Can the East End art scene be as hot as some claim – 15 years after it got trendy?
The London listings magazine Time Out lives or dies by its up-to-dateness, and so desperate is it to appear up to date at all costs, it can usually be relied on to be near the head of the pack when it comes to spotting trends and identifying groovy locations. So what on earth was going on in last week’s issue, where a series of maps, articles and promotions crammed into an East End Art Special noisily announced that the East End of London was now Britain’s leading centre of artistic creativity? I wrote the same thing myself. About 15 years ago. Or was it 20? Rarely in the annals of listings-magazine history can a supposedly up-to-date trash sheet have been quite so late with its observations.
Less impressive even than the timing of Time Out’s announcement was its inaccuracy. Plenty of people who really know the art world will tell you that, actually, the East End is finished – the whole Hoxton thing has been and gone. Which is why Britain’s biggest contemporary-art gallery, White Cube, has moved back to the West End and opened a wondrous new space on Mason’s Yard, in posh St James’s. The old White Cube on Hoxton Square is still there, but only to put on smaller, studenty shows, while the big gallery in town unveils the Kiefers and the Gurskys.
The truth is that the East End has never actually worked. In serious art terms, it has been a failure from the beginning. The art world’s real power-brokers, the big international collectors, never got the hang of going there. The demanding urban geography of it all, with those tiny galleries stuck away in unlikely places, was too much for them. And clattering down harshly cobbled post-Huguenot alleys looking for shows plays such havoc with your Jimmy Choos. It’s much easier to turn up in London once a year for the Frieze Art Fair and get it all done in one hit, under one roof.
So, why is Time Out blathering on about the artistic excitement of the area in its “nine-page celebration of East End Art”? Well, that is actually about something else. Have you read Big Babies – Or: Why Can’t We Just Grow Up? by Michael Bywater? I recommend it. It came out last year, and has lots of fun laying into the retarded adults sociologists have nicknamed ” adultescents”, or “kidults”. These are the thirtysomethings you see on the Tube reading Harry Potter; or those blokes who rush back from the pub to play on their Game Boys. Bywater’s argument is that these kidults have taken over our society, and that Peter Pandemonium is raging among the infantilised masses, as everyone shirks the proper responsibilities of adulthood by steadfastly refusing to act their age. Which, I suggest, is where the East End comes in.
As part of its noisy promotion of East End creativity, Time Out has joined up with the Arts Council and the Whitechapel Art Gallery (shame on both of them) to bring us First Thursday. On the first Thursday of every month, the galleries of the East End are going to stay open extra late, in an attempt to cater for art-lovers in a new way. A chap called Michael Hodges promised us the following in Time Out: “Turn up at Vyner St on a Thursday evening at around 6pm, wearing some knocked-about jeans, bashed-up plimsolls . . . and perhaps an attitudinal haircut. Pause outside on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road to adjust your spectacles – you’ll be needing spectacles – then walk casually down the street picking bottles of cold beer from the large ice-filled tubs along the way. As long as you have the right look and a certain seriousness of bearing, no one will object to your drinking, nor will anyone charge you.” So, what’s actually being promoted here isn’t new art, or any proper cultural engagement, but the quintessential kidult satisfaction of blagging a free drink. The culminating event of the first First Thursday was a pillow fight in Hoxton Square. That’s right, a pillow fight, at which “artists and ordinary folk paint pillows and clobber their friends, all for art’s sake”. Which is exactly what happened. A few sad thirtysomethings turned up with their hand-painted pillows and ran around the square bashing each other over the head.
Now, for the whole of my adult life, I have believed art to be one of civilisation’s greatest tools, an unstoppable force for enlightenment. Broadly speaking, I agree with the vision of that underrated British philosopher RG Collingwood, who insisted, in The Principles of Art: “Art is community’s medicine for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness.” How, then, was I to square this opinion with as clear an example as I can imagine of the corruption of consciousness – the pillow fight – or, indeed, with the Art Treasure Hunt that preceded it, in which visitors were prompted to “follow the clues to discover amazing spaces and exciting art, win prizes and find your way to a secret after-party”? It needed investigation.
Since my haircut is naturally attitudinal, and somewhere in a cupboard I did have some battered plimsolls and some knocked-about jeans, dressing properly for the first First Thursday was easy enough. My first port of call was, indeed, Vyner Street, just past the Museum of Childhood, in Bethnal Green, where I always go anyway when I’m touring the East End, because you get so many galleries on such a short street.
The first thing I noticed was that everyone out and about on First Thursday was essentially the same person. Aged somewhere between twentysomething and thirtysomething, they were, without exception, scruffy urban singletons of the Paperchase generation, out for a drink and a laugh. No kids. No middle-aged ordinariness. Most certainly no pensioners. Their uniformity was extraordinary, even scary. Where, I wondered, as I careered from door to door and buzzer to buzzer, had the rest of society gone?
Time Out need not have bothered organising its clunky treasure hunt, either, because finding a gallery in Vyner Street is difficult enough as it is. Fred, at the back of what seems to be a car park, is showing the work of Dolly Thompsett, who paints exceptionally unlikely scenes of storm-tossed three-masters coming into port in 19th-century Newfoundland, or somewhere like that. Too kitsch to trigger any proper nostalgia, Thompsett’s weird fantasies combine the pumped-up romantic drama of a Friedrich seascape with the shiny look of a painting on velvet.
Next door, at the David Risley Gallery, I found the work of Boo Ritson (pictured left), which I liked a lot more. Ritson takes real people and paints them in bright household enamels, so they take on the gaudy and wooden presence of a Thunderbirds puppet. Some of the human sculptures are holding stuff they’ve bought at fast-food outlets (fries, hot dogs, hamburgers), which has also been painted. A hamburger painted to look like a hamburger is both a perfect and a perfectly disgusting evocation of the real thing. Another artist who makes you look twice is Satoru Aoyama, at One in the Other, who achieves extraordinarily convincing effects with embroidery. What looks like a piece of paper covered with coffee stains turns out be a carefully embroidered illusion.
So, the art on show in the East End is actually rather good. What a shame that looking at it seems such an unnecessary distraction when there is a pillow fight to get to.