UK art show paints dark picture of London today

LONDON (Reuters) - Contemporary artists have big business and social unrest in their sights in a politically charged exhibition that presents a far from flattering picture of Britain, and London in particular, in the run up to the Summer Olympics.

A work titled "untitled [1]" by Nicholas Cobb from his 2010 "From The Car Park" series is seen in a handout image made available in London, July 4, 2012. REUTERS/Handout/Nicholas Cobb

“The London Open”, which opens at the Whitechapel Gallery on Wednesday, comes as the city gears up for the sporting showcase and just weeks after spectacular Diamond Jubilee celebrations marked the queen’s 60th year on the throne.

A far darker image of the country and its capital emerges from the show, which features 35 artists chosen by a panel from more than 1,800 applicants.

“One of the big things that emerged (from the selection process) was that there was a real engagement with social, political and economic subject matter,” said gallery curator Kirsty Ogg.

“We’re living through a time of extreme global financial and political crisis,” she added at a preview to the exhibition. “The artists are not necessarily directly referring to these issues, but there is an oblique reference.”

A corner of the main gallery space is devoted to French-born Arnaud Desjardin’s “The Everyday Press”, featuring a printer, economic review publications and copies of a pamphlet called “Business as Usual”.

Visitors are invited to buy copies at a pound a time, allowing gallery attendants to continue to produce more pamphlets without the artist incurring a loss.

Inside the pamphlet, the pages are marked with phrases including “Greed”, “Manipulation”, “Exploitation”, “More-Greed-More” and “Cheap Tricks”.

If that work reflects widespread public anger in recession-hit Britain over bank bailouts and financial market bonuses, last year’s riots in London and beyond are evoked in two other pieces.


Nicholas Cobb’s “Untitled” features six photographs from the larger “The Car Park” series which actually predate the social unrest of 2011.

Nonetheless, his meticulous reconstruction of street scenes made with tiny models that are destroyed once they have been photographed are reminiscent of media images of looting and clashes with police.

In “Heads of State”, Leigh Clarke has made plaster casts of inverted masks of world leaders used during protests over recent decades, creating distorted, disturbing versions of real-life heads of state, as well as other prominent public figures.

Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are among the 30 faces displayed on steel stakes, as are Osama Bin Laden, Sarah Palin and Margaret Thatcher.

An image of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was created only after the artist found a copy of the mask that has not been used since the 1980s.

Shaun Doyle and Mally Mallinson present a plastic child’s toy house, but its windows are bricked in and door blocked with wooden planks, a reference to squats and the inaccessibility of property in London where prices are high.

And Paul Westcombe’s work features a selection of used paper coffee cups adorned with intricate coloured pictures executed partly to relieve the boredom of the artist’s part-time job as a car park attendant.

Arguably the oddest work in the show is Martin John Callanan’s plan to have his name officially “changed” to Martin John Callanan by deed poll.

Whitechapel Gallery, located in London’s east end, said it had invited a magistrate to the exhibition on Thursday in order to carry out the procedure in person and before a live audience.

“It highlights the fact that there is a particular bureaucratic process that we’re all subject to but are not necessarily aware of,” Ogg explained.

* The London Open runs from July 4-September 14 at the Whitechapel Gallery (Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)