March 2009, White Cube Gallery vs Shunt Lounge

March 2009, White Cube Gallery vs Shunt Lounge
Courtesy Shunt Lounge


White Cube Gallery and Shunt Lounge: The Similarities of the Opposites.

Shunt Lounge 
London Bridge Vaults, London Bridge Station
Joiner Street
SE1, London

The White Cube Gallery
48 Hoxton Square
N1 6PB, London

More than reviewing an exhibition here I will try to comparatively deconstruct the AAA paradigm (artwork/art institution/audience) by confronting two apparently strategically opposed models: the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton and the Shunt Lounge in London Bridge. I will make use of my experiences when visiting the White Cube Gallery while critically analyzing the Shunt Lounge project from an audience-based perspective.

Since my arrival in London four years ago, and as a critically constructive exercise, I have been regularly visiting the White Cube Gallery. We all know that White Cube is a world famous commercial gallery, but maybe some of you didn’t know that White Cube does not have curators but ‘exhibition organizers’. The curatorial vacuum is quite recognizable judging from the outcome of the displays… ‘organized’. However, my point here is not based on the actual display of art objects at the gallery, but in the power of the ‘white cube’ itself as architectural value making model.  

From this perspective, more than the ‘white cube’ being a recipient to be filled up with art objects, art objects themselves are the recipients of the ‘white cube’ enchantment. We could well say that like in the King Midas fable, everything placed within its walls is transformed into pure gold, analogous here to surrealist six figures prices. As the wise guru of YBA Mr Hirst once said, art is anything you can put in a gallery. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, any object done with some skill and relatively well presented can be food for self-indulgent and commercial profit. Quality then to some extent is not the issue anymore, at least for the influential commercially-driven art microcosm. This reflection you will think is as old as the white cube phenomenon itself but I personally consider it worthwhile to be reminded of this every now an then in order not to fall into precipitate judgments regarding the validity of the White Cube as a given example of ‘good contemporary art gallery’.

Now, what I experienced as a ‘visitor’ in the Shunt Lounge is quite the reverse of this empowering process. 

Shunt Lounge was created by Shunt, a collective of 10 artist developing large-scale performance events in unexpected buildings throughout London. Their current home is a sprawling labyrinth of railway arches under London Bridge station: a bonded wine vault for the last 100 years. This was the site of Shunt’s last two productions (Tropicana and Amato Saltone) and has hosted the Shunt Lounge since September 2006. Since its opening Shunt Lounge has become a ‘must go’ place if one doesn’t want to miss the coolest experimental performances in town.

The subliminal ‘leit motive’ of the project is explicit in its web site:

‘A republic with diplomatic immunity and a vast private army’

Placed in front of ‘immunity’ the adjective ‘diplomatic’ might be understood here as the ability to deal with people in a sensitive and effective way indeed. Consequently ‘immunity’ becomes the superlative noun, the exemption of any obligation/responsibility.

Underground, ‘avant garde’ performances are staged wickedly week after week by one of the 10 components/curators of Shunt. As Zygmunt Bauman noticed ‘avant-garde’ literally means the vanguard, an advance post, the first line of a moving army that remains ahead only to pave the way for the rest. What is being done at present by a small advance unit will be repeated later by all. In Shunt’s case, it wouldn’t be too adventurous to assimilate its ‘avant garde’ into the promotion of experimentation as an easily commodifiable and subtlety gentrified experiential process.  

If in most art galleries what hangs from the walls are dull, thoughtless artifacts priced astronomically and described by critics, curators and ‘exhibition organizers’ as art objects, what is happening in Shunt Lounge is that the abundance of quality makes of the art works, or we should say here happenings and installations, a parade of spectacular, ephemeral and easily consumable and forgettable experiences. By over-flooding, Shunt curators create a cacophony that, joined by mass consumption nullifies the fragile, poetical nature of most of the performances. It is not the lack of intervention then but the over-curated environment that saturates the spectator within a collective ongoing excitement and easy perplexity. There is no time for reflection here, much less critical thinking. Furthermore the powerfulness of the building is somehow transforming the nature of the installations by dusting them with an over-romanticized homogenization.

At this point, I just want to make clear here that my critique is not directed to the performances themselves, which are generally good, but the way they are curated and consumed. In my point of view the meaning of a work of art resides in the space between the artist and the viewer. This space is what I find deeply problematic in Shunt Lounge’s popular success.  

Allow me to use here again a Greek Myth metaphor to make my argument better understood. Because of his treachery, the poor Tantalus was punished to stand in water up to his waist yet always to be thirsty. When he wanted to take a drink of water, this would recede. Apples, too, hung above his head, and when he wanted to gather them, the branches moved by the wind made the apples unreachable. Although having all that he needed around him, Tantalus died because they were always out of reach. Thirst in the Shunt Lounge is not a problem, the bar provides a huge range of beverages ready to satisfy/anesthetize the crowds. Hunger, though, is more problematic, since the chance of food for thought is diminished by the festive and chaotic atmosphere. Not to mention the confusion of the potential audiences as they wander around marveling at so many underground offers. Shunt delivers all one could need for an immersing art experience, yet the process of assimilation is interrupted by the strategically organized surprise effect and the overlapping of content. In fact as a performance showcase, a platform for young artists to show their initiatives, Shunt Lounge has no equal. Beside this it seems to me that, as in the myth, the possibility of a fulfilling interaction does in most of the cases shine by its absence. More than fostering a critical experience through audience reflection Shunt Lounge is instead becoming victim to what could be named lazier-fare consumption.

It is worth noticing here that, by now, Shunt Lounge has become the place every one wants to be seen. Endless queues of adepts wait patiently with the hope to get access to the hellish heavens of avant garde performances, the weekly mini-festival of the cutting edge made mainstream. Shunt Lounge could be indeed a good example of the power of our system to assimilate all what could be framed as unconventional, what we could call the pseudo-alternative son-of-a-WASP consumerism. As in the commercial galleries, the object itself looses it’s meaning through misunderstanding and abundance. Like commercial galleries Shunt has been victim of its own success.

It could well be that I’m becoming a bit over-critique. What is certain though is that in less than two months and after two and a half years, the Shunt Lounge will disappear. The reason is the redevelopment of London Bridge Station and the conversion of the romantic vaults into a gentrified space for more Tescos, H&Ms, Starbucks and maybe even a Commercial Gallery. The debauchery will come to its end in the first week of May.  

But as with everything in life there is no bad without good. Yes, Shunt Lounge will be over soon but so far the Shunt collective doesn’t have any terminal symptoms, and may regenerate as it returns to its roots. A lower profile adventure is underway, a new adventure that will transform Shunt Lounge in a touring, hopefully less massified endeavour. We could only hope to witness the rehabilitation of Shunt Lounge in a project devoted not only to what Shunt knows how to do best, the showcasing of experimental art, but also to the challenge of effective critical reflection on more sensible issues involving context and collaboration through social engagement. I guess the last thing Shunt would like to become is a sperpentine image of itself or, even worse, a metaphor of out times, a mythical and standardised entertainment enterprise.  

whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Pau Cata Marles

Pau Cata Marles is a freelance writer working in London.

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