mon 24/06/2024

Life is More Important than Art, Whitechapel Gallery review - themes of arrival, belonging and departure unite fascinating mixed show | reviews, news & interviews

Life is More Important than Art, Whitechapel Gallery review - themes of arrival, belonging and departure unite fascinating mixed show

Life is More Important than Art, Whitechapel Gallery review - themes of arrival, belonging and departure unite fascinating mixed show

The first show curated by the Whitechapel's new director Gilane Tawadros bodes well

'This Is Not a Memoir', 2023 by Janette Parris

Standing just inside the door of the Whitechapel’s downstairs gallery is a luggage trolley laden with parcels (pictured below, right).

This forlorn object looks as if it’s waiting to be collected, but the owner seems to have gone AWOL.The packages are labelled, not with names and addresses but descriptions of the contents, as if they had come from a museum archive.

“Bima curtain,” reads one label. “Large, dark blue velvet cloth with heavy gilt ribbon trim and gilt fringing. Condition: torn in several places, much stained, creased and damp when found.” The items were retrieved from the gutter by artist, Susan Hiller outside a demolished building in Whitechapel which had housed a small synagogue. Thousands of Jewish immigrants uses to live in this area and, in memory of the religious rituals these items once served, a recording can be heard of cantor Josef Rosenblatt singing a fragment of prayer.

Susan Hiller, Untitled, 1999This powerful piece introduces Life is More Important than Art, a show of work that relates to the East End, Britain and the wider world. Also on show is a film and installation by Hiller which chart streets in Germany named after the Jewish communities that once lived there (pictured below leftinstallation detail).

Static shots of unremarkable locations from cobbled alleyways to busy roads and market squares, show people going about their business in places called Judenstrasse, Judengasse, Judengang or Judenhof. The very ordinariness of each scene feels shocking; it’s as though the systematic elimination of the Jews from Nazi Germany has become little more than a distant memory which, relegated to history, has little bearing on the present.

The exhibition was curated by Gilane Tawadros, the Whitechapel’s new director, along with artist Janette Parris who shows pages from her forthcoming book This is not a Memoir. Parris is keeping the past alive in drawings of buildings that played an important part in her South and East London upbringing, but have since been demolished (main picture: West Ham United football stadium). They include the Ford plant in Dagenham where her father worked, Woodside Comprehensive where she learned to fence and compete against “posh white kids who I was allowed to stab” and the Boleyn Cinema where she got thrown out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for being too rowdy. By charting her “journey to adulthood”, she also provides a record of the changing face of London; biography becomes local history.Alia Syed, Fatima's Letter, 1992The catalyst for some of those changes has been new waves of immigrants. Osman Yousefzada’s parents came over from Pakistan. One would hope that after the upheaval of departure and the culture shock of arriving in a strange country, immigrants might gradually be able to settle and adjust and even attain some sense of belonging.

In An Immigrant’s Room of Her Own, 2018 Yousefzada creates a fanciful version of his mother’s bedroom. Tightly wrapped in clingfilm, a tower of stainless steel cooking pots dominates the room, while dotted over the carpet are dozens of smaller household items swathed in black plastic. It looks as if she has just arrived and has yet to unpack or is preparing for imminent departure. Nothing here suggests a sense of wellbeing, only a profound feeling of alienation and lingering anxiety.

Detail from Hiller’s J. Street Project 2002-5Fatima’s Letter, 1992 (pictured above) was shot almost entirely at Whitechapel tube station, a dismal spot that Alia Syed has transformed into a poetic evocation of arrival and departure. Grainy black and white footage of shadows, passengers glimpsed through carriage windows, doors sliding open and shut and trains gliding past creates a restless sense of endless coming and going. 

Meanwhile, a voice speaks in Urdu while subtitles recall chance encounters on the underground, and narrate a story of conquest in which women seduce sailors with sweetmeats and suffocate them with the drowsy scent of jasmine and musk. This heady mix of yearning, desire and home sickness is as intoxicating as the fragrances and as dreamy as the heat it evokes so beautifully.

Rana Begum’s installation is as sparse as Syed’s film is lush, yet it is just as evocative. Sections of chain link fence sprayed red and black hang in layers that pulsate in optical patterns as you walk past. The wire encloses nothing, nor does it protect any territory from intruders, yet associations with barricades and closed borders haunts this apparently innocent work.

Shot during the pandemic, John Smith’s film Citadel (pictured below) focuses on the view from his window of the office towers in the square mile. Extracts from Boris Johnson’s speeches in which he gives conflicting instructions about whether to stay at home or go to work, are accompanied by comparable shifts in the weather from sunshine to rain.

Glimpses of people variously exercising, cooking and working at home capture the longueurs of lockdown. Then, finally, as Johnson declares victory over Covid and asserts that “we are stronger and better than ever before”, the gleaming skyscrapers are wiped from view by a snowstorm. Business as usual has not been resumed, after all. Clever, funny and politically astute, the film is an ironic indictment of Johnson’s bluster and incompetence.John Smith, Citadel, 2020“The difference between pessimism and optimism is constructing a good ending,” says Barbara Kingsolver, winner of the Women’s prize for fiction. And as if following her advice, the exhibition ends on a euphoric note with Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom 2000, which he filmed at City Airport in a single take. An endless stream of people pours through the doors of international arrivals. Seen in slow motion, weary travellers are transformed into pilgrims reaching the promised land – accompanied, on the soundtrack, by the celestial music of Miserere by Renaissance composer, Gregorio Allegri. It’s as if a choir of angels were welcoming the arrivals to Heaven. Ah, if only that were the case !

The difference between pessimism and optimism is constructing a good ending

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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