The London Open at the Whitechapel Gallery is a triennial event. As the curators, Emily Butler and Cameron Foote, say in their catalogue introduction the London art world has gone through a great deal of change. And at the same time, as find myself murmuring as I wander through the exhibition, things really haven’t, in any fundamental sense, changed that much. The avant-garde, so called, is still rather desperately looking for a place to be.
The main strength of the show lies in ambitious installations and videos – ELS
There’s the usual quota of do-goodery, most of it in this case banished to a staircase area. A large banner demanding ‘Justice for Cleaners’, an array of smaller signs proclaiming that ‘This Area is Under Community Protection – Stop Evictions’ or warning about the presence of ‘Gentrification Watch’. Given their location, these texts seem to echo and re-echo with unintended irony. But then, as one has to admit, this has been true of self-consciously avant-garde manifestations long before now. In this context, the great Marcel Duchamp might have felt at home.
What the exhibition is most notable for, however, is the struggle to get away from conventional formats. There are a few paintings here, but they are startling, sometimes wilfully conventional. I am thinking here for example of a photorealistic double portrait of two Russian astronauts – or does it represent an astronaut twinned with himself? The uniforms are identical, but the two likenesses are subtly different, and the catalogue gives just one name – Alexandr Serberov ‘who died in 2013’. It adds: ‘He briefly held the record for the greatest number of spacewalks: ten’. The text then refers to the fact that the artist concerned, Des Lawrence, has long been obsessed with the so-called Space Race of the 1960s-1980s. Dear dead days!
The main strength of the show lies in ambitious installations and videos. Most ambitious of all is a large neon work by Rachel Ara. The title gives you full warning: This Much I’m Worth (The self-evaluating artwork). And so does the description of what the piece physically consists of ’83 pieces of neon, recycled server room equipment, electronics, computers, IP cameras, programming.’ The catalogue informs one that the work ‘is a comment on the excessive importance placed on market value and questions the parameters that are established to calculate this.’
It looks at you, just as you look at it: ‘If you tweet about the work it reacts instantly. It also assesses the numbers of gallery visitors looking at the piece through the use of web cameras.’
In some respects, the show may be a bit too ambitious for its own good. It was neither over- nor underpopulated when I visited it on a weekday morning. Yet there seemed to be rather a lot of unused headsets lying around, waiting around for visitors to lose their wariness and participate. The era when the exhibition visitor is fully integrated, absolutely part of the show, is still to come.
Of course one of the problems with fully immersive, technological art is always going to be that technology now so consistently seems to outstrip the imaginations of the artists who are excited about what they think and feel it can do. But much better, I think, to dream imperfectly about technological possibilities, just Leonardo da Vinci once did in the dim long ago, than to turn aside and reject it altogether.
Words/Photos: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2018
Exhibition: The London Open 2018 – 8 June – 26 August Whitechapel Gallery London – FREE