Wednesday, 17 November 2010

the art of looking


I’ve lived in Hackney Wick for near on one month now. Given that there’s a superb place for weekend breakfasting within a ten-minute walk and one (only one!) grocer’s shop that sells a lone copy of the weekend Financial Times, I’ve got everything I need. Yes indeed, I’m smitten. Walking around on a blustery Saturday morning, full of potato cake and poached eggs, I love that there’s a quietness to the place but also a feeling that artists and musicians are buzzing away in their fashionably dilapidated warehouses, getting on with the business of making stuff.

Excepting the briefest of visits to Hackney Wicked, I’d never been to any of the Wick’s well-known galleries. I knew there was a show on at the Elevator Gallery that I'd quite like to see, but I couldn't for the life of me find the damned gallery. A kind-hearted man took pity on me and pointed me in the direction of a large red door. The door turned out to be an elevator – ah ha, the titular elevator! – and I went in and closed the gates before pushing #5. There’s no sign in the elevator to tell me what floor the gallery’s on and the lift isn’t moving. I pull back the gate on the other side only to reveal a wall of bricks. Humph. It’s all rather disorientating. Finally, I realise I haven’t shut one of the gates properly and eventually end up at the top of the building. I’ve guessed right and the gallery is indeed on level five. I feel I’ve accomplished something before I’ve even seen the show. A nice way to begin.

I’m already aware of the show’s premise – that the art is concealed within the fabric of the gallery – so I’m chuckling at what looks like dried apple slices or oyster mushrooms stuck to the corner of a partition wall. An invigilator asks me if I’d like to enter the gallery’s competition – prizes are awarded to those who correctly identify the most amount of "actual" work. I take the sheet of paper, pay my pound and take a look around.

It takes me only a few minutes to decide that I won’t enter the competition after all. I've realised that it's not a competition so much as it is a catalyst, a provocateur for looking. A different show I recently attended was comprised of a half dozen works, lovely, delicate paintings, but they neither demanded nor captured my attention. I felt I'd seen all I was going to see after a matter of minutes. The careful construction of the Vanishing Point show means that such an approach simply isn't possible. Here is a show that demands you pay attention, but not a passive sort of attentiveness, like watching a TV drama, but an active and engaged sort of attention - in this show you almost have to make the work yourself. I think the only show I've been to recently where I experience a similar demand was Kit Craig's show at Arcade. I don't think I completely understand Craig's work or what he's trying to do - perhaps part of the reason I find it so striking - but here is an artist who clearly grasps the importance of creating work that demands your full visual attention.

Back at Elevator, the competition masks what must be the gallery’s aim of keeping visitors in the space for a little longer, and incentivising them (how one feels about this is another matter altogether) with prizes for the most works correctly spotted is another clever ruse to get people to really look, instead of take the tickboxyeahseenit approach to gallery hopping.

As with any group show some work is better than others, though this one perhaps more difficult to judge given that you aren't always sure what's work and what's paint dripped down a wall during the last exhibition install. I stumbled upon my favourite piece quite accidentally. I went to grab a press release from a pile on a desk tucked into a corner. There was a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches on the pile, but when I went to move them out of the way I noticed movement - inside the box of matches was a tiny video of a burning bonfire. Extraordinary.

Not all of the work was as wonderful, but it’s exciting to see a different attempt to explore that ever-tedious question - “what is art?” – by equalising everything and forcing the visitor to give door handles, mop buckets and sound installations the same level of visual consideration. Refreshingly, we aren’t asked to make a judgement as to what is or isn’t good art, but instead to think about the framework that is the process of looking at art.
Perhaps it’s a bit cheesy, but as I was heading out of the gallery I noticed a little blue toy car on top of a red bollard just outside the building. It was so striking and lovely that I had a good chuckle when I realised I’d assumed it was part of the exhibition. I’m not suggesting that art is everywhere if only you bother to look for it, only that it’s good to be reminded of the importance of looking in the first place.

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