First known as the East End Academy, then the Whitechapel Open, and finally The London Open, the Whitechapel Gallery has presented this submission-based exhibition since 1932. Over the years, it has become the launch pad for some of the world's most renowned artists, including Grayson Perry, Rachel Whiteread and Anish Kapoor.
This time around, 22 artists were selected from 2600 submissions by a jury made up of Whitechapel curators Emily Butler, Mahera and Mohammad Abu Ghazaleh; Cameron Foote, assistant curator at the Whitechapel Gallery; artist Ryan Gander; co-owner of Hales Gallery Paul Hedge; deputy editor of Frieze Magazine Amy Sherlock; and collector Robert Suss.
All artists were picked based on their contribution to the modern art scene. But that’s not all, the jury was on the lookout for those who are pushing the boundaries, asking the questions that need to be asked: What can art really achieve in a city as complex as London? How can it navigate through spaces often unrecognised or untouched, to bring them into the public realm?
The triennial exhibition is often reflective of the mood of the city, but at a time as turbulent as 2018 – this year’s presentation had a lot of areas to cover.
‘How to choose artists that stand for what is happening now and that have the authority and sensitivity to speak on behalf of others?’, was the question posed by Butler.
‘With recent debates about political, religious, gender and racial representation, we were drawn to artists whose work genuinely engages with the subjects explored in it. We wanted the exhibition to offer a positive message about the vitality and diversity of artistic talent in London and to reflect on what it means to be culturally open during a time of significant change.’
The exhibition begins on the ground floor of the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End – a vibrant part of the city, where the main high street is lined with south Asian food vendors and market stalls.
Instantly, visitors are met with a large-scale work created by Alexis Teplin (b. 1976, California, USA) named The Politics of Fragmentation. Teplin’s huge pigment and oil on linen sheets is intended to deconstruct the roles of painting, sculpture and performance, and was brought to life by actors and dancers across different points of the exhibition’s opening.
Jonathan Trayte’s (b. 1980, Huddersfield, UK) mixed media works flank the gallery space, set at the very front and towards the back. Made from brightly coloured ceramics, neons, and islands of fake grass and carpet – the pieces immediately put a smile on your face. And also in this first area of the gallery are paintings by Gabriella Boyd (b. 1988, Glasgow, UK), who captures moments of intimacy through her abstract style.
A standout was the rubble-like sculpture of Rachael Champion – one of three Rachel’s showing in the exhibition. Champion, (b. 1982, New York, USA) commented on a real and current situation affecting many of the world’ cities – the changing urban landscape. While nearby, Rachel Pimm (b. 1984, Harare, Zimbabwe) tracked the fabrication of high-end architectural ceramic tiles, from initial production to rejection for abnormalities.
The back of the exhibition features a monumental neon sculpture by Rachel Ara (b. 1965, Jersey, Channel Islands), whose practice explores gender and queer theory. This impressive piece is as technically beautiful as it is aesthetically – and is designed to continually display its own value, calculated from a series of algorithms that reflect criteria such as age, gender, sexuality and race.
Sometimes, the Whitechapel’s curation can suffer as the exhibition continues to the upper levels – the space is darker, and made up of smaller rooms. But this suited the London Open well. It seemed works became more political too, with the next section of the exhibition beginning with a dedication to works by artist and activist Andrea Luke Zimmerman (b. 1969, Munich, Germany).
Across the hall, a selection of works confronts the effects of colonialism. A simple slide projection by Uriel Orlow (b. 1973, Zurich, Switzerland) flicks through a 1963 documentary about the South African Botanical Gardens, in which white people are the scientists and tourists and black people feature only as workers.
Larry Achiampong (b. 1984, London, UK), whose work you encounter outside the gallery – his Pan-African flag hangs above the entrance – used film for his interior exhibit, imagining a future after the demise of colonialism. It was the same medium for Vikesh Govind (b. 1990, Leicester, UK), who bases his work on the experience of living in London and the politics of racial identity.
The exhibition closes with a video and sound installation by Tom Lock titled Within (2017). It’s a good place to end, as the psychedelic forms and symbols create an immersive and almost sci-fi style environment for visitors to just sit amongst and observe. But the meaning of the work goes deeper, intending to leave viewers with the question of: ’In the face of the human race’s impending self-destruction, aliens ask, is hybridity the means for survival?’
The London Open 2018, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 26 August