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Home HRArt and auctions Life is More Important than Art: Whitechapel Gallery’s summer 2023 exhibition 

Life is More Important than Art: Whitechapel Gallery’s summer 2023 exhibition 

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Citadel, John Smith’s brilliant lockdown video.

Life is More Important than Art: Whitechapel Gallery’s summer 2023 exhibition 

By James Brewer

In truncated clips from a televised broadcast, a familiar voice booms out. Boris Johnson wields telling phrases in his May 2020 corona-virus address to the nation: “Business as usual… get back to work… We will come back from this devilish illness.”

Detail of The J. Street Project (Index) by Susan Hiller.

The reconfigured recording is relayed in an unexpected arena, London’s avant-garde Whitechapel Gallery. It is used as the running commentary of a bitter critique by the London film maker John Smith of the enfilade unleashed on the nervous workforce as Britain and many other nations began to open up after lockdown.

The film, widely praised for its political acuity, dominates one of the several rooms in Whitechapel Gallery’s summer 2023 exhibition, entitled Life is More Important than Art.

Four Children (Verandah), 2022. By Matthew Krishanu.

The title echoes the words of the African American novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987), who insisted that life is more important than art, art being nonetheless crucial. Baldwin asserted that discovering the experiences of artists of the past “is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.” On another occasion, Baldwin also said: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”

Whitechapel is in the midst of its free, three-month programme of collaborations with artists, performers and others bringing out the interface between art and everyday life, and connections between local and global predicaments.

Hospital Bed (Barts), 2021. By Matthew Krishanu.

John Smith’s film is a reminder of the grim Covid months and the easing of restrictions when the then prime minister announced that “anyone who can’t work from home… should be actively encouraged to go to work.” This was on the day after the UK’s official Covid-19 death toll reached 31,587.

Watching through his window at home during the first lockdown, Smith began to make his 16-minute video which he called Citadel, combining Johnson’s rhetoric with views of the London skyline. It contrasts the City’s gleaming skyscrapers with the low-quality housing of ordinary residents that lies in their shadow. He characterises the government’s reaction as placing business interests before public health. One critic hailed the production as “perhaps the most significant film of the lockdown era.” Since 1972, Smith has made more than 60 typically viewer-friendly films which have been shown in independent cinemas, art galleries and museums, and on television.

Boy on a Climbing Frame, 2022. By Matthew Krishanu.

The endeavour put together by the new Whitechapel Gallery director Gilane Tawadros and artist Janette Parris with curator Katrina Schwarz, seeks through the work of 12 artists to map dynamic histories of migration and difference, much of it with a focus on London and the East End.

As soon as the visitor enters the main gallery, they are faced by an installation by one of the great modern conceptual artists, Susan Hiller (1940-2019) who began making innovative use of audio and video technology in the early 1980s. She was concerned with the disappearance of physical reminders of deeply significant episodes of social and political history. Hiller grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and lived in France, Morocco, Wales, and India, settling in the late 1960s in London. In her work, she used neglected objects and denigrated aspects of popular culture. Such was the case with her prominent untitled work from 1999 based on five wrapped parcels of various sizes, piled on a vintage wooden pushcart. The parcels, with handwritten labels, contain remnants of ritual objects recovered after the demolition of an East End building once home to a tiny synagogue. The sound of a Jewish morning prayer thanking God for restoring the soul after sleep is audible from an embedded music player.

An Immigrant’s Room of Her Own. By Osman Yousefzada

Later we see in the former Whitechapel Library Susan Hiller’s 69-minute film The J. Street Project (2002-2005). This originated in Berlin in 2002 when she encountered one of the more than 300 streets throughout Germany whose names refer to a past Jewish presence. Over three years, she travelled to map on camera as many as she could streets, lanes, alleys, and avenues with the prefix “Jude” (German for Jew) in their name. Her soundtrack records traffic noise, church bells and other quotidian sounds: a dissonance with the memories of a genocidal history, and a legacy beyond that of thousands of years of history.  Retaining evidence of the past is seen as chiming with current debates such as how public statues denoting controversial histories should be dealt with. In addition to the film, her photographs are presented on a large-scale map of Germany pinpointing the sites. She hoped the work would provide an opportunity for meditation not only on what was missing from the places she recorded, but also on the causes of more recent attempts to erase minority cultures.

Another deeply moving series comes from London-based Matthew Krishanu, whose 12 small-scale paintings collectively called In Sickness and In Health charts the life of his wife through marriage, childbirth, motherhood, and her untimely death from cancer in late 2021. He made the unsparing works over his more than a decade living with Uschi Gatward, a writer whose short stories were highly praised. The paintings of Uschi in hospital at the end of her life are bluntly realistic while manifesting his affection for her. Their daughter, depicted as a baby in 2010, features in the centre of the series.

Matthew separately animates themes of his childhood including paintings based on his playful adventures with his brother, Richard. He was born in Bradford and raised in Dhaka, to where his parents moved to work for the Church of Bangladesh. Often, we see two boys alone in a landscape. His deceptively simple, dreamlike images have an atmosphere that can be ambiguous. and troubling: two boys armed with sling bows apparently about to take aim and fire; a boy at the top of a climbing frame who may be transfixed in fear or about to jump; or children waiting expectantly for something to happen.

This is Not a Memoir, ‘West Ham’, 2023. By Janette Parris.

London-based artist and social activist Osman Yousefzada dwells on the impact of migration on the domestic sphere. His work symbolises the precarious nature of immigrants’ lives but evokes a tender and complex portrait of family in An Immigrant’s Room of Her Own, from 2018. This shows respect to his being born into a conservative Pakistani family in Birmingham. The installation is an imagining of his mother’s bedroom in which furniture and decoration stand for cultural displacement, and reflects her practice of swathing household objects, which are cloaked in cloth or plastic, including a wardrobe and a column of stainless-steel cooking pans wrapped in clingfilm. A chest of draws is filled with earth, a reference to the Muslim tradition of burying hair.

Works shown for the first time include graphics from Londoner Janette Parris’s forthcoming book This is Not a Memoir which maps, with humour and a degree of melancholy, East End locations of significance in her life, including the West Ham United stadium and the Ford plant in Dagenham.

Mark Wallinger’s video Threshold to the Kingdom (2000) was made at City Airport, rehearsing 45 minutes of activity at the International Arrivals gate, against a superimposed recording of Allegri’s setting of the psalm Miserere mei Deus (Have mercy on me, O God). The combination of music and the sporadic arrivals of visitors lends profundity to otherwise mundane moments.

The Whitechapel Archive gallery meanwhile has been transformed by NUMBI, a Somali originated arts and heritage organisation based in East London, into The Somali Museum, which imagines how Somali heritage can be celebrated in the UK. There are changing displays and workshops.

Whitechapel Gallery director Gilane Tawadros.

During the summer programme, on evenings and weekends Whitechapel Gallery is offering live events, with public talks, performances and takeovers bringing together contributors from various creative disciplines, including a new Artist’s Film International project. Established by Whitechapel Gallery in 2008, AFI pools the knowledge of 20 global partner organisations, and the theme of the 2023 programme is Diaspora.

Among those supporting the season are artist Sir Frank Bowling, Aldgate Connect BID, and the City of London Corporation ‘Inspiring London Through Culture’ grant.

Captions in detail:

Citadel, 2020. By John Smith. HD video. Courtesy of the artist, Kate MacGarry, London, and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles.

The J. Street Project (Index) 2002-2005. Detail of wall-based installation by Susan Hiller. 303 giclee prints. © The Estate of Susan Hiller. Photo by Todd-White Art Photography.

Four Children (Verandah), 2022 By Matthew Krishanu. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of a Private Collection. Photo: Peter Mallet.

Hospital Bed (Barts), 2021. By Matthew Krishanu. Photo: Peter Mallet.

Boy on a Climbing Frame, 2022. By Matthew Krishanu. Oil on canvas. The artist and Niru Ratnam, London.

An Immigrant’s Room of Her Own. By Osman Yousefzada, from his solo exhibition ‘Being Somewhere Else’ at Ikon Gallery (2018). Installation view. Image courtesy Ikon Gallery. Photographer: Stuart Whipps.

This is Not a Memoir, ‘West Ham’, 2023. By Janette Parris. Digital drawing. Courtesy the artist.

Whitechapel Gallery, London, summer 2023 programme:  Life is More Important than Art and other exhibitions. Until September 17, 2023. Free entry; ticketed events £5.

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