White box art galleries are strange places for the uninitiated. Work is denied any visual context other than other artworks. People tend to talk quietly, if at all. Their interiors bear no relation to the world outside their doors. Brian O’Doherty discussed this problem in the 1970s in his book Inside The White Cube: “In this context a standing ashtray becomes an almost sacred object”.
Galleries have in the past few years introduced more "offsite" exhibitions to tackle this, but the number of other institutions experimenting with showing contemporary art is also on the rise. Contemporary art seems to carry a value that is appealing for other cultural sectors, brands, and institutions. Although this can be problematic for artists, it has led to the possibility for work to interact with spaces in new ways and open up to different audiences.
St Paul’s Cathedral regularly engages with contemporary artists. Bill Viola—a pioneer of video art’s transfixing capabilities with a longstanding interest in Christian themes—is a good fit. He insisted on HD before it was well-known, forcing technical perfection for his medium. His well-crafted lighting, slick studio sets, and immaculate timing are so enticing you sometimes overlook the work’s more heavy symbolism.
Viola’s Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) is the first moving image work to be shown in the cathedral. Despite video seeming far from the cathedral vernacular, Martyrs looks at home. A sturdy quadriptych of standing HD monitors showing four looping videos of people silently enduring, even at peace with, staged and stylized tortures involving the four elements, it is not unlike classical paintings of the martyrs. As a space for art, the hubbub of the cathedral was unexpectedly less reverential than a gallery. But the building acts as a visual means to relate the themes in the videos to the larger narrative of religious art. At St Paul’s, Viola marries his videos’ startling visual effects achieved in his removed studio-setting to their thematic content—a visual history of human suffering and redemption.
Ryan Gander at 2 Willow Road; Courtesy Sam Roberts
Ryan Gander’s exhibition The artists have the keys at Ernö Goldfinger’s Hampstead home, on until 2 November, relies on a much more intimate context for its success. Hidden among Goldfinger’s carefully arranged possessions are Gander’s subtle works. Easy to miss, the joy of the exhibition is going round the house with the list of works and trying to prize apart the objects that tell us Goldfinger’s story from Gander’s. Anyone with a family is motivated by money is a self-assembly money box that sits on a shelf, mimicking the ingenious functionality of the flat-pack chairs designed by Goldfinger’s wife, Ursula. Two works from Gander’s series A lamp made by the artist for his wife appear to be Goldfinger’s, but on closer inspection are ad hoc constructions of too-new objects—bike pumps, shiny bull-dog clips, a kitchen roll holder. Another man’s home as context for Gander’s art makes sense. His varied output often deals with both personal experience and the overarching narrative of art history. The preservation of Goldfinger’s home does more than celebrate its architecture. It places you in the story of his life, allowing every painting, box file, and well-made door handle to illuminate the cultural context of the mid century.
Javier Tellez, Caligari und der Schlafwandler (Caligari and the Sleepwalker), 2008, film still; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich
This year’s Anxiety Arts Festival is dotted around many carefully chosen London venues. Acting out: the institution denied is in the converted Anatomy Museum at King’s College until 21 June. To find it you have to walk up through the university. On show are three videos, a vitrine, and three performances on different evenings. The works all deal with issues around the visibility and perception of mental health. Dora Garcia’s film The Deviant Majority (2010) examples revolutionary and political ideas in psychiatry, from Italy to Brazil. Javier Tellez’s film Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008) features patients from Vivantes Klinikum in Berlin who slip between their characters and themselves; they act, watch themselves act and narrate their stories. Although these works make sense in the university setting as a physical embodiment of a space for the mind, it is the display of Eva Kotátková’s vitrine from her work Picture Atlas of Johan, A boy who cut the library of the clinic into pieces (2014) that speaks more directly to the room’s previous life as an anatomy theatre. Little carefully cut out arms are suspended on string like the parts to a game that is at once sinister and charming.
Although the white box has conditioned the art viewer to overlook context, in these exhibitions it is precisely the relationship of artworks to and with these other institutions that enriches the works themselves. These are all examples of how art is not solipsistic, how it lives in and speaks to the world at large.
[Image on top: Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water); Photo by Peter Mallet]