27th March 2008 — 6th April 2008
(1) After a slew of shows over the last year, Auto-Italia have relocated from their car showroom in Peckham to an ex-garage on Old Kent Rd. With 50 artists asked to submit work for the sites christening show, EPIC marks an ambitious continuation for the gallery in its new home.
(2) It seemed suitable then that the private view felt as much an inauguration as a flat warming; three of the gallery's 4 directors live in caravans huddled together in the largest of the space's sizeable rooms. We have difficulty in inhabiting spaces of such magnitude, manufacturing false-walls and ceilings to reduce spatial dimensions to a human scale. Despite even these efforts by the buildings previous occupants, the gallery in totality is daunting in its immensity. So much so that on the whole the work appears diminutive, deferential, at times diplomatic. This is hardly surprising giving the amount of artists taking part here and the amount of negotiation that must have gone on. But what is surprising is that with so such free reign granted by the gallery, so few would respond with a similar level of ambition. This is a little unfair. As previous answers to Tate Modern's cavernous and notoriously tricky Turbine Hall have shown, the best response to an empty space is not always to fill it. Yet, and particularly here in a group show of such determined monumentalism, even the loftiest of monuments are in danger of being gobbled up by such an insatiable space.
(2.1) Two artists that have dealt with these problematics are Justine Jaeckle and Francis Frederick. Frederick's 'A Good Host is a Ghost' presents an outline of Auto-Italia's previous residence on Queen's Road, Peckham; a generous line of glitter connecting the gallery's 4 rooms is one floor plan imposed upon another, oblivious to any obstacle posed by wall or door. That it was disturbed and slowly destroyed by visitors on the opening night is an apt form of iconoclasm of sorts that borders on catharsis (the Queen's Road site was demolished soon after the gallery's departure). Jaeckle's 'Smoke Machine' attempts to, in the artist's words, "fill in the gaps with artistic glue" as vapour is periodically pumped into the front gallery. A minimal action with theatrical results (a little reminiscent of Olafur Eliasson's smoke and mirrors without the mirrors), like Robert Barry's 'Inert Gas Series' in 1969, which saw the artist release noble gases over the Mojave Desert, Jaeckle's intervention is at once next to nothing and all encompassing. Aggressively invading the whole of the front of the gallery, on the opening night this, as with Frederick's, appears more as backdrop, a dramatic setting for the reception of all other work in the room.
(2.2) As I say, on the opening night. And it feels to me that here we arrive at the core of the show, one the directors I'm sure would scarcely disagree with: the opening and indeed the remit of this exhibition is as a launching, a staging, and, quite rightly, an epic networking opportunity! The invitations, the press release, the private view with all its pomp (and performances), the review - all are part and parcel of a Duchampian "art coefficient", an ever-expanding annexe to the artwork. But here, these seeming appendages are the work itself. This hasn't escaped many of the artists in making their proposals; Katie Guggenheim's contribution, "Name on flier, arrival at private view wearing 'G' diamante earrings"; Jen Walke's, "A four-piece barbershop quartet singing happy birthday to Auto-Italia and Jen serving cake. Celebrartory in nature. At private view only"; Daniel Oliver's, "One to one performance based on the idea of getting changed in the back of the cab on the way to an art event. Private view, 8:30pm-9pm"; Mirah Lucas', "How do you make writing stand out in a gallery? A4 handouts by flier and press release on reception desk"; Theo Cook's, "Picture taken to be used as image on flier". It seems fairly justified then that the day after opening, the (remaining) work on show felt like mere vestiges of the night before.
(3) When I returned the day after to review the show, the air was clear, though the sky wasn't - the smoke had been replaced with the constant dripping of water, some into lovely orange buckets, some dangerously pooling next to a pile of electrical plugs (ah, the joys of non-H&S-compliance). Worth noting is Tristram Bellotti's installation, 'Excerpts from the Henry Quag Archive, London' - texts pasted to the walls, slides on lightbox are some of the elements taken from the archive at Cecil Sharp House that relay the story of this
Antarctic explorer. Kiran Kaur's hilarious What's the Officer, Problem' features a wind-up cowboy and Indian chasing each other across 2 monitors. There is more, much, much more though...
(3.1) One can but skim the surface though when presented with such a wealth of work (and I'm certainly guilty of that). But the absolute lack of any titles or names of artists included here naturally exacerbates this inclination. With 50 artists on show, how could it not? A similarly but more deliberate ploy was notably adopted by Jens Hoffman and Rob Bowman in their curation of group show SURPISE SURPRISE at the ICA in 2006. In a response to the mainstay summer blockbuster show, the curators chose not to publish titles, names and interpretation labels beside the works of several world-renowned artists, leaving visitors to search doggedly through a printed floor-plan to elucidate matters. As Auto-Italia's gallery director Rachel Pimm explained however, the decision to omit such information was not a curatorial one: "To produce a detailed floor-plan would have been logistically impossible, and although some artists complained, where titles were integral to the work, it was the responsibility of the artist to include them". I agree.
(3.3) There is much banging of drums and rattling of cages around at the moment on the seeming usurpation of the artist's position by the curator. But in cases such as these where the onus is dutifully returned to the artist - and where a large degree of creative freedom is offered up - surely the artist has a responsibility to embrace it with both hands. Many publicly-funded cultural institutions define themselves as "creative playgrounds", yet how much running-space is actually afforded? ". Save of course from financial constraints (artists involved in EPIC were each asked to contribute £7 towards beer and publication costs), the artist-run space can provide this freedom - freedom for the artist, relative freedom for the artists that run it. How sustainable this model is, I don't know. People get itchy (as well as rather chilly I imagine), and self-preservation/interest soon replaces cultural altruism. "We're not a commercial gallery," says another of the gallery's directors, Kate Cooper. Well, I would say, not yet anyway... Such endeavours often grow out of their skin and with financial pressures the doors can slowly swing shut. So for now, I would urge artists and audiences alike to watch this space.
(*) I should mention that I was one of the 50 artists invited to participate in this exhibition.
430-432 Old Kent Road
entrance on Glengall Road
London SE1 5AG