The East End art scene

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The East End is home to the cutting edge of the British art scene, where young guns experiment and push the limits of their form, while galleries hope to uncover the next big thing. Time Out columnist Michael Hodges, a virgin in this territory, sets out to make sense of it all

  • The East End art scene

    Ibid Projects

  • Here’s a way to drink for free. Turn up at Vyner Street on a Thursday evening at around 6pm, wearing some knocked-about jeans, bashed-up plimsolls, an old suit jacket and perhaps an attitudinal haircut. Pause outside on the corner with Cambridge Heath Road to adjust your spectacles – you’ll be needing spectacles – then walk casually down the street picking bottles of cold beer from the large ice-filled tubs along the way.

    As long as you have the right look and a certain seriousness of bearing no one will object to your drinking, nor will anyone charge you. You are walking along the vibrant eastern extreme of London’s booming contemporary art world; galleries are opening in every available space and you are very welcome. Especially if you are carrying a chequebook. Go inside one of the galleries on Vyner Street, such as Ibid Projects, and you might even find free wine. There will also be art, perhaps small pieces of sculpture or a canvas painted one colour. But there is a good chance that you will not recognise the art as art, or there will be so many people with attitudinal haircuts drinking free wine that you will not be able to see any of the art.

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    Michael Hodges samples the art (and beer) on Vyner Street

    This is confusing if, like me, you have been tasked with exploring the contemporary scene, but not as confusing as actually being able to see the stuff if, again like me, you are someone who regards five minutes in front of a Canaletto in Dulwich Picture Gallery or Picasso’s ‘Girl in a Chemise’ at Tate Modern as a successful engagement with art.

    Ahead of me lie wanking superheroes, white boys miming to R&B and mother-of-pearl floors as I go on a journey from Old Street to Bethnal Green in search of meaning in London’s contemporary art world. I will stand under metal installations, listen to old funk records and spend hours looking for the entrances to galleries that, once I’m inside, are no bigger than front rooms.

    But the first gallery is not a front room. Victoria Miro is a large, purpose-built metal box perched on a Victorian warehouse in Shoreditch, and as soon as I’m inside the generous display space arranged over two floors, I realise this is the top end of the market. Miro is so well endowed it has its own private annexe, Miro 14, where if you are lucky enough to get an invite, you can find Peter Doig’s ‘Concrete Cabin (West Side)’ on the second floor, a work that is old-fashioned in the sense that it is oil on canvas and modern in that it is both brooding and luminously good (it will also probably set you back at least £1 million).

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    Art lovers congregate outside the galleries in Vyner Street

    But back in the public space, the exhibition is surprisingly unambitious given the fantastic space. A wall that moves imperceptibly back and forth throughout the day and a door marked ‘VIP’ that leads nowhere are essentially adolescent asides. So far, so sixth form.

    Hoping that the smaller galleries will have something more profound to say, I go to Store in Hoxton. This space is tiny, but curator Niru Ratnam has found room to invite several artists to ‘use the ideas and intellectual spirit of the Mass Observation movement as their conceptual starting point’. One German artist, Gabriel Vormstein, has responded to the 1930s sociological information-gathering project with a work consisting of four pieces. The first is a circle of wreaths made from twigs, the second a triangle formed from larger branches which have been gaffer-taped together, while the third and fourth are canvases roughly three feet by two feet that have been covered in copies of German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, stencilled to reveal spheres within red and blue washes. Ratnam cheerily admits he doesn’t know what the first two pieces signify. Would anyone walk in off the street to buy wickerwork, even if it was wickerwork responding to Mass Observation? ‘Not yet.’

    This gallery, like many others, doesn’t seem to make financial sense: the staff may be volunteers, the rents reasonably low, but if no one is buying this stuff, how does it work financially?

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    Kate MacGarry's new gallery

    The answer is, partly, art fairs – the regular shows across Europe and America where the big trading is done and where an industry hungry for new talent goes hunting for the next big thing. Last year, Ratnam took some video pieces to the Miami Art Fair, where smaller exhibitors are shown in freight containers on the beach. It looked like the air ticket had paid for itself when Keanu Reeves walked up to Store’s container.

    Priceless celebrity endorsement was seconds away, but Reeves paused at the entrance, said ‘Oh, not video. I can’t bear that’, and walked away. On such endorsements, or the lack of them, reputations and careers can be made. Which explains why Ratnam chased Reeves around the show for the rest of the day.

    Dreams of art-fair success keep these small galleries alive, or rather they keep small galleries’ hope alive. Graduation shows at art colleges such as Central Saint Martins or Goldsmiths are picked over and the talent discovered there is nurtured. If the galleries pick up someone with a promising show and bring them on, they might just hit paydirt with a rich collector or at an art fair.

    15 GALLERY 8.jpgBut what about the established talent? Susan Collis appears to be a perfectly ordinary, middle- class, middle-aged woman who just happens to be a conceptual artist whose show, ‘Don’t Get Your Hopes Up’, is on at Seventeen on Kingsland Road. Entering what looks like an abandoned shop, with drips of paint on the floor and screws in the walls where shelves once were, you wouldn’t know you were in a gallery. But on closer inspection, the drips reveal themselves to be in-laid mother of pearl and the screws are gold, studded with diamonds. ‘Don’t visitors need to know they are in a gallery for this show to work?’ I ask Collis.

    ‘Yeah, I asked them to tell people there is a show on when they come in,’ she replies, nodding at a bench full of gallery staff at one end of the room.

    I look slightly askance at the gold screws. ‘It’s just the heads that are gold,’ she says. I wonder if a more engaged artist would have made the whole screw out of gold. There is a bucket in the corner into which water drips. ‘There’s a special pipe,’ she says, ‘that goes up to the ceiling.’ Collis’s work is a triumph of suburban sensibilities; a sort of navel-gazing that is so reflective as to be pointless. Not much meaning there then.

    15 GALLERY 3.jpgTo find art that looks out to the world, engages with the big stuff, I have to visit the Whitechapel, home, since 1901, of modern art in the East End. Here, the Art Plus Drama event focused on the biggest stuff of all: the war on terror. But stylishly. The event is co-sponsored by an Italian shoemaker, with ‘urban charm and a sporty vibe’, and the interior has been decked out with oyster bars and hookah pipes. The nibbles are by St John and DJs play records. The main hall fills with Italians, Americans and the shortish middle-aged men with stretched skin and dark clothes who seem to dominate the top end of the London art scene. There are art correspondents from the broadsheets and young men in skin-tight jeans.

    The scene is self-aware, self-referencing and self-conscious, and – in case you should think it selfish – intent on stopping bad things happening. To which end, Emilia Fox, Rhys Ifans, Martine McCutcheon and Greta Scacchi perform skits written by artists and d aimed at the evils of war. Air hostesses are picked out for mocking treatment – Fox having fun with their less than perfect vowel sounds – suggesting that art is just as snobby as the Prince William set, which also ridicules air hostesses, but not over microphones.

    One piece, from the perspective of an Arab tortured by an American soldier, would have been powerful, but Ifans, who appears to be exceptionally drunk, slurs his delivery. The crowd, boozed up, cheer loudly at the end, but I am left with a strong desire to join the US Army.

    Happily there are other ways of engaging with the wider world of ideas. Jacob Dahl Jurgensen’s ‘The Folly of the Mystics’ at Wilkinson on Cambridge Heath Road is a three-dimensional conversation with the imagery of 1950s space programmes. It is an unusual experience as the exhibition is still up when I visit, but the gallery is leaving around it; what other pieces comment so successfully on the state of constant flux that is modern life in London? But this piece is doing it by accident, making it one of the few interesting conceptual moments I’ve encountered so far.

    Does accidental meaning count? I’m not sure. So, after Sputniks I try spunk and spend the next few days looking at penises. Immediately things get better: Cary Kwok’s wanking cartoon characters (‘Cum Here Snowy’, ‘Here Cums the Spider’ and ‘Sperman’ should give you a taste of proceedings) at the Herald Street gallery are fantastically executed and funny. And Clare E Rojas’s fighting penises at Stuart Shave’s Modern Art are part of a series of sexually troubled, Nordic folk art-influenced works that contrive to also suggest Persian Islamic art, and at the same time ask odd questions about men and women, suggesting that contemporary art is only interesting when, like a toddler in a room full of adults, it suddenly asks an unexpected question about sex.

    Neither of these artists are British, but the next work I catch could not be anything else. David Blandy’s exhibition at Cell Project Space on Cambridge Heath Road opens up his nerdy teenage life of soul and hip hop records, obsessive collecting and computer games among the recreated elements of a teenage den. Much of his work is in videos, which catch Blandy, who is white and middle-class, lip-synching to black music on the tube and on stage while dressed as a black and white minstrel. It’s engaging, but an ordering of artefacts rather than art, a snapshot of the middle-class concerns of its time.

    ‘I like your record collection,’ I say on the way out. ‘Thanks,’ he replies, and returns to his computer game, one more practitioner of postmodernity and irony in perhaps the last creative community where postmodernity and irony are still regarded as interesting or worthwhile.

    I walk round the corner and return to Vyner Street for the opening of Kate MacGarry’s new gallery. There are canvases of various sizes painted with black acrylics and surrounded by clouds of darts stuck into the sides of the frames, making the pieces look a little like unlikely blossoms. Flowers and pubs together, very contemporary, East End art.

    So I leave and go to the Victory halfway along Vyner Street, where men in tracksuits with a certain urban charm but no sporty vibes are demanding lager urgently, knowing that the free beer at the galleries is about to run out and the pub will fill with young men with haircuts. ‘I mean,’ says a man at the bar. ‘Anything’s art, ain’t it, really?’

    Time Out First Thursdays

    On the first Thursday of every month the galleries and museums of East London open their doors late for a chance to see amazing art, culture and events after hours. With something on at more than 80 galleries and museums until 9pm on Time Out First Thursdays there will always be something free and exciting to see. Click here to visit the official site.

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13 comments
Jrdan
Jrdan

I think the author's blatant disregard for valid expression has blind sighted his views totally. Art is useless; pointless, and if not a contemporary commodity. However art is challenging, innovating and inspiring. It's fine to have an opinion, all do respect, but ignorance and lazy attitudes to something you'll never understand is above all pathetic. You'll never understand art if you have a stubborn cynical eye. Art sees all sides of the story, but your article Sir is frankly biased. Get educated b4 you splatter you're irrelevant opinions all over the place.

Danny
Danny

LOVE the article, sums it up nicely, your so obsessed with yourselves, the 'art scene' , finding your own cheque book style, you are clueless, that's why all we ever hear is, 'well the art speaks for itself....doesn't it!!!!' 'errrm no it doesn't ' and if you had put the thought and hardwork in to start with, you would be able to explain to us lesser mortals what your trying to express, with passion and conviction, and not use some gobby gallery owner to do the job for you.

Andrew Robertson
Andrew Robertson

Stomach churning words and cliches attempting to use the apparent language of the art scene...sensibilities (hurl). Attitudinal??? 'but I am left with a strong desire to join the US Army'. Go on then. I have however come out of Vyner street galleries on several occasions with the same stomach cramps on reading this but that's another story.

David A
David A

Hi Kelly, please don't think I view all art colleges and said courses as a waste of time, I don't and I hope you get onto an M.A if that is your aim, I visited a few of the elite london schools in the past few years through contacts and I loved a lot of the fine art work being produced there; the skills levels were excellent, but if you have recently finished your first degree, why the rush? I've been studying the Uk "artworld" for years, and yes an MA does seems to enhance the prospect of developing an artistic career to "some"extent, but it is not the overiding factor. It seems that those artists who do well are those with other interpersonal creative abilities such as networking, self-motivation, entrepreneurial drive etc. In other words, how the artist gets their work seen, and themselves known regardless of whether they are part of a scene or not. I dispair at artists trying to get into a scene and becoming another shoreditch wannabe. My advice ( don't listen to it) is if you want a scene, forget the MA for a year or two; go out and create your own scene about you and your art. With the internet for websites, and a few friends you can come together and open your own space, and make your own gallery which is what a lot of young artists do nowadays. The problem is of course although this is about as entrpreneurial as you can be, I find they simply mimic the more traditional galleries, where I believe if you have you own space then be creatively original within it, especially in how your curate the work, I find music, and different "social"events based around the art shows helps a great deal to draw people in. I certainly need more than pictures on white wall to get me somewhere. On the other ahnd stupid gimics like that dick smashing up old furniture in a warehouse is about as original as me stacking tins of "celebrity" ham on my kitchen window sill and thinking I'm Warhol! Still it makes me laugh! If you need some inspiration on what is possible with your own place I suggest you take a visit to the 491 gallery in leytonstone one weekend www.419gallery.com its a mixture of underground and artschool grads and it's very mixed in terms of art, ideas, and people.

Kelly
Kelly

thanks for agreeing with me, I really take your point. Its a sticky situation for artists. I have just graduated as a Fine Artist and I feel that it is such a struggle to get into this so called scene. I know i have to somehow infiltrate this clicky environment, and somehow it feels like you have compromise your practice to please the current trends otherwise no one will notice you or even look at your work. I'd like to think I'm breaking out of the conformities- I got rejected for an MA at a couple of places in London and afterwards I felt like what is the point anyway, half these guys look as if their work is pretty trashy anyway. I think art schools aren't what they once were. Since the dawn of the Saatchi thing everything has changed. the persona of the troubled artists lives on!

David A
David A

I agree with Kelly's comments, as much as we all know there are plenty of corpaorate art whores out there (even Tracey Emin admitted she was such to get known) there are of course real artists who are trying to push themselves and art forward regradless of finance and fame. The real question in order to sort out the wheat from the chaff is what each of us consider to be art in first place. My summary is "useful art" "pretty art", and "revolutionary art" or a combination of all three elements, but if it doesn't have an revolutionary element then more often than not it's the ubiquitous mind and trained narrowness of the art school behind the work. As for the galleries forget it, you won't see anything new in there, and even the so-called underground is full of art school grads trying to be cool and hip from the outside when really all they are trying to do is find another way into the mainstream to make money. We shouldn't be surprised by all this, as it's a reflection of the conformity as opposed to the need for creativity in wider society, the creative choices and paths in life are becoming narrower and narrower and that is how ther Government and corporate world like it. I'm quite stunned that people are not literally bursting out of this confinement and creating new revolutionary forms of art. If anyone is attempting doing so I would love to hear from you.

Kelly
Kelly

This is all fine but at the end of the day art is all about the scene and majority of people are in it just to be cool and trendy and a socialite. some artists are no better that 'it girls' who are famous for absolutely nothing except for being at the right place at the right time. Majority of artists would be hard pushed to admit it as it nullifies their existence howevere there are a few who truly believe in what they do. I think these galleries are not east end sheek at all. They are businesses and the artists who are in them are whores to the corporation.

david
david

I like his honest appraisal of the "scene" which is generally shit and inconsequential concerning the actual meaning of art. But if people want meaning in art then I'm probably a genius. The only people who complain about such articles is pretentious stuck up artists who think three years at the right college makes them an artist....I've yet to meet anyone in London in ten years I admire artwise; that doesn't mean i don't like the odd pretty picture or fine sculpture. However, anythime journos want o come and hang at my gallery on a Friday evening they are most welcome, in it's a east-end council flat which is situated on an estate where last year a young teenager was stabbed in the entrance to my block. Still, the show must go on.............and luckily there are now two galleries on my landing i only have to persuade the other 3oo tenants to open thier doors and we'll all ahve a right p-art-y.personally I don't give a fuck about the "scene".

David D
David D

I agree, This is a genuinely shoddy piece of journalism. The author attempts to represent a rational voice in a 'world gone mad' but ends up boring us all with his attempts to find meaning. As for the conclusion, ‘Anything’s art, ain’t it, really?’ Well no, it's not is it.

Henri dit Sylvain Cousineau
Henri dit Sylvain Cousineau

I want to build an authentic "Refuge room" in the Tate Modern, Ministry of Civil Defense ( 1936 ) What do you think they will say ?

Susan Collis
Susan Collis

Slightly worrying that I have never spoken to this journalist and that my supposed responses have been fabricated. The scews he refers to are wholly cast in gold, so I would have had no reason to tell him otherwise. Thanks for describing me as 'established talent' though - as an artist just 5 years out of college, I suppose I should take that as a compliment at least... What a badly researched, childish and pedestrian piece of writing.

alex staiger
alex staiger

i am a n artist i am a graduate student at goldsmiths i have been a writer for a paper and have had "professional" jobs i think this article sucks ass it is so tabloid including the photos and portrays the art world as all about image. I think this reporter was at the openings tryign to look cool and has nothing of value to comment on.

andrew
andrew

I saw the Ifans piece. He wasn't drunk at all and the cheer was for the performance - it was really quite moving. What a shame that some TO reviewer has demeaned it to squeeze the idea into his "aren't the art world a bit kooky and clueless about the real world" article. I found this article really not that perceptive.