The London Open 2018, which was launched on Thursday at The Whitechapel Gallery, claims to feature some of the best contemporary art around by those resident in the capital. It happens every three years in a tradition dating back to 1932. Its judging panel, including the Gallery’s Emily Butler, whittled 2,600 applications down to those representing just 22 artists. They were chosen not only for the quality of their work, but also for representing various themes current in London over the past three years and for having a long-term engagement with their subject matter.
A lot has happened since the last Open. There’s been the divisive nature of the Brexit vote, the Grenfell Tower disaster, terror attacks as well as increasing urbanisation, technological changes, gender and LGBTQ issues. “London’s been through tough times,” says Emily Butler. “It’s been a challenging environment in which we were interested in exploring this idea of what it means to be culturally open in this socio-political landscape.”
The three broad themes revolve around our relationship with nature, technology and human relations. Most of the exhibits involve film or video, though painting, sculpture, photography performance, ceramics and work online also get a look in.
Dominating the ground floor is a landscape of rubble, New Spring Gardens above, by Rachael Champion in which she examines the relationship between our urban environment and the natural world. There’s a kind of life cycle going on here. The ‘60s council estate at Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar is in the process of being demolished much to the chagrin of certain architects though not to most of its residents. Champion has printed photographs of a limestone quarry in the Peak District on to some of the walls. The construction material is returning to its original state. Other environmental concerns are raised by Gary Colclough and Hannah Brown whose meticulous but somewhat anodyne landscapes paintings speak of the tension between town and country and the manipulation of nature by man.
Further on shine the neon lights of a large installation showing a set of numbers above a series of computers. This Much I’m Worth is the work of Rachel Ara, an artist who used to work in the tech industry. The numbers represent the sale price of her artwork. The more people who look at it, the more it goes up and vice versa.
Ara has cleverly combined several themes here. She has programmed some algorithms based on her prominence, the financial markets and questions like gender equality. Statistically, the fact is that she would fetch a higher price for her work if she was a man. She also is drawing attention to our relationship with technology. Because most of us mortals don’t understand exactly how technology works, we end up having to place our trust in people whose work is poorly regulated, just as the financial markets are poorly regulated. She has made an elaborate contraption of which you can never see the workings. “You have to trust people and put your faith in technology, yet this machine doesn’t actually do anything,” she tells me. “I could be running all this on a tiny phone.” You get the message.
Upstairs, a whole room is devoted to the work of multi-award-winning artist and cultural activist Dr Andrea Luka Zimmerman. The centrepiece is a film, Civil Rites, she has made in Newcastle upon Tyne which has a history of political activism dating back four hundred years. She has taken as her premise the speech given by Martin Luther King when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the city in 1967. He highlighted the ills of racism, poverty and war. Over backdrops of city streets, we hear people from all walks of life talking about these themes which naturally involve such issues as immigration, deprivation and sexual and political oppression. Around the room are posters of political campaigns from the past decades to the present day. For me, this room was the highlight of the show.
The immigration debate is reflected in the post-colonial themes in the films of of Uriel Orlow and Larry Achiampong. In keeping with the #metoo movement and gender issues in general, Elisabeth Tomlinson’s sensuous male nude, a still from her William Series video, reverses the all-too familiar male gaze and male vision of women’s bodies. Among the other artists featured are Gabriella Boyd, George Eksts, Ayan Farah, French and Mottershead, Vikesh Govind, Richard Healy, Des Lawrence, Tom Lock, Céline Manz, Rachel Pimm, Renee So, Alex Teplin, Jonathan Trayte and Tom Varley.
As with these pot-pourri-type exhibitions The London Open 2018 has something for everyone, some things you like, others you don’t. There’s nothing terribly new or earth shattering, no breaking or extending of barriers. Perhaps it’s a reflection of a capital and a nation going through hard times, hunkering down in a period of confusion and volatility. But, hey, it’s free and continues at the Whitechapel Gallery until 26 August 2018.
All images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.