The Centre of Attention homepage the centre of attention

Riflemaker Becomes Indica - by Tyler Coburn (NY Arts Magazine, May-June 2007)

or back to the library


fast and loose (my dead gallery) installation view

  This past fall in London, the commercial gallery Riflemaker and the peripatetic organization, Centre of Attention—far from similar art world denizens—mounted concurrent exhibitions based on the city’s obsolete, avant-garde spaces. Matrices of alternative sociality and radical aesthetics driven by malaise with art world commercialism and an often unchecked idealism, these spaces offered significant challenges to the accepted tenants of art exhibition. And here, at long last, they were given their art historical due.

For its two-part exhibition, Riflemaker transformed itself into Indica, that short-lived hub for 60s free expression that saw everyone from William S. Burroughs to Antonioni pass through its doors and which hosted the first fateful meeting between John and Yoko (he took a bite of her apple sculpture; she was furious). Following their seductive exhibition title, “Riflemaker becomes Indica,” co-curators Tot Taylor and Virginia Damtsa installed Indica artworks alongside those of contemporary darlings like Conrad Shawcross, which they commissioned as if to be exhibited in the original Indica. Taken collectively, these artworks are meant to invoke the spirit of Riflemaker’s forebearer and to invite the comparison between “a shining light of 60s free expression” and today’s “much harsher, more business-orientated art environment.” That Indica originally set up shop in Mason's Yard, where Jay Jopling has just opened his second White Cube, is an irony not lost upon the curators.

The gallery’s multi-story, wooden interior certainly lends the right amount of clumsy charm to the anti-institutional sentiments of the Indica set. Contemporary and 60s pieces hang and lie about the space in seeming disarray, barely betraying the eras in which they were made. This is a surprising fact—less so for how well the contemporary pieces ape the styles of their elders than for how successfully much of the 60s conceptual art sates the commercial market’s recent tastes for the D.I.Y. and faux-naïve. In Cosmic Flares III, Liliane Lijn fashions a miniature cosmos of acrylic dots on Perspex whose infinite mysteries are illumined by a border of variably blinking lights. Elsewhere, Yoko Ono’s I Love U unexpectedly marks the exhibition’s generational split: the artist’s open invitation for visitors to paint the phrase “I Love U” on a canvas harkens to a period of unabashed earnestness that younger generations can only view from a semi-fanciful, nostalgic remove.

The contemporary artworks on display, for their part, could have constructively bridged the historical gap, offering examples of what uncompromising art making might be in these far more cynical times, but Riflemaker’s challenge to its contemporary artists to “make work as if for the original Indica,” ends up reducing many of these practitioners to uncritical copycats. Janfamily’s digital video of two dancing girls is an exception, solely for its medium’s period-specificity; most other works, like Aishleen Lester’s insect-like sculptures, amount to little more than pastiche.

Contextualizing Indica’s alternative spirit is an undeniably important activity, but Riflemaker’s overly deterministic curatorial method has made this exhibition a largely mimicking affair. The question of what the present day may learn from Indica’s “freeflow” and “optimism” cannot be meaningfully asked when the respective eras are treated with only the most superficial of characterizations, and when contemporary artists are made to play handmaidens to the past.

For the exhibition “fast and loose (my dead gallery),” the Centre of Attention took a decidedly different approach, culling materials from over a dozen spaces of the past 50 years to produce “a secret history of the London Art world.” Co-curators Gary O’Dwyer and Pierre Coinde went to exhaustive lengths in this endeavor, contacting as many of the spaces’ original members as they could find and inviting them to curate their respective sections of the exhibition, spread throughout the East End’s massive, non-commercial Fieldgate Gallery.

While some contacts, Coinde recalls, had “ended up quite bitter about the art world and were not really keen on going back to it,” several others were enthused about the chance to relive their alternative heyday. The Neo-Naturists, for example, co-curated B2’s section of the exhibition and additionally staged the same brand of body-painting performance that once put the 80s Wapping-based space on the map. Others, like the 90s venture BANK, had retained only a small number of materials and either contributed what they had, or remade pieces expressly for the exhibition. Indica, promiscuous ghost that it be, even made a showing.

Common to all of the participating spaces, O’Dwyer and Coinde explain, is a certain “curatorial quality.” Each has come to exemplify “the gallery as producer,” and the possibility that “the space can be the artist.” As “alternatives to the gallery-as-shop-front” model so rampant on the art market, O’Dwyer adds, they “reveal a spirit of practice that isn’t necessarily linked to a specific moment.”

The challenge that Centre has set for itself lies in confidently towing this curatorial line. As the first comprehensive exhibition of alternative London art spaces, “fast and loose” needs to allow each venture to speak in its particular, historical voice. Aside from the perplexing omission of City Racing and certain other key, avant-garde ventures, the exhibition affords a thorough account of each of its participating spaces, supplemented by the copious amount of artwork and documentation on hand.

The curators’ desire to convey something of the spirit of the long-gone spaces, however, requires a far more audacious and a-historical gesture, the likes of which raise “fast and loose” above a mere survey show. For the Centre, this gesture achieves its form in a “total artwork” that uses these avant-garde spaces as its creative materials. At once conceptually uniform and materially piecemeal, this “total artwork,” allows one to “compare and contrast the spaces’ different styles, tropes and characteristic ways of doing their shows,” within the exhibition’s broader frame.

There’s a sentiment here, sketched in perhaps too cursory and preliminary a fashion, which deserves attention. Too often the flight towards a-historical idealism is attended by the belief that there may not, in fact, be any situated place for radical change. By charting a subterranean history of the London art world, in the spirit of avant-garde ethos, however, the Centre of Attention has woven history into idealism and idealism out of history; in so doing, it has struck the paradoxical impulse at the heart of radicalism.

Tyler Coburn