to classical antiquity and impressing on me a strong sense of the authoritarian Victorian era. If there is any doubt left that this is in fact our destination, it is erased by the thick black lettering spelling out “THE RAGGED SCHOOL” in capital lettering in front of the whole façade.
One can feel quite intimidated, creeping across the creaking, ancient floorboards in an attempt to not disturb the wrath of sleeping history. The interior is as austere as the outside, but beautiful in its antiquated state. The ground floor is museum-like, with educational placards explaining the history of the building and the general area. A winding wood staircase leads to “The Classroom”, which is set up like a genuine Victorian schoolroom where primary-school kids are dressed up in old clothes and the “teacher” enacts and demands the quintessential Victorian attitudes towards education: lack of respect sends a boy to the naughty corner.
The teacher is the cornerstone of the play-acting: her acting simulates the entire imaginary scene and the children obey the authority figure without question. Their real teachers watch quietly from the sidelines and we, the uninvited audience, can only walk squeakily by in an effort to not disturb the magic of their Victorian transportation. The audience is effectively emotionally coerced into observing and obeying the “laws” of the “space”.
Matt’s Gallery is a small space almost just next door to the Ragged School. Compared to the sparse, brickwork area, the unassuming white door (Matt’s Gallery, it says in black, because unlike large art institutions, one cannot suppose the function of these appropriated buildings) is like a gateway to a whitewashed Wonderland. Upon pressing the buzzer, we are welcomed in by a gallery manager, who promptly disappears into what appears to be a storage room.
There are many doors, many spaces: a labyrinth of storage closets to my right, office and exhibition books to my right, and the beckoning exhibition right in front. Certainly, this gallery is more like a “gallery”: the whiteness is austere; it is a colour that expects respect and fades discreetly into the background, letting the works speak for themselves in a clinical environment removed from the real world.
We walk into space 1 and are greeted with a wooden structure sitting in the middle of the room that appears to form a bare simulacrum of an ampitheatre. The circular frame seems to invite us to sit down: we do, and immediately we are filled with the surround-sound of a woman who is speaking (and so we listen). After a while, it becomes apparent that the Latin-sounding words are in fact some kind of gibberish, well-formed real words making fake sentences that seem to sound coherent.
In fact, Anna Barham’s Arena is a recording of the artist reading her book Return to Leptis Magna, and all the words spoken are anagrams of the title. As the audience, we are simultaneously observing and possibly committing the sacred sin of sitting on a sculpture that is also a stage. The artwork we see here has no fixed form or label, but, as stated in the exhibition guide, simply “operates as a field of potential with the viewer being an active participant within its construction”.
Space 2 houses Graham Guissin’s Lens, a sepia-toned photographic series imbued with such a contemplative sadness – from its isolated objects and landscapes – that its intent as a remaking of Roger Corman’s 1955 film Day The World Ended was perfectly clear. The photographs are subtle but precise, a staged but seemingly real depiction of the silence (rather than madness) of the aftermath of the destruction of a world. The photographs are placed on all four square walls, encouraging the viewer to walk in a circular trail in eternal observation: the photographs neither begin nor end; their story is as continuous as their physical placement.
Tai Shani’s Headless/Senseless performance piece fills the void of space 3. Unlike the previous two spaces, this space is dark: illuminating a wall with submarine-windows into another memory. The audience is invited to take one of the headphones on the back wall and switch it on. The headphone is wireless and disconnected, so that the sensual Hollywood voice that suddenly sweeps into your ear feels like its speaking out of your thoughts, except they are not your thoughts: they are alien, about two other people’s fictional lives that, somehow, through the fragmented voices and cinematic music, you seem to relate to.
We become unconnected to reality and walk, almost floating, in the womb-like space, addicted to the power of “her” voice and the stories that she tells. When curious, the viewer peeks into one of the round windows on the wall: the pictures are psychedelic, a 3D anaglyph or stereogram that moves with you so that you seem to be looking into a real, fleshed-out memory, or a window into another world. The “real” viewer/self becomes intimately and symbiotically connected to the “simulated” speaker/self through the headphones, the voice of which seeps seductively into your mind and (probably fabricated) soul.
We arrive near Chisenhale gallery to be greeted by a slightly ominous church sign that proclaims: “THIS IS THE GATE OF HEAVEN”. Jesus, I think. This must be pretty spectacular. Our surroundings, rather than heaven or hell, is more suggestive of limbo: a bizarre blend between council flats and white houses decorated with pretty flowers. The actual Chisenhale building is more indicative of potentially omnipotent creative powers: it looks industrial, but the rusty red colour is very appealing and like a rose blooming in a garden of ugly.
The geometric staircase on the side of the façade is particularly beautiful, shaped like a well-designed caterpillar, a staircase to God knows where (heaven?) Although the entrance – proclaiming CHISENHALE in large, graphic letters – is more like the shady passage to an underground club – a very unwelcoming one without even a bouncer to let us know the place was alive and not barricaded against the potential zombie apocalypse.
We were let in through a buzzer into an equally unassuming white room, decorated with some photos on the walls and a strange glassy geometric sculpture that appeared to be guarding a yellowish egg. The rugged exterior was completely at odds with the demure interior, reminding me of the strange, sudden locations that are often described in a Haruki Murakami novel.
After taking a few photos without asking, we walked past the receptionist into a dark room where people were sitting on neatly-organised chairs facing two screen projectors and three large mikes that were projecting the sound to our faces (and blocking one of the projectors).
Ed Atkins describes his work Us Dead Talk Love as “a tragedy of love, intimacy, incoherence and eyelashes”. I certainly get incoherence. And, perhaps eyelashes. Physically, the two 3D “cadavers” speaking on the two screens is certainly visually engaging, odd and stimulating. Their words, too, have power, like Tai Shani’s work, but none of her charisma and sensuality. I hear snatches of Sweeney Todd’s musical arrangements, and enjoy watching the realistically rendered heads look into the distance and towards us (but never directly at us). They are represented objects trying to represent things that are unrepresentable.
It is, however, an extremely long film, and what, to the end, engages me is actually the rapt/listless expressions of my fellow audience, who sit rigidly on the chairs like we are at the cinema, and I believe half the reason we haven’t left yet is because the space creates a social construct: we made a contract with the artwork when we sat down, and the general unspoken law is to observe the artwork to its fullest before leaving.
And finally, Vyner Street, which reminds me of plants and nature but is actually more of the rugged, deserted-looking East End that always appears like an empty lot of warehouses on a long stretch of road (which, essentially, they are). The two galleries we visit are Degree One and Vyner Street Gallery, neither of which inspires much originality. Degree One opens into a small room filled like an odd collection or ensemble of strange objects. It is, in fact, a collection of chosen BA degree show works, from a Greek-esque classical statue buoyed in the air by tape-like black wings to a mule-man and a tiny keyboard connected to blue balloons.
There are also lots of photos and paintings on the walls, and a large wooden box that proclaims “ENTRANCE” and “EXIT” on either side. Walking in, the darkness illuminates a neon city flashing in multi-coloured lights like a mini-billboard: what actually interests me is the mirror on the other side, highlighting my ghostly face as I attempt to decipher the real (me) from the unreal (my reflection).
Overall, the room feels like more a crowded collection of bizarre objects rather than a gallery space. The items are placed randomly without much thought: the viewer, in response, does not feel the need to respect the artworks. The highlight of the gallery was the white boxer dog that trotted into the room and made curious noises as we stroked his butt-like forehead (who allows dogs into gallery spaces? Who allows humans?)
Vyner Street Gallery had three floors: the first housed a Korean artist who made Kusama-esque dots/flower-oval paintings, some of which were sparkly and would look perfect on top of your mantelpiece.The second floor exhibited more interesting works that ranged from a bird-dropping-covered shirt to flower bud wall plugs: amusing objects with redefined aesthetics.
The third floor was, again, mundane: porcelain figurines, figurative paintings, etc. What was different here was our reception: two friendly ladies who chatted happily in their chairs and offered us drinks of water like we were at a house party rather than a gallery. Where shall I put this cup? I ask, and she says: put it down on the plinth, it doesn’t matter.
Certainly, these small gallery spaces have a more irreverent attitude about them: less self-important, more experimental. One of the women tell us it was crazy in the gallery last night, with so many people jammed in these small rooms that one could hardly breathe. Are they here for the art or for the experience? Today the room is dead: no one comes to see the paintings hanging damply on the walls like unwanted stains. We stay to talk to the women, to be polite, not because the work is riveting.
Has viewing art become more of a social experience than a direct, intimate connection between the viewer and the work? All the artists aforementioned seem to be trying to distinguish between the real and the unreal. Art and reality blurs as everything becomes increasingly equalised. The distinction between viewer and work is fluid and changing constantly as we try to understand the boundaries we set ourselves.