Vis Loci Catalogue Text by George Major
Vis Loci was curated by Artist Liane Lang and George Major, co-founder of the itinerant gallery Squid & Tabernacle as part of the Geographies of the Artist’s Studio Programme.
Geographies of the Artist’s Studio originated with a project by Liane Lang during which she carried out an investigation into the houses built by artists working in Kensington during the nineteenth century. Lang’s enquiry into these buildings and the studios they contained has informed the subsequent Geographies of the Artist’s Studio residencies and events coordinated by Squid & Tabernacle. The histories of these houses and the well-documented relationships between those artists who occupied them follow a now familiar pattern; artists tend to cluster in an area seeking to benefit from an economy of agglomeration, so as soon as one artist moves into a neighbourhood attracted by affordable workspace more are bound to follow. The presence of a nascent community of artists tends to encourage investment in and gentrification of an area. Eventually the artists who contributed to the neighbourhood’s growth are priced out of the area and move on seeking newer, trendier and above all cheaper places to work. This phenomenon continues to exert a strong influence on local and regional government policy throughout the world.
Squid & Tabernacle is an itinerant gallery established in 2008. The gallery’s very first exhibition coincided with the stock market crash the repercussions of which are still being felt throughout Europe today. Organisations and groups lacking the resources to maintain a permanent base were emboldened by an anticipated slump in demand for commercial property and loss of confidence in the traditional art market to try out novel ways of working, and so the first murmurings of this financial crisis saw a sudden growth in the number of galleries operating as what was already known as pop-ups.
However, Squid &Tabernacle’s directors were always wary of adopting the term pop-up to describe the gallery’s programme. By 2008 pop-up shops, pop-up restaurants and pop-up exhibitions had all become well established as marketing tools through which big businesses could gain a little street-cred for their brands in a highly cost-effective way. This trend was welcomed by property owners hoping to ride out the downturn with help from cash rich short-term tenants. All of this perhaps meant that operating as a pop-up was not as easy a solution for a small gallery on a tiny budget as it might initially have seemed.
Pop-up was a marketing strategy well before it was an artistic one, although as a marketing strategy it relies upon an aura of art-chic for its effectiveness. Understanding Squid & Tabernacle’s experience as an itinerant gallery is revealing when it comes to understanding how artists seek out a niche within the urban infrastructure wherein they can make their work. The sometimes makeshift, often precarious, workspaces that such artists adopt can have a massive influence over the work they subsequently produce. Being itinerant, it required a fair amount of ingenuity to find exhibition spaces for Squid & Tabernacle, and often these spaces had little in common with conventional gallery spaces so still more ingenuity was required from each artist that was asked to produce work for these locations.
For much of 2010 Squid & Tabernacle held exhibitions inside and around a weathered old shipping container in a derelict Dalston car park. This venue was economical enough to run that in some cases the artists who exhibited there were able to use the space for up to a month before their exhibition opened. In this time during which the shipping container became a temporary studio for the artist, the power that the studio space has in directing the course of the artist’s work was vividly apparent. Most memorably, the first artist to spend time building an installation in the shipping container arrived on site one morning tired after a sleepless night spent worrying that she had not made sufficient use of the venue’s flexibility. She had realised that the rusty shipping container’s material worthlessness was also its greatest strength; here was a studio and exhibition space that could be tested almost to destruction. That day we found ourselves using a jack to tilt the whole structure onto an angle before filling one end of it with concrete, turning the shipping container’s empty shell into a peculiarly vertiginous space. This is an extreme case, but it demonstrates the intimate connection between the physical characteristics of the location in which where a work of art is made and that work’s final form.
Artists adapt their practice to whatever niche in the built environment becomes available to them as well as shaping that workspace to suit the needs of their creative processes. The studio is a complex place to try to understand, for the artist it can be both a private retreat and a showroom whose form and contents is often central to their self-identification as an artist. It is a laboratory where new ideas are trialled and an archive of the previous experiments carried out there; abandoned artworks or artworks put to one side to be reappraised at a later date as well as finished works put on display or packaged and stored. Every studio has its own distinct character and every artist’s relationship with their studio is unique. Each of the works in Vis Loci has been chosen because in some way it displays traces of the three-way relationship between the artist, the studio and the work itself.
This three-way relationship is beautifully illustrated in Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom’s short videos. This artist’s studio is dominated by a raised stage along one side of the room, a kind of film set on which the artist puts objects into play with one another. With deadpan humour Boakye-Yiadom turns quotidian objects into the stars of his films. In his studio this artist’s playful experimentation with the physical properties of objects and the mental associations they arouse are recorded and re-enacted as artworks.
As is the case with her work in Victorian Artists’ houses Liane Lang often uses locations outside of her studio in which to make work. She has turned her attention back to the studio space for the installation that she has made for Vis Loci. Her inspiration comes from the painting Atelierwand (Studio Wall) by the nineteenth century German Painter Adolph Menzel which depicts plaster casts of body parts hanging up in the studio ready for use as artist’s models. Lang, who often uses similar casts in her photographic and animation work, has reproduced the wall depicted in Menzel’s painting, this time casting the faces of friends and colleagues who have visited her own studio.
Squid & Tabernacle was eager that the gallery’s itinerant working methods should be reflected in the Geographies of the Artist’s Studio residencies. With this in mind Louise Ashcroft was invited to take on the role of Peripatetic Artist in Residence, this led to the publishing of the book Geographies of the Artist’s Studio #2 in which Ashcroft’s huge network of collaborators and creative influences is partially mapped out. For Vis Loci Ashcroft has transcribed this map of an artist’s mental workspace into a concrete form.
The curators of Vis Loci also wanted to give an insight into the kind of unfinished work that can be found in an artist’s studio. Painter Emi Avora has kindly allowed an unfinished painting to leave the studio so that it can be exhibited as a work-in-progress. Like many artists Avora tends to work on several pieces simultaneously “and some of it starts and never finishes but just hangs around in the studio for ages.” It is as rare as it is fascinating for an artist to be willing to allow such a work to be seen publicly.
Annabelle Moreau’s investigation into the studio used by Michael Moon in the run-up to his 1976 exhibition at the Tate has informed an ongoing collaboration with Kaho Kojima. For Vis Loci the pair has built Studio Pop-Up, a life-size reconstruction of an idealised studio which reflects the precariousness of the artist’s workspace. The Studio Pop-Up is a studio that can be easily collapsed and relocated in its entirety. In reality artists often have to pack up and move their work materials at short notice causing great disruption to the artist’s work; Studio Pop-Up was itself constructed in a temporary improvised studio and the building which once housed Michael Moon’s studio has long since been redeveloped as a residential space.
Stephen Walter’s intricate map Hub featured on the cover of the first Geographies of the Artist’s Studio book. Walter’s maps communicate the masses of local history, colloquialisms, toponymy and cultural references that go into generating a sense of place. Hub, which features in this exhibition, specifically relates to London’s art-world; mapping out the cultural and economic landscape of city’s thousands of studios and galleries as well as the important social spaces where artists meet and where ideas are developed.
Elizabeth McAlpine’s body of work Map of Exactitude was first exhibited at Laura Bartlett gallery in 2012. It concerns an attempt at mapping an artist’s studio in the spirit of the Borges Story On Exactitude in Science in which the writer describes a map ‘whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it.’ McAlpine has constructed a series of pinhole cameras, the shape of each corresponding on a 1:1 scale to a particular architectural element of an individual studio. The images produced are exhibited alongside the pinhole cameras themselves.
Just as McAlpine’s project to map out a studio space with absolute precision demonstrates the studio’s unknowable character, Tamarin Norwood’s account of somnambulant experimentation My House and Other Inventions communicates the indeterminate and digressive character of the creative process. The studio is a place which can have many contradictory influences upon the artist and their art. Any attempt at reproducing the significant features of any artist’s studio in an exhibition will be necessarily incomplete, but each of the works in Vis Loci hopefully provides a fleeting glimpse or snapshot of a place that is in a constant state of flux.
The Geographies of the Artist’s Studio programme has been funded by West London Story and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Vis Loci was held at Griffin Gallery; an exhibition space supported by Liquitex and Winsor & Newton, designed to foster and support the production and exhibition of new art.
Published in Vis Loci, The Geography of The Artist's Studio, October 2012, with support from the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Griffin Gallery, via Windsor and Newton.