The East End art scene

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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