The great Whitechapel Gallery expansion disaster of 2009

The Whitechapel Gallery re-opened this month and what a disaster its expansion turns out to be. The new spaces, created from the acquisition of the old library next door, are poky. The circulation is appalling, I kept having to stop because other people were in my way, and no doubt they felt I was in their way too. There are endless heavy doors throughout, presumably to reduce fire risks but these ugly items induce feelings of claustrophobia. There are also a lot of stairs and level changes which add to the cluttered and alienating atmosphere. On the plus side, the light is good throughout the expanded gallery, but the overall effect is still extremely depressing. Obviously any conversion is going to be a compromise, and so losses and gains must be weighed up, but here as soon as you go inside you can see the losses heavily outweigh the gains. The innate imbalance between these two knocked together buildings is badly compounded by the unsympathetic programming and piss-poor curation that blights the re-launch of the gallery.
Having doubled its exhibition space, you’d have thought the Whitechapel could put on a decent Isa Genzken retrospective. But rather than utilising the new spaces, Genzken’s Open, Sesame! is crammed into the old galleries. Worse still, false – and I trust temporary – walls have been added, resulting in the old galleries feeling nearly as poky and cramped as the new spaces. Far too much work by Genzken has been rammed into the space allocated to it and as a consequence, it looks like absolute shit. Given room to breath, some of Genzken’s output strikes me as at least potentially interesting, but you can’t judge it properly when it has been shoe-horned into less than half the space it requires.
The new space the Genzken show might have been spread across has been allocated to less worthwhile projects, such as an incoherent display called Passports: Great Early Buys from the British Council Collection. The earliest work in Passports dates from 1914 and the most recent from 2001, as a result it comes across as a completely random exercise in cod curation. That said, the selector Michael Graig-Martin clearly has an agenda since he not only includes his own work but also that of the more famous alumni from his period of tenure at Goldsmiths College in New Cross.
Craig-Martin strikes me as akin to Narcissus if he’d been condemned to using only mud baths, rather than washing in clear water, i.e. an extremely dull reflection of more general art world nepotism. Goshka Macuga’s Bloomberg Commission in another of the new galleries is considerably more irritating than Craig-Martin’s flop precisely because what could have been an exciting and informative piece of local history suffers at the hands of an artist too lazy to undertake proper research. The subject of Macuga’s installation is the display of Picasso’s Guernica at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1939. A full-scale tapestry copy of Picasso’s painting depicting the most infamous fascist atrocity of the Spanish Civil War thus becomes the centre-piece of Macuga’s botched attempt at local history. For me the tapestry by Jacqueline de la Baume Durrbach is less interesting than many of the documents on show in the room. The history of Picasso’s painting and the politics surrounding its display are fascinating. Unfortunately, Macuga has made no attempt to properly order the few items she’s gathered in relation to this, the overwhelming bulk of which appear to come from either the Whitechapel archives or the anarchist bookshop located next to the gallery.
Given the complexity of the material Macuga has failed to engage with, careful selection and proper interpretative texts were required if she’d wanted to produce a successful installation. That said, in order for useful interpretation to take place, the items on display first require proper identification. When I went there was, for example, a photograph of a protest in London labelled as dating from 1938. A cursory glance at this shows the demonstrators to be wearing flares and other fashions associated with the early to mid-1970s. They are holding banners to protest against Franco’s treatment of the Carabanchel 10. Carabanchel Prison was built between 1940 and 1944 by political prisoners and it became perhaps the most notorious symbol of Franco’s repressive fascist regime in Spain. The prison wasn’t even operational until 6 years after the incorrect date Macuga provides for this photograph. A quick web search led me to the Steve Nelson papers held by New York University Library, where dated Carabanchel 10 items are listed as being from the 1973-75 period. However, you don’t need to do a web search to see that the dating of the photograph is wrong, this is obvious just by looking at it.
Likewise, a series of 10 pre-war pamphlets on producing agit-prop art materials are displayed, numbered consecutively 1 to 9, and then 11. There is no explanation as to why pamphlet 10 was not displayed, nor any indication as to whether 11 was the last in the series or not. There was also a display of contemporary agit-prop material leading up to the anti-G20 protests in London earlier this month, all provided by Freedom Bookshop. Anarchists only make up a tiny minority of anti-capitalist protesters but if you go to the anarchist bookshop sited next door to the Whitechapel Gallery and ask them for anti-G20 material they aren’t going to provide a representational sample. So what we get is solely anarchist propaganda against G20. In this way, Macuga manages to completely misrepresent anti-capitalist activity as being essentially anarchist in character. I would imagine her sponsor Bloomberg are very happy that the broad movement opposed to the financial system from which it profits is thereby reduced in this particular representation to one of its more marginal factions.
Macuga has a reputation as a wily networker, and she appears to me typical of many contemporary career artists who treat their CV and professional contacts as far more significant than the slight works they produce to facilitate their occupation of elevated positions within the cultural world. Likewise, Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick has more of a reputation as a networker and deal clincher than an exhibition maker.  That is not to say Blazwick has not curated numerous shows, but on the whole they have not been particularly memorable. She is, however, highly regarded as a university level teacher specialising in areas such as art advocacy, that is explaining and metaphorically selling contemporary visual culture to those unfamiliar with it. What Blazwick has done with the Whitechapel expansion reflects more general trends in culture, and is very much in keeping with the activities of her predecessor at this institution Nicholas Serota, who in more recent years has overseen the re-branding of The Tate. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that walking around the expanded Whitechapel left me with the impression that Blazwick had paid far more attention to sponsorship and revenue streams than aesthetic issues. As director that’s her job, and it keeps her in a job, that’s the way commodified culture works.
Given the many important shows the Whitechapel has hosted in the past – including not only Picasso’s Guernica but also This Is Tomorrow in 1956 and the first really seminal post-war exhibition of photography in London, Ida Kar’s 1960 solo show – it is pitiful to see the gallery reduced to such a sorry state after its thirteen million pound refurbishment. But then capitalism and capitalist culture can only go backwards, they have no where else to go.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-04-26 08:27:26 +0000

“she appears to me typical of many contemporary career artists who treat their CV and professional contacts as far more significant than the slight works they produce to facilitate their occupation of elevated positions within the cultural world.”
Well said! Brilliantly put…..I certainly know more than a few over serious or over hip fellows, who feel the “academic/Intellectual/art world, audience and intelligensia” owe them some kind of special unearned respect for a very meagre output and being in possession of a very big mouth, high self opinion, and a very long list of “fashionable” BBC/LCC/Goldsmiths/Obxbridge/LSE/St Andrew’s alumni email contacts.
Blimey, are that dour lot at Freedom Press still there, peddling their bad Max Stirner translations, heavily edited Proudhon collections and reactionary/naive Zerzan books?

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-04-26 09:24:45 +0000

Yes, Freedom are still there, although if the Whitechapel expands again maybe they will go to the west rather than the east and eat them up. Although I haven’t seen Iwona Blazwick for years, possibly not since she left the ICA, I liked her as a person and although I’m horrified by what she’s done to the Whitechapel, in the current climate she wouldn’t have been doing her job properly if she hadn’t gone for it. I find those artists who operate in the same way far more annoying, but unfortunately they also get programmed at places like The Whitechapel. As for the OBE I understand Blazwich got last year, well pathetic innit. Why do art world bureaucrats accept these shitty honours? If they had any spine they’d turn ’em down.

Comment by The Ignoble Richard Noble (i.e this is a clone & not the Goldsmiths lecturer of the same name) on 2009-04-26 10:25:16 +0000

You snide bastard! That’s my wife Iwona you’re talking about so I’m not gonna take this philosophically! What’s it to be, water pistols or custard pies? I also dislike what you have to say about art world nepotism. I may be working on a reader for Whitechapel Projects/MIT Press about utopias, but this is not because my wife is director of Whitechapel Gallery, but rather due to my great knowledge of the subject. After all Canadians like me are well known for our great knowledge of utopias! Never forget my fellow Canuck George Woodcock and his “Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements” (1962)! If you ask me you’re just a big girl’s blouse!

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-04-26 10:45:51 +0000

Good Lord Sir, are you REALLY Richard Noble?
And I, Sir, am Plotinus.
We are all Onnnnneeeeee…..
Right, handbags at dawn it is: I will meet you outside Belsize Park station, and we can have it out in the park. ShriekingToad will be there to check it’s all honourably carried out.

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-04-26 11:09:17 +0000

And Woodcock’s book just showed how derivative, poorly thought through, inconclusive, undecided, unfocused,unresolved and hesitant most “schools” of “Anarchism” really are ,especially regarding praxis.
Most schools of Anarchism are good as far as “attractive”, temporarily inspiring rhetoric goes, and as far as “romantic”, “bohemian sounding” theory goes — but what do most “anarchists” actually do? Which anarchist thinker had a coherent set of plans , aims and ideals that actually still hold up, and mean something nowadays?

Comment by Joshua Compston on 2009-04-26 11:09:48 +0000

You missed out on a trick here Mister Trippy, as the comment from the Ignoble Richard Noble demonstrates. You should have linked the nepotism of Michael Graig-Martin puffing up Goldsmiths College with his show at the Whitechapel, with the nepotism of the director’s academic philosopher husband who is employed by Goldsmiths College getting to do a book with Whitechapel Projects. You seem to be a bit slow this morning! Wake up you dopey bastard!

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-04-26 13:15:12 +0000

I was really digging the way the British broadsheets completely fell for the Whitechapel’s PR hype and in reproducing it showed how easy they are to con on culture coz they don’t know the first thing about the London art world and get basic facts wrong….
Financial Times:
“Blazwick herself, as London’s only female director of a major public gallery and the child of an immigrant family, carries the Whitechapel’s story symbolically into the 21st century…”
No FT, No Comment? Well obviously the South London Gallery, the Serpentine Gallery, Chisenhale and Camden Art Centre with their female directors aren’t major!
Or try The Times:
“Curating a show of video art in Japan a few years ago, Blazwick was denounced as responsible not only for the “death of art” but for the “feminisation of culture” to boot. But in Britain she is seen as a force to be reckoned with. The most prominent of several women who now direct public galleries (Julia Peyton Jones at the Serpentine, for instance, or Jenny Holzer at Camden Arts Centre), she is a rapidly rising presence in those “Power 100” lists, the newly appointed chairwoman of the Mayor of London’s cultural strategy team and was appointed OBE this year.”
Actually it is Jenni Lomax who is director of Camden Arts Centre, Jenny Holzer is a rather well known American post-modern artist. But what next, Barbara Kruger replacing Jude Kelly as artistic director of the Southbank Centre? Although actually Freddy Kruger strikes me as being more like Jude Kelly than Barbara. “I’m coming to get you Barbara!” (oops wrong film, that’s Night of the Living Dead). And would you want to swap South London Gallery director Margot Heller for Sherrie Levine? Maybe in your dreams but in reality I think Heller is the better choice. That said, Freddy Kruger couldn’t possibly be worse as director of the Southbank than Jude Kelly. Of course, Polly Staples who runs Chisenhale started as an artist, and if I could think of any serious curators who were in London I’d suggest replacing her with one of them, but no one springs to mind.
I definitely wouldn’t want a director’s job like Blazwick, it strikes me as not much better than watching paint dry. Sure you get money and kudos and sad tossers desperate to make it in the art world kissing your ass, but all that time looking for sponsors and revenue streams and dealing with Tower Hamlets council strikes me as a real drag. And would you want sad tossers desperate to make it in the art world kissing your ass? Well it doesn’t exactly strike me as a perk, more like something you have to lump since it comes with the job. But then who am I to judge the tastes of someone who would accept a London mayor appointed job as chairperson of the London Cultural Strategy Group, advising on the promotion and development of London as world-class arts capital? Boris! Yes indeed, it strikes me that there is little difference between Boris Karloff playing Baron Frankenstein’s monster and Boris “The Spider” Johnson….

Comment by Christopher Nosnibor on 2009-04-26 18:10:41 +0000

I heard that the French fishermen were blockading all the roads again in protest at the cod curation…

Comment by Andy Warhol on 2009-04-26 20:11:13 +0000

Gee I don’t know why you people didn’t like the Whitechapel re-opening. It sounds really fantastic to me. I’ve said it before but art is business and business is the best art. You have Michael Graig-Martin who is the greatest male networker in British art, and then you have Goshka Macuga who is even better at networking. She’s probably the greatest career art networker in the world. I can really see how her thought process is similar to mine. She was doing a piece for the re-opening of the Whitechapel, so she spent five minutes finding out who was the most famous artist ever to show there. She must have been really excited when she discovered she could do an installation around Picasso, and how that led to so many networking oportunities at the staggered openings. Goshka must have thought it was fantastic, always working out quickly who were the most important people and ignoring everything else. I think what she did is great. Wow, I’m so impressed by her.

Comment by Angus Fairhurst on 2009-04-26 21:25:08 +0000

Michael Graig-Martin is a hero. If it hadn’t been for Graig-Martin I’d never have killed myself for art. Making money is art but death is the best art and the smartest career move for an artist.

Comment by Nicole Black on 2009-04-26 22:09:32 +0000

Aargh! No wonder I ran away from the art world and can only bear to look at it through the gigantic condom that is Facebook!

Comment by Michael Roth on 2009-04-27 05:42:39 +0000

I think you hit the nail on the head with the comment(s) regarding revenue streams. Generating multiple revenue streams seem to be the most important function for directors of not only art galleries, but theatre spaces, libraries, etc. Space is money and what fills the space are merely widgets – it doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it is a means to padding the bottomline. Agreed, there are financial pressures on cultural institutions and sure sometimes, directors/curators do some interesting things. It just seems that now the goal is financial not artistic.

Comment by Michael Roth on 2009-04-27 05:47:06 +0000

I just checked out the Whitechapel Gallery website. The gallery looks quite nice, at least some natural light in some of the spaces. I can see where there would be some bottlenecks. It’s too bad that the flow isn’t there.

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