The Free Range Art, Design and Fashion Show is “the UK’s largest art and design graduate talent exhibition.” In 2011, it represents 132 schools during eight weeks on more than 7000 m² housed in the Old Truman Brewery. Needless to say how difficult and how exciting it can be to see the entire display. As I arrived on the 19th June 2011, it was already the fourth week of the show. The first part of the photography show was in progress. During that week, from Thursday night (the opening) to Monday evening, eight schools were presenting their 270 photography students within three spaces. The entry was free. The general catalogue programme was loudly distributed in the hubbub of Brick Lane.
Once I engaged myself into the main block, I could not go through without noticing the competition taking place on the ground floor: a huge vintage market attracting a crowd of trendy people. As the Old Truman Brewery proudly advertises in the area: “there’s a market for everyone.” Isn’t it true? On my way to the show, I had already visited the famous Colombia Road Flower Market, the Brick Lane Market, the Spitafields Market and the Art Car Boot Fair. While being a regular visitor – I am used to getting lost while exploring the East End of London for my academic researches – I must surely have missed some of it in the plethora of the diversity of events presented in the district. Anyone would easily feel dizzy.
“Free Range” - is the title of the event ironic? All these young students brought from the counties of the United Kingdom are bluntly displayed. They are all hoping to be noticed in this tremendous bedlam old building. The area might well be one of the best places in London to live as an artist – and as a stall keeper as well…
So let’s go and let’s shop in this refreshing art supermarket! How could I point out some of the brilliant artists exhibited here? How could I experience and comprehend this presentation? Is there still a posterity to come out of being exhibited here? And is it of any relevance ?
The East End is pursuing its evolution as an artists’ and creative community village. It has been transformed and acted upon by artists from the entire world for more than two decades now. It is changing at a fast pace and becoming every day more touristy. Brick Lane in the week end is full of people. The Old Truman Brewery building is a perfect emblem for what is going around in the district. The curious thing as I entered in the main building of The Old Truman Brewery, in Block F, is that I totally forgot about the place. I just dived into a White Cube style vast open space that made me feel as if I were in a nondescript space. I could just neglect all about the outside activity and all about the area.
Silence. When I got in, on the first floor, I immediately entered into Helen Cooke’s art work, Panoptic Omnipresence. Her work is like an art gate. The visitor becomes a ghost. At the very minute I passed the main entrance floor door I also disappeared. The core system of the work is a camera placed in front of the door, in the small entrance room. I hadn’t noticed it as I first came in. The video is projected on the wall in front of the second door, in one of the main exhibition room. It was the first work to be seen as I arrived. The title refers to the Panopticon, an incarcerating type of architecture invented by Jeremy Bentham and later famously studied by Michel Foucault. “The participant is invited to experience the power of surveillance.” So we all first experienced this power without being aware of it. Here I come as a viewer and it is the art works that is watching me. The distance between visitors and pictures is underlined. The delayed system echoes our delayed reaction and understanding. It emphasises our acting role in the art process and its mechanism. The work runs and the metaphor as well. We are caught as prisoners in the work of art – as we are in life or in our body – for a second and we vanish the second after. It is an interesting way to come into the present show. We come along as an anonymous, almost shadowy and not really conscious actor of the art world.
As I continued my visit, I focused on the work of Sam Nightingale. He offered a double page document and a single page explanation to understand his Leaving the Cinema: Spectres of Film Pictures and his Islington’s lost cinemas. His work echoes back to my research topic as an art historian and as an explorer of the London East End area. He draws forms from mapping the disused cinemas in Islington. It is like a dot to dot pattern, to join the abandoned cinemas in this area of North East London. His work transported me back to London and to a specific place. But the historic part of his work, the black and white photographic prints and the constant link with the past, revealed something of a ghostly atmosphere. It made me suddenly think of Rachel Whiteread’s works, such as Ghost or House, which was located not very far north from the Old Truman Brewery, on Roman Road.
Still I wandered in the immense open space. I was back in a non signifying place. It was difficult to make a choice or to feel confident. I realized at this moment that there must have been a sort of compartmentalization between the schools shows. But it was not really clearly displayed. Western Approaches, Allsorts, XV, Barefaced, Subject to change were titles of some kind of scenography topic chosen by schools. I roamed in the deserted open spaces with walls covered by pictures. I felt inspired and a bit swamped.
It was at that very moment that I stopped at Lisa Birch’s mound of origami work. The work is a brief poetic sculpture accumulation in a corner of a window. The photography behind is immortalizing the performance. Cranes “illustrates the fragility of life.” The pile of tiny fragile hands made items is an obvious metaphor of life. But, in my opinion, it is also a metaphor of the present event. A mountain of potential talents waiting to be chosen. The artist invites us to keep one of her little sculpture as a witness of the fragility of life and of her creativity. I put one in my pocket as a protecting art talisman.
I then decided to leave this building in order to reach the Dray Walk Gallery. I went through the noisy surrounding again. Young people sitting and enjoying themselves were everywhere. That room had a more human scale. It was the Wiltshire College of Salisbury presenting its students here. I identified famous portraits as Marilyn reprocessed with humour- it almost looked like I was in a Swedish famous furniture shop – with little rooms and flowery wallpapers. It was a big change from the preceding immaculate huge open space.
I finished my visit with the Shop 14 Room which has almost the same size as the previous one. The photography students displayed here were from the Roehampton University. I found a reassuring figure in the work of Annabelle Price. I carefully hugged again my little paper crane figurine from Lisa Birch. The same fragile tone permits me to make the parallel between their works. Annabelle Price takes pictures of cuddly toys giving us - and the photographer at first – the cold shoulder. Does the artist want to finish with her childhood? Are the toys upset? Are they as frightened as I was by this Daedalus art show? This work left me with a dual sensation, as did the show. It had an apparent soothing figure but it raised question about life, creativity and the fragility to be found in both. The figure is not watching us. As in Helen Cooke’s work, we feel like an acting phantom, an anonymous passer-by. It was now my turn to turn back and head for home. It has been a wealthy experience which had drawn a range of visual and spiritual impacts on me.
Is posterity the most relevant thing to consider in this kind of show? Last year for the 10th birthday of Free Range, for the first time they had organised an Art Awards. Five artists who had been exhibiting during the eight weeks had been selected by a judging panel. All of the portfolios were still presented online. If you look for the winners, today, one year later, they are not famous as they must have wished to. You can buy their print limited edition of 25 for only £100. Unfortunately it has not been enough to be on the top. Is it a significant sign of the end of the Saatchi era?
It makes me think about the 18th century traditional French Salons and especially about their scenography. However, what seems to be important to note – as Diderot noted about the Salons– is that to experience this kind of event opens our mind, improves our judgment and contributes to the very existence of the art world. Furthermore, it arouses emulation between the artists and enriches each of the actors who participate in it.
The Free Range Show is a free, huge and popular event. It looks a bit scary at a first glance, like an art hypermarket, but it is nevertheless very pleasant and fully instructive. It is not as difficult to get in as in a private gallery. The visitor can walk around without strict channelling and commentary. It allows everybody to step freely into the contemporary art world.