RUNA ISLAM- WHITE CUBE and Elmgreen & Dragset- Victoria Miro

White Cube. 48 Hoxton Square London N1 6PB. Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 6pm.

 I saw Runa Islam’s work at the White Cube in Hoxton. The exhibition is on until 3rd November 2012.

The image opening her work on the Whitecube website is this…..?

It was pouring with rain and I had got soaked whilst escorting my students back to Old Street tube, although they knew the way. We had been on a gallery tour to The Barbican, Victoria Miro and Parasol Unit, with one extra stop off with a few die-hards at The Signal Gallery to see Guy Dennings portraits. With students dispatched, I was now free, but dripping with water, so headed to the Breakfast Club for a milkshake and to warm up. Once suitably dry, I thought I’d continue with my plan of visiting the White Cube. It looked closed, as the entrance and interior space was so dark, but the door pushed open and someone was just visible behind the front desk. I picked up an artist info sheet and tried to read it in the low light. I could see what looked like a massive projector in the middle of the space and a solitary figure sitting on a bench looking out of the gallery…

I’m sure it was not there before, but a huge roll down shutter dominated the space, allowing a fragment of the street outside to be visible within the normal ‘white cube’ of the gallery. It made the space less determined, less immersive, more fragile somehow and gave the illusion of a longer and narrow space; in other words, it was less cube-like.  The shutter opening was actually directed at The Breakfast Club doorway, from where I had just come from and this felt strange; and therefore why I now choose to divulge this opening story in my gallery review. I had already been in the gallery unknowingly and also possible watched, judged? by the gentleman looking out at the street. Had he recognised my shoes and coat, now in the gallery, had he contemplated my hesitation of entering the cafe, my determined steps through the rain back out into the street, or just saw me as a passerby, of feet and legs, an object one usually navigates around?

I also started to watch some people walk past. Their faces anonymous and concealed by the partially closed shutter. They became a generic passerby, moving through the city streets. I did not wonder where they were going, as they were characterless. Perhaps if I had stayed longer, my perception would have changed. It was indeed just a shutter, a normal opening in a building, but because I had never seen it before, it became something new and awkward that disrupted the gallery space. Yet it also became a moving image, a unrecordable film, a  possible adaptions of the camera obscura.

The Breakfast Club on a sunny day.

The next  artwork I came across involved a projection using very dated equipment, which  I think may have been a super 8. The contraption to run the footage became monolithic, complex and magnificent, the film  on the other hand was subtle, simple and incidental in comparison. The sequence of images, heightened even further the idea of contrasting scale. I imagined seeing barren landscapes, horizons and suspension bridges,  momentarily fracturing the actual reality of  camera pans along the edge of a skirting board and  a sheet of glass. I recalled  photos by Gursky and Jeff Wall, perhaps a Rothko.

unique pieces

Andreas Gurksy

Jeff Wall

Rothko

So at times, the film was abstract, then a bleak horizon, then it revealed itself as edge of a room, perhaps of a gallery space; perhaps the glass being part of the Museum’s system of presentation and not an artwork in itself, perhaps momentarily left, but now made purposeful.

I continued to the upstairs gallery and asked the attendant if I could take photos,  but he said no. Here are images from the Whitecube website and an extract from the  press release explaining the content of the artwork in this room.

“Also included in the exhibition is the 16mm film ‘Cabinet of Prototypes’ (2009/2010). Made from research Islam conducted as an artist fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries, it shows the stands, hooks, plinths and labels used to present artefacts in the collection.The artist brings these support structures that would normally remain concealed back into view, erasing their functionality and restaging them as sculptural objects in their own right.

Islam also includes armatures intended for the presentation of museum objects as components of the exhibition, retrieving these structures from invisibility and holding them up for display.Often folding the machinery of film into the works and including numerous self-reflexive allusions, the exhibition presents a layered meditation on the mechanisms of viewing and perception and the narratives of art making and display.”

I can not explain it more succinctly than this, so will describe the physicality of the gallery space instead. The room was really dark,  outside was rainy and grey. The gallery attendant was curled up on the window ledge, reading a book. When I sat down to watch the film, he stood up and was silhouetted by the window and continued to read.  I guess I noticed the entire space and not just the central artwork, perhaps now being primed by the artwork downstairs. There was no clear distinction between the projected image and the projector. At first, I viewed the equipment, then behind the film, as it was projected on to glass and therefore double-sided, then the content of the film itself. The ‘front’ of the film was made apparent by the benches placed against the wall, so being compliant to the ideal viewing angle, (although I think the artwork questions this)  I sat down to view the film.

Cabinet of Prototypes (still)
2009-2010
Duration: 7 minutes
16mm colour film, mute, vitrine and various installation materials

 The footage emphasised the importance of the museum fixtures, panning inside a jumbled cabinet of hanging devices. I had no idea of this context, and although the fragments at times looked like futuristic buildings, even aeroplanes, they always exposed themselves as something small  in scale and structure and a part or by-product of something else

It would have been ideal if my students had come along to this exhibition, as it drew parallels with the exhibition by Elmgreen & Dragset at Victoria Miro Gallery they had seen earlier that afternoon. The artists in question had extracted sections of gallery walls from all over the world and placed them on to framed canvas.

At first glance, you see just a white square, but with closer examination, along its edges, you see a history of  paint layers, different colours and thickness like the rings of a tree. Then you start to contemplate the prestigious of each gallery in relation to how it re-decorates. Does a thin paint application show a better gallery than the thicker ones? Do imperfections in brush stroke and consistency conduct a more lackadaisical approach, less authority or a more left-wing standing?  I pointed out the Hayward Gallery artwork and said to the few remaining students who had not already bombed through this space in disappoint, “My friend could have made this” thinking of the gallery assistants that re-paint the space after each show.  The artwork by Elmgreen & Dragsetat focussed my attention upon the gallery assistants who are often artists  themselves.

So to me, Ruma Islam and also Elmgreen & Dragset are making work about how hierarchical  significance is placed on certain artefacts. In a different way of questioning what constitute art in a gallery space, from that  per se of a pile of bricks, the actual bricks and mortar, the gallery hangings, the surfaces of which art is hung are brought to the fore and become the area of interest.

Elmgreen & Dragset

With the cold rain outside lashing down upon busy London streets, Islam’s  retro films, glowed warmly and provided a similar reassurance to the hay barn by Elmgreen & Dragset at Victoria Miro. They create artifices of space within  the confines of the gallery. The current installation includes a room full of hay, wooden beam constructions  and a model of a boy perched on top of the gallery balcony.

Of course the gallery space can build a fabrication of something inviting and homely and push against the white cube confines. If only I had laid down in the straw for a while and let my students find their own way back home, I could have almost convinced myself I was in a barn in another time and place.

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