Glass visits the new exhibition Developing Shadows
In the corner of playwright Polly Stenham's writing studio, propped up on two empty glasses, is a light box by the artist Mark Melvin entitled Kill the Lights, it reads: QUIET PLEASE, QUIET PLEASE, QUIET PLEASE, PERFORMANCE, PERFORMANCE, PERFORMANCE, APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE.
"I arranged the commission as a surprise for Polly," says Victoria Williams. "I turn it on now every time I start to write, it’s the first piece in my collection," says Stenham. "We actually had a meeting with him yesterday, he will be opening our 2012 programme with a solo show," continues Williams. "If you read the highlighted letters," says Polly, "they say," Williams chimes in, "IT'S QUIET PLEASE, PEACE FOR ROMANCE, ALAS A PAUSE APPLAUSE."
The electrifying dynamic between these two young directors of the COB Gallery and Studios, who complement each other so intuitively, feels somewhat like seeing the relationship between theatre and art personified. Meeting at University College London the pair bonded quickly on an artistic and an emotional level – both having suffered the loss of a parent, "It makes you want to just get on and do it".
Whilst Stenham enjoyed very early success as a playwright (at the age of 19, in 2007, her debut play That Face premiered at the Royal Court Theatre and transferred to the West End the following year, winning three awards under the director Jeremy Herrin), she found the process of writing in a digital age very isolating. With the loss of her father, her need to create a familial environment and feel a part of a tangible (not virtual) community, combined with a sense of responsibility of "giving something back", led to the genesis of the COB – a multi-platform arts centre based in Camden.
"There is a very strong connection between theatre and art," says Polly – not only in the artistic process, but in the very nature of a show as the final product. Their infectious delight in the interconnectedness of things, and ambitious desire to facilitate a collaborative platform that supports emerging artistic talent in evolving ideas – from the abstract to the concrete, is refreshingly idealistic.
Sitting up here with the autumn light pouring in through the skylights, as the fizz of excitement bubbles up from the courtyard below which Vestal Vodka have transformed into a private bar for the opening night of Developing Shadows, I quite forget we are conducting an interview. Stenham disappears to get us some cocktails, and Williams – beautifully corseted in Vivienne Westwood – talks me through the multilateral workings of the COB.
Opening in the project space after this show is Anatomy, a collaboration with the people who run the Guts for Garters art boutique store which is based beneath the gallery at the COB. And the studio space is being reconfigured to accommodate four resident artists, including an international exchange residency programme – a web boutique is also in the pipeline, and there are several more functions and charity events scheduled for this November. The scene is set for the most happening show in town.
On show tonight is the anthropologically inclined fine art photographer Walter Hugo, who has literally brought the walls from his last studio with him. In a series of black and white portraits of characters from the artistic community he inhabits, Hugo poignantly documents the tenuous relationship between the artist and their studio. The inevitable gentrification of the East End means that artists are being forced out of their studios by escalating rents, as the spaces are being remodelled for residential and commercial use.
Dubbed the "photographic fresco", he obsessively engineered a technique that allows him to develop his photographs, taken on 35mm film, directly onto walls by painting them with emulsion and turning the entire studio into a darkroom.
"There have been some beautiful ones that have appeared in front of me only to be melted right in front of my eyes … and I know I have to come back to the studio the next day and do it all over again … it’s such a lengthy process. It might be because the emulsion I made is not strong enough, or that I applied it to the wall with too much pressure, and it depends on the surface of the wall – a brick wall is different to a plastered wall …"
When an impending demolition forced Hugo to give up his third studio, he decided to extricate the walls of the room he once called his own – and in his quietly rebellious way left a few random frescos behind. "The one I printed in the sink was great because it melted a little ... and it looked like the woman was kind of going down the plug hole." (What I wouldn’t give to see the face of the builder who ripped that sink out.) The works are slightly over-exposed giving a sense of the subjects emerging from the shadows of the building, their ghostlike quality reinforcing the concept of a disappearing community, their classical poses giving the pieces a timeless quality.
Walter Hugo’s final piece for the show is a triptych shot live at the COB, which ties in beautifully with the next edition of Guts for Garters entitled, appropriately enough, Anatomy. In keeping with the rest of the series, his subjects posed naked, which he felt was important to convey the intimacy of the relationship that an artist has with his studio, "It’s a very private space you don’t normally have access to".
Unlike the instant frame of the digital photo, whilst Hugo can set up the shot, he cannot control the outcome of each portrait as it evolves through the process of development. Once completed, Hugo will turn the exhibition space into a darkroom and develop the triptych directly onto the gallery’s walls, leaving the COB with its own permanently Developing Shadows.
In stark contrast to the plethora of meaningless and intangible digital images on the net, Hugo is addressing a very fundamental need for the artist to leave something concrete behind. As Tacita Dean battles with the disappearance of 16mm film with her installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, Hugo explores our transient relationship with the spaces we inhabit, and his show at the COB offers the opportunity to take some of it home with you – to transform your own space and possibly your relationship with things concrete. Of course when the scene is set and the show is a success, the prices go up, and so the cycle continues.
But the show must go on: QUIET PLEASE, QUIET PLEASE, QUIET PLEASE …