Disease, poverty, injustice, death and loneliness. It’s been a brutal few years around the world, and the evidence is written across the walls of the Whitechapel Gallery. The London Open is their big triennial open submission show, with thousands of artists’ work whittled down to 45 sculptors, painters and filmmakers, all making art that manages to reflect the stomach-turning tumult we’ve been living through.
And it’s amazing. It starts with Rafal Zajko’s robo-futuristic sculptures that churn and digest wheat, living things that exist just to consume. Feels familiar.
Candida Powell Williams comes next with her mythological, hyper-colour ceramic sculptures that look like fever dreams in a playground, before you get to William Cobbing’s brilliantly anxiety-filled ceramic masks and Eve Fabregas’s enormous melting condom-like sculptures. It’s such a great, playful opening to the show, and it feels like such an antidote to London’s endless commercial art scene with its ceaseless, anonymous, boring figuration.
Not that there isn’t painting here, it’s just that most of it’s good. Gareth Cadwallader’s perfect little uneasy canvases are beautiful but unsettling, Mohammed Sami’s huge works are violent and overwhelming, Jason File’s pretty images of dots and flowers are actually toilet paper patterns and Alicia Reyes McNamara’s paints a world of sensual, twisty psychedelia. It’s the best group of paintings I’ve seen together for a long time.
Society might be at its sickest, but art couldn't be healthier
There are big themes tackled here too. Henry/Bragg’s photos of vampires and alien abductions are funny, heart wrenching images of living with cancer, Juliana Kasumu’s installation is a paean to the community and rituals of Afro hair salons, Abbas Zahedi displays a painting by his father, whose UK visa was revoked when Abbas was just a kid. This is art about perseverance, survival and injustice.
There’s a lot of dystopia on display too. Eloise Hawser’s collection of flattened newspaper printing plates is a grim diary of the interminable news cycle, Ami Clarke’s VR piece draws links between capitalism and environmental disaster and Rory Cahill and George Mackness create a near-future digital video wasteland.
There is a lot of video art here though, and there are two problems with that: 1) a lot of it is a bit crap, and 2) almost all of it is badly presented, so even the good stuff is hard to connect with. A couple of screens show multiple long films one after the other, others have no seating or viewing space, some are too loud, others too quiet. It’s a mess, and very unfair on the artists.
But that’s the only gripe in a show that's otherwise genuinely exciting. You leave feeling like society might be at its sickest, but art couldn't be healthier. That’s the thing about living mid-apocalypse: at least the art's good.