Written by Lucia Guercio
A heartfelt journey among one of London’s hidden gems of modern and contemporary art. Lucia uncovers the invisible threads curators now use to connect the various displays, guiding the reader through an existential discovery of the meaning of art in relation to human nature.
On Saturday 25th of July, I ventured to one of the most fascinating areas of London, Whitechapel, a place of mystery, Victorian tales and labyrinth-like alleys. Despite its public success being mainly due to the infamous Jack the Ripper, this neighbourhood also hosts a semi-hidden gem of contemporary art: the Whitechapel Gallery.
While walking down a trafficked grand avenue, an Art Noveau building emerges; whether you have been actively looking for it or just walking by, its view is unexpected. The elegant golden leaves on the minimalist façade clash with the surrounding Edwardian or brutalist environment, symbol of the “real” industrial London. However, this stark contrast actually discloses to the modern city-dweller the true history of London. Conversely to a Baudelairean attitude, the decadence and pomp of this borough tell a story of growth, sacrifice and development, reminiscent of a Charles Dickens bildungsroman up to the most fascinating Joyce style city-tales. The British capital evolution becomes tangible; its eclectic pot of backgrounds finds confirmation also in the gallery Belle Epoque exterior, contrasting the late 20th century focus of the artworks displayed.
“elegant golden leaves on the minimalist façade…” (photo from https://www.whitechapelgallery.org)
Whitechapel Gallery was opened in 1901, as the first publicly funded gallery exclusively devoted to temporary exhibitions, focusing on contemporary art and its directional asset has actually not changed since the inauguration. It is notorious for having exhibited Picasso’s Guernica in 1938 and especially for hosting the ground-breaking The New Generation show by the Independent Group inaugurating British pop art. I therefore found myself in the sacred temple of alternative and conceptual art, which has nowadays moved away from traditional anglicised scenarios.
The distance from canonical anglophone modern art is already evident in the ground floor gallery, which is entirely dedicated to a monumental installation, Something Necessary and Useful (2019-20), by the Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga. With mass-produced materials he is able to recreate a complex and immersive environments. His structure draws on his personal experience of displacement recalling a theatre set. Cardboards coarsely painted create a trilobate vestibule, seeming like a great cathedral nave, the limbo he creates for the viewers to explore their inner selves. This clash between reality and dream, solemn and popular is also emphasised by the presence of everyday objects, such as some kitchen tools, a ladder or a sewing machine (other allusion to the boundary between authentic and fictitious). I felt lost, then found myself again, cardboards becoming stable architectures made me reflect on the performance of art. Bunga’s work forced my path, I was not free to walk but walls were constraining my way; however, the walls are just paper, the space is nothing but constructed emptiness.
"I felt lost and found myself again, cardboard becoming stable architectures made me reflect on the performance of art”
My reflections followed upstairs, shifting to a more globalised matter: environmentalism and the series of natural catastrophes our world has been experiencing in the past years. Mexican visionary artist, Verónica Gerber Bicecci curated the exhibition In the eye of Bambi, inspired by Victoria Civera’s tondo Bambi (1997-8). Bambi is the symbol of lost innocence, everybody recognising his eye is drawn towards some memories from their own past. Where are we now? What has shaped our lives? But especially, where are we going? What have we destined our planet to? Gerber Bicecci tries to answer to these ancestral questions, by displaying photos of an imagined post-apocalyptic world.
“Bambi is the symbol of lost innocence. Where are we now? What has shaped our lives?”
Existentialism is also the main theme of a beautiful multimedia project by Mexican Carlos Amorales. In a small projection room Useless Wonder (2006) faces the viewer with intriguing and also disturbing scenes of creation. Every image disintegrates to created another: the artist explores ancestral fears, cannibalism, the animal world and the place of on earth. My gaze was instantly captivated by such digital mastery, seeing birds merging into a human figure and the world map disappearing and yet emerging again had a powerful impact. This work is a supernatural whirlwind of fear, passion, obscurity and creative power!
“the worldmap disappearing and yet emerging again…”
“birds merging into a human figure…”
The last existential question explored is the value of the human being as the subject of art. The showcase on the mezzanine floor, The Return of the Spirit in Painting, is definitely a homage to the seminal exhibition A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1981. I saw artworks by five of the original 1981 artists, indeed the centralisation of canonical artistic hubs is immediately evident, conversely to the rest of the collection.
“purely human strive for individuality…”
Among the various paintings three really stood out, since they expressed different aspects of the purely human strive for individuality, while living in society. Bruce McLean’s Going for Gucci (1984) presents a Bacon-like aesthetic: a bright orange background is occupied by a stylised white figure and a black ladder. As also the title suggests, this painting tells a story of desire for social climbing, the stark colour contrasts emphasise the drawbacks of societies flaws and the absence of meritocracy. The figure is white and pure, however its eyes are craving the black and dark stair, while the orange is representative of greediness. A more introspective take is offered by Julian Schnabel’s Portrait of Norman Rosenthal (1982), a Pirandellian man emerges on the canvas populated by broken plates, symbol of mass society. While contemplating this work, I wondered if the man was actually Norman Rosenthal, or just a mask among many others. Is he an archetype? Does individuality even exist? Questions on individuality always fuel artistic minds, however when it comes to religious matters, it is usually thought that individuality is suppressed in favour of community: this unless the artist becomes his own icon! Mimmo Paladino challenges religious idolatry populating a wooden table with archaic figures and bright colours (Untitled, 1984). Death and sacrifice intertwine religious, Egyptian and Greek imagery showing the multiplicity of interpretations and the possibility for an artist to create personal idols.
Bruce McLean, Going for Gucci (1984)
Julian Schnabel, Portrait of Norman Rosenthal (1982)
Mimmo Paladino, Untitled (1984)
Whitechapel Gallery is a small, compact and fascinating gem which introduces the public to innovative conceptual and modern art, guiding them with a thoroughly constructed narrative. I explored existential questions on authenticity and existence from various aspects of contemporary society. Bunga explored the construction of space, Gerber Bicecci shed light on the ever increasing issue of environmentalism and consequences of human actions, Amorales questioned manhood and creation while the Spirit in Painting showed the individual’s struggle against society. I appreciated the interconnectivity of these exhibitions, still able to showcase a diverse range of styles and artworks, while also making me reflect especially upon the role of the viewer in conceptual art. We are active participants, despite the links are not as evident as in an Orientalist painting gallery; now the public has to find the hidden thread at the core of the displays. We have the power to disclose a series of reflections and information while getting lost in an articulated mental scavenger hunt. Conceptual art is a rebus, waiting to challenge the next visitors to reveal its secrets but also understand themselves.