Whitechapel Gallery

A successful exhibition for me is one where I immediately want to rush home and make work. I suppose its a bit like porn - if it doesn’t make you want to join in it isn’t working.  The current Whitechapel exhibitions are a mixture of many media and several artists, including two works made in collaboration with children. Several shows look backwards, one recreating elements of a 1973 sweet extravaganza, where five hundred kids were involved in an exhibition using sweets to  teach about art and Europe - timed to mark Britain’s entry into the European Common Market.

I’ve been looking forward to visiting the Whitechapel Gallery for quite a while- it must be at least a couple of decades since my last visit and I remembered it as damp with flaking whitewash, rudimentary bannisters, and astonishing photographs of white supremacists sitting in the audience of civil rights speeches. It is now gleaming white walls, glass and metal fixtures, excellent facilities, and the incorporation of the local library into the building structure when it closed has allowed good access to the various floors.

This visit wasn’t scheduled around a particular show but just because Rod was going to an Amanda Palmer concert at the Troxy, so I made use of the ride to London.  The Gallery is welcoming, the staff full of friendly charm, the coffee good.  The Foyle Reading Room by Gallery 4 looked very inviting.  If I was passing and need somewhere to sit and rest or sit and write I’d definitely consider visiting just for this space.

The free exhibitions were a mixture of sculpture, moving image, and a single Jackson Pollock, accompanied by archive materials about the organising of the first Whitechapel Gallery Pollock exhibition.  The mixture of handwritten and typed letters were intriguing, and grabbed my attention more than the Pollock on the wall. 

The moving image works were very varied in topic, duration and approach.  Mikhail Karikis’ ‘No ordinary protest’ had the advantage of being short and easy to follow, with children discussing the relationship between humans and the rest of the world and the problem of environmental poisoning.  The sound track and the rest of the visual track were engaging, but I was mostly left with the hope that the kids got more out the collaborative project than I got our of watching it. The film, for me, lacked both emotional punch and visual engagement.  It felt mostly an unsuccessful mix of documentary and non-figurative moving image.  One thing I will consider further, especially since I caught a preview - or is that pre-hear? of Bruguera’s low viscerally-disturbing sound track at the Tate, is to think about the role of low frequency sound in altering emotion and perception of other aspects of an art work, and, as an irresistible aside, how to manage staff health in a gallery setting where they cannot escape the noise.  When I asked the member of staff at Tate Modern’s information desk how she was coping with the low boom she made a face which suggested she was finding it difficult before the show had even opened.

Ulla von Brandenburg’s ‘Sweet Feast’ had an array of sculptural shapes designed for seating ‘transforming spectator into participant’. - unfortunately the invigilators had to keep interrupting people to tell them they could only use the first three rows due to issues with safety.  Sitting on the first row meant that the image was so large I started to feel nauseous, so I didn’t sit through enough of the film to get the content of the film.  If the film did manage to achieve its stated objective of ‘exploring the dynamics between the individual and the group, and the hopes of young people at a time when Brexit may limit opportunities’ it would be worth the discomfort in watching it, but I didn’t stay long enough to get away from the repeated round of “Summer is Icumen in”.  The clippings from a newspaper in 1973 had more interest - describing how the children rampaged to eat the sweets, cascading them onto the gallery floor which was strewn with the rat poison Sorex (active ingredient is warfarin) to keep vermin away from the exhibit. No reported cases of children being taken ill were included in these reports, though advice to parents to take their children to the doctor or hospital if they start feeling ill was issued.  Now that would be an interesting project- to follow up the kids who were part of this event and see what they remembered, and see if any of them felt anything worse than the effects of gluttony.  With a sample of 500 kids, even from 1973, many should still be alive (they would probably be in their early fifties) and might be traceable by a public call.

Tom Ireland’s ‘Actuality Picture/The magic Lantern’  showed many images of Saturn taken by the Cassini probe. The text by the door said that the exhibit had a surprise - if I remember correctly it was that the seats of the viewing room were covered in a variety of coloured fabrics…., they reminded me of the chairs in unemployment offices in the early eighties. 

I should have paid to see Elmgreen & Dragset ‘This is how we bite our tongue’  but I limited myself to peering through the thigh-high clear circles in the obscuring glass in the doors, gazing, with some perplexity, at the edge of an empty swimming pool.  Leafing through the book of the exhibition didn’t make me feel any more enticed to part with £15, and I satisfied myself with the idea that peering though closed doors at a swimming pool, one that was closed, was a poignant and emotionally charged moment, and going in might be less engaging than these restricted views and the slightly glaring glance of the attendant inside.  Having just watched the latest episode of Dr Who the night before, where re-purposing of civic facilities including swimming pools for the benefit of the rich only for them to be overrun by giant people-eating spiders, the display of the swimming pool so important for the local area, in limbo in the gallery until it becomes part of a spa, made the display felt extra creepy and less inviting.  The possibility of Hockney having watched water and bodies and light at the start of his artistic career in this pool does not make me feel the need to see the actual tiles.  I think I’d have missed all the sexual and social politics of the exhibits.

So, am I just unsuited to visiting contemporary art galleries?  Possibly.  Possibly also my feet hurting didn’t help.  I enjoyed the sound made by the loose parquet in one of the connecting spaces, and have recorded a sound clip for my growing archive. Some of the bizarre exhibits in “Surreal Science” were amusing.  One of the information screens in the foyer had the sound only in the left earpiece of the headphones, and I had a little frisson of smugness as I knew the settings in  the sound software that should have been tweaked to prevent the problem.  Mostly I was a bit flaberghasted that issues of design had compromised commissioned work in a gallery with such a major reputation, and I am no clearer about the qualities moving image works require to be taken seriously as art.