by Ann Jones
When White Cube opened its doors on Duke Street, St James’s in 1993 it was to a small first floor room – a perfect white cube. One of the smallest gallery spaces in Europe, but one which quickly became one of the most influential. The gallery functioned as a project space and artists showed there only once. At the time West End galleries were stuffy places, traditional art dealers selling the work of long-established and often long-dead artists on the secondary market. Video installations by Gary Hill or large scale, colourful assemblages by Jessica Stockholder didn’t go with the territory. With Victoria Miro Gallery, then on Cork Street, being perhaps the most notable exception, contemporary art happened elsewhere (sometimes elsewhere in the West End or thereabouts, but nonetheless, elsewhere).
Within a few years, White Cube expanded east to Hoxton Square but retained the Duke Street space, and went on to construct a purpose-built space in Mason’s Yard, the first new free-standing building in St James’s in over three decades. White Cube then has defied expectations from the start. But even so, the space is Bermondsey opened in October 2011 is in another league.
The expansion of White Cube isn’t the first sign that the art market doesn’t experience recession in quite the same way as everyone else. The timing of Haunch of Venison’s move into the grand spaces of 6 Burlington Gardens – once the Museum of Mankind – in Spring 2009 seemed odd, but by then the gallery was owned by Christie’s, so behaving in a way that didn’t fit with expectations of the commercial gallery sector wasn’t such a surprise. A better indicator perhaps was Hauser and Wirth’s decision to open two large spaces at 23 Savile Row in Autumn 2010, significantly expanding its London presence. Though opening an additional 15,000 sq ft of gallery space seemed a bold move at the time, gallery co-Director Iwan Wirth has said that gaining an affordable lease on such a space was possible precisely because of the economic climate; indeed he’d been looking for a suitable space since 2007 without success. This doesn’t make it any less of a leap of faith, but it does go some way to explaining the timing.
Spaces such as this – and Gagosian’s 25,000 sq ft on Britannia Street in King’s Cross – are a far cry from that first White Cube white cube, and allow commercial galleries to stage shows that might hitherto have been impossible in the sector. Indeed, Haunch of Venison started its temporary tenure at Burlington Gardens with Mythologies, the sort of curated show more normally associated with public spaces, but, sadly, not a very good exhibition. Haunch of Venison has continued to stage group shows since its original space reopened, slightly expanded and with a shiny new New Bond Street address. Gagosian had to more or less dismantle its Britannia Street space to stage its extraordinary 2008 show of Richard Serra’s work, and its 2010 Picasso exhibition was widely seen as on a par with museum shows of the artist’s work. Clearly commercial galleries are something other than the shops where rich people buy art that I think I once naïvely assumed them to be. Though my impression was reinforced by galleries having price lists rather than lists of works available to visitors. Add to all this the news that two major New York galleries – David Zwirner and Pace – are expected to open London spaces this year, and you have an art market that outwardly at least appears to be doing more than simply weathering the storm.
None of this, though, can come close to explaining White Cube Bermondsey.
Since his arrival on the London art scene with a host of young British artists – mainly recent graduates of Goldsmiths’ – in tow, Jay Jopling seems to have made his own rules. Though some key artists have been with White Cube since it opened, the gallery list is long (currently 49 artists) and artists are dropped if their work isn’t selling. Gallery artists are placed in exhibitions in publicly funded spaces but don’t get the traditional gallery exhibition every two or three years that those represented by other dealers seem to enjoy. The scale of the Mason’s Yard and Hoxton Square spaces is such that relatively large-scale work is required. Installation and sculpture generally fares well but for artists working with painting or photography, with the exception of the small upstairs room at Hoxton Square, the gallery spaces are noticeably more sympathetic to larger work.
In Bermondsey things are both better and worse.
The Bermondsey Street building is a former paper warehouse. It’s a 1970s building of no particular architectural merit which has been transformed by Casper Mueller Kneer Architects into an understated, minimal art space containing gallery space, an auditorium and bookshop as well as viewing rooms, office and warehouse space. At its heart is a white cube – this time a rather larger one than that original St James’s Street space. The space here is a generous 9m cube that comfortably accommodates ambitious projects. Beyond the cube, the gallery space is divided into the North and South Galleries. The North Galleries are three modest scale spaces which, under the name Inside the White Cube*, effectively operate as project spaces showing the work of artists not (yet) on the White Cube list.
The South Galleries form the main exhibition space and are large enough to accommodate significant curated exhibitions and work made on an unusually ambitious scale. The gallery opened with Structure and Absence, curated by White Cube Associate Director Craig Burnett. The exhibition included work by artists not represented by the gallery as well as several from the gallery’s roster. This was essentially an exhibition of contemporary abstraction centred around Chinese scholar’s rocks (apparently used as an aid to philosophical contemplation), shown on plinths in each space. Structure and Absence was a strong show including work by an interesting range of artists, including some whose work wouldn’t normally be thought of as natural White Cube territory. While each space had its own theme, the use of the scholar’s rocks – naturally occurring abstract forms – as a device to bring the show together worked extremely well.
This was followed by the largest exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s work yet staged in London – begging the question why hasn’t he yet had a major Tate retrospective – which included work on a scale that few spaces could hope to accommodate. This might give the gallery a raison d’être but it’s a curious one. The largest single work in the Kiefer show was a painting of staggering dimensions – 3.3m tall (like several other works in the show), by 17.1m long – which can clearly only ever be shown in very large scale spaces. Thankfully it wasn’t all about the size, Dat Rosa Miel Apibus is also an extraordinary work which absorbed me utterly. The scale, while ostentatious, makes it impossible to be outside the space of the image, something which painting is rarely able to achieve to quite this extent.
On the basis of the start made with the Bermondsey space, I was pretty optimistic. Then I looked at the forthcoming exhibitions list on White Cube’s website and my confidence in the venture faltered. The third show is open now and I’ve seen it so you don’t have to. Actually, things aren’t quite that bad. The main exhibition is at least offset by good work in the Inside the White Cube programme. The work by Liu Wei in part of the North Galleries and 9 x 9 x 9 is pretty great with the sculptures by far the best work on display here at the moment. But the South Galleries – like all White Cube’s other locations at present – contain Gilbert and George’s London Pictures.
There are several issues here for me. Mainly, who on earth thought this work strong enough to sustain simultaneous exhibitions at four different locations (three of them in the same city)? The London Pictures are based on newspaper headline posters collected by the artists from outside newsagents’ shops over a period of several years. This is the largest body of work yet made by Gilbert and George and is described by White Cube as “an epic survey of modern urban life in all its volatility, tragedy, absurdity and routine violence. … In their lucidity, no less than their insight into the daily realities of metropolitan life, the ‘LONDON PICTURES’ are Dickensian in scope and ultra-modern in sensibility. … Drawing directly on the quotidian life of a vast city, the ‘LONDON PICTURES’ allow contemporary society to recount itself in its own language.”
Well. Yes, I suppose in a way all of those things are sort of true. And as a picture of an intolerant society obsessed with sex, money and crime, it feels appropriate that the work is grindingly depressing to look at. The language used on the posters is extraordinary, well worth analyzing, and certainly paints a grim picture of London; but Gilbert and George don’t seem to me to be the artists best placed to use the material effectively. Aesthetically and conceptually this just doesn’t work for me. Ultimately the headlines become part of the Gilbert and George project. They are sucked into a slick uniformity that neutralises the language and turns it into pattern.
Of course this is only one exhibition. The previous two having been well worth seeing and having used the space really well bodes well for the future – until one discovers that the most immediate part of that future is an exhibition by Damien Hirst – but three exhibitions turns out to be too soon to tell.