London is still getting high on its tendency to be provocative. This rather British inclination has always been apparent but the cutting edge of such a position gets a bit duller when it becomes a fashionable ideological label, a cool pin to wear on one’s good conscience. It’s rare not to find an obvious highly politicized line – feminist, queer and post-colonialist – in any of London’s countless galleries and art centers. While the results are more or less pleasant, there is sometimes the risk of drowning a work under a sea of verbose and banal explanations.
There is no shortage of bold gestures however, especially considering how the Voltaire studio, a worthy heir to Oscar Wilde, built a shrine in honour of the great writer. This tribute to homosexuality that had been scorned and abused wisely doles out its servings of bad taste and grace. Conceived by McDermott & McGough, two American artists, this shrine had already been shown in New York in 2017. It’s clear however that in a former Victorian chapel, the kitsch esthetic of this immersive piece takes on a special flavour. The William Morris wallpaper, the 19th century chandeliers, the bluish windows and pink candles humorously commandeer the space’s initial function while theatricalizing the glorification of Wilde. He is the star of the Stations of the Cross and the Annunciation that decorate the building’s side walls while his statue replaces the usual crucifix found in the sanctuary. The anachronism here is elevated to an art: 12 portraits of contemporary people living with AIDS or victims of homophobic acts, such as Alan Turing, Harvey Milk or Sakia Gunn who was murdered at the age of 15 in 2003 because she was a lesbian, short-circuit the historical chronology. This clash of eras tosses the visitor back and forth between the homoeroticism of the prudish 19th century England and the flamboyant representations of contemporary LGBT communities. What is even more appealing is that this functional space is constantly updated since it can “actually” be rented for weddings or commemorative ceremonies.
Perhaps it’s by allowing this kind of collective space where art and life coincide to flourish that London shows how intractable it can be. In contrast to the billions earned by the collusion of auction houses, collectors and the behemoth-sized gallery owners of an ultra liberal city, non-profit organizations continue to multiply, driven by an ethic and a desire to be woven into the urban fabric and the daily life of its citizens in order to appeal to a broader public. Artist residences, spaces managed by them, educational programs for youth, courses, conferences and concerts extend the gallery’s scope and its uses. It is a refreshing approach that guarantees a certain diversity in London’s art scene. Everyone can return to see Tracey Emin at the White Cube or be bored by Jonathan Horowitz’s latest videos at Sadie Coles or to sample the offerings of less established artists.
At Latham house, considered to be a kind of living sculpture by conceptual artist John Latham who died in 2006, emerging artists are invited to renew the relationship between art and science and to interact with its cosmology according to which the universe defines itself less like a system of objects in space than a system of events in time. In what he intended to be a counter-knowledge laboratory Annika Kahrs’ video installation titled No longer not yet fittingly blurs our relationships to time by placing us in a limbo; the dizziness of the repetition stutters past and future. It is impossible for spectators to know where they are temporally while young actors paint words in black before recovering them up again in white paint in eight moments of the same scene that juxtapose and intersect. This hypnotic distortion reveals the lyricism of a constantly repeated pictorial movement while sullying the screen surface. As if a form of savagery rock came to alternate images and sounds to better reflect the issues of concern to youth. The song My Generation by the Who (1965) is subject to a similar temporal manipulation since it is simultaneously slowed down and sped up. As it gets mixed and remixed, the iconic song disintegrates, its lyrics become inaudible and its music assaulted and transformed into a nebulous din.
Annika Kahrs is no exception in summoning the image-movement to dissect and re-shape the 1960s in light of her present. There are many modern offerings available in London that explore video art. Aniko Kuikka at Gao or Daria Martin at Barbican give visitors the opportunity to live art like a total experience in monumental installations where sculpture and virtual reality and video games serve as a gateway into the maze of the unconscious. But are all these effects just for show? In the first, we become entrapped in the icy virtuality of a pink and perverse fairy tale where the witch from Hansel and Gretel is replaced by a predatory pedophile. A wall of balloons and the structure of a hut form the backdrop in a one-upmanship that weighs down the staging of a traumatized psyche. The second allows viewers to glimpse the archives and the diary of her grandmother forced to leave her childhood home in Brno in 1938 while the Nazis were getting ready to invade the former Czechoslovakia. This modernist villa seized by the Germans is at the heart of dreams that the artist had carefully transcribed until her death in 2005. This wonderful concept allows the spectator access to this psychological and architectural intimacy: the risk, however, is that we remain excluded.
Haegue Yang, South London Gallery
At the South London Gallery, for which Haegue Yang has created two sound sculptures made of Venetian blinds and bells, we are invited to another daydream: repeatedly brought to life by performers in an old ballroom, these lifelike structures combine transparency and color, lightness and heaviness and in an almost surreal dance. When the discreet noise of the bells or the parquet accompany the slow movement of their wheels it is almost comical. There is something mysterious about these great geometrical vehicles whose abstraction assumes, without hierarchy, the appearance of the decorative and the ready-made. The poetic quality of a piece shown in a second exhibit at the gallery is also delightful. The work is made up of eight frames each containing a lock of hair, one of which belongs to the famous John Ruskin. Joao Penalva had knowingly made the original copies indistinct when he had exhibited them in 1997. This collection of capillaries is all the more absurd when in 2002 one of the frames was stolen during an exhibition at the Courtauld Institute. It proved to be a forgery but has now secured the status of a work of art that can be found, for sale, at a London market. One morning ten years later, attendants at the Brandts Museum in Denmark discovered not eight but nine frames on the wall. The mystery remains unsolved. And the more the police reports or letters of apology to the artist show appear to be reasonable the more the work seems to make a mockery of them.
The Peer gallery itself is a mockery to the barricaded white cubes. Jadé Fadojutimi’s paintings, between colored abstractions and figurative swarms, are visible from the street. Their power spreads to the city in a dynamic demonstration proving that London still knows how to be artistic.