Like half-forgotten crushes, some lost spaces might be sweeter to remember than they ever were at the time. Whitechapel Gallery’s glance into the spaces where London’s queer communities flirted and campaigned serves up heavy doses of nostalgia. Its glass cases house an often-fascinating mix of flyers, photos and manifestos relating to ten wildly different venues, like quiche-centric vegetarian cafe First Out, perma-threatened pub The Joiners Arms, and the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre – a much-needed antidote to a white-dominated scene. And because the curators are specifically interested in gentrification’s role in erasing these spaces, there are also letters charting queer organisers’ struggle with the planning authorities who can’t or won’t understand their value.
Ironically for a show that’s all about contested space, there’s not really enough room in this one-room exhibition to do the subject justice. Lean in close and you’ll learn about the struggle of community organising, the painful fault-lines running through the queer spaces and the lives saved by a drag queen in a ramshackle bar. But other sections, like the one on unremarkable old-school gay pub City of Quebec, show that queer isn’t synonymous with interesting.
Works by queer artists are squeezed in among the cases. They’re often playful: like Prem Sahib’s Roman-style tribute to lost gay sauna Chariots. They’re not quite enough to stop this exhibition feeling safe, rather than sweatily subversive. This is queer culture with a PG rating.
The best moments come from the audio narratives, like Caro Smart’s story of her glory days in Stoke Newington squats, finding community and nipple-casting workshops with WANC (Women’s Anarchist Nuisance Cafe). Want to know why queer spaces are important? You won’t find the answers in letters back and forth with the council or in Word Art-decked flyers. What really matters is the invisible constellation of friendships and connections made by the people who danced through them, and fought for them.
|Venue name:||Whitechapel Gallery|
77-82 Whitechapel High St
|Opening hours:||Tue-Sun (except Thu) 11am-6pm; Thu 11am-9pm.|
|Transport:||Tube: Aldgate East|
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