The London Open

The Whitechapel Gallery's London Open is an exhibition of fresh artworks that are right on the pulse of contemporary experiences.  There is a great vibrancy and freshness about the show that is suggestive of artists fearlessly pushing themselves to explore new ideas.

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The Whitechapel Gallery has long championed art by emerging local artists, and one friend of mine has described The London Open as the “edgier cousin” of the RA open. I saw what he meant: there is a great vibrancy and freshness about the show that is suggestive of artists fearlessly pushing themselves to explore new ideas.

The exhibition takes place in the main gallery on the ground floor and two further galleries upstairs. The artworks on display were chosen from over 1,900 submissions, with a focus on current trends in artistic practice.  The curator, Kirsty Ogg, and the selectors, noticed there was a clear tendency towards engagement with socio-political and economic issues in the submissions received, and therefore the exhibition responds to those themes.

Starting on the ground floor, I was drawn to Martin John Callanan’s work. I particularly liked the installation International Directory of Fictitious Numbers, a phone machine which continuously dials fictitious numbers and plays back the well-known recorded response of ‘Your number has not been recognised’.  It shows the fatuousness of many structures that we live under: the voice, although real, is entirely disembodied from its original owner, and the numbers are fictitious yet the machine dials them - the exercise is thus entirely pointless.  Callanan engages with the distancing from reality and responsibilities that we experience through the deployment of automatic structures to the viewer’s attention in humorous potency.

The back wall of the ground floor gallery is occupied by Leigh Clarke’s Heads of State (2012).  It’s a highly political piece in which plaster heads were cast using satirical rubber masks of world leaders. They are displayed mounted onto scaffolding pipes and pinned to the wall.  The notion of ‘heads on a stick’ is inescapable: Clarke indiscriminately hangs the leaders out to dry in a reversal of the aggrandisement usually associated with memorial statuary.  I liked the grotesqueness and misshapen quality of the casts - it created a flaccidity that allows the viewer to pierce the notion of the leader as unquestionable and to think about the value of political leadership.

The notion of questioning where we have found ourselves politically and economically suffuses the show, and the idea of gluttonous consumption is cleverly portrayed by Greta Alfaro’s In Praise of the Beast.  For almost fifteen minutes, the viewer watches as wild pigs find a huge cake in the snow and proceed to devour it.  Their unbridled joy at finding and snuffling this cake down is fun to watch as they roll around in it engulfing and gorging themselves until you realise that what Alfaro is representing reflects back on our own vociferous consumption practices and implies, essentially, that we are the hogs.

In a more playful piece, Heather Phillipson simply dazzles.  A is to D what E is to H (2011) takes the viewer on a dizzying journey around France and french kissing. Eliding the words with french cuisine, Phillipson plays with the viewer’s desires.  One second you are drenched in Doisneau’s famous couple french kissing and anticipating some notion of that most intimate of connections, then suddenly you whizz into a kitchen as dough is slapped uncompromisingly onto a worktop and Phillipson innocently narrates her mistake in the background.  Teasing and thought-provoking, the artwork reminds us that in between the turmoil that surrounds us, we are still able to snatch at the intimacies of life.

Moving on to the galleries upstairs, the final gallery contains artworks that are more celebratory of kitsch and the outsider.  I certainly like the personal nature of Nikolai Ishchuk’s Offset series, in which the artist has played around with the family snapshot, separating cosy shots of togetherness and reassembling them to create family divisions and thus exploring the often unspoken spaces of family relationships.  They are playful to view as you desperately try to reunite family harmony in your imagination and realise the black shapes underneath each photo are the shadows of space Ishchuck has elicited.

This is a good exhibition of fresh artworks that are right on the pulse of contemporary experiences.  The selectors have made excellent choices that have resulted in a show that has a connected and thought provoking narrative.  

A chance for artists to show their work at the Whitechapel Gallery.


The London Open is a snapshot of the latest art from London in 2012. This new incarnation of the Whitechapel Gallery's triennial open submission exhibition is open to all artists aged 26 or over living and working in the capital. The first edition of The London Open is selected by writer Patricia Bickers, artist Rodney Graham, collector Jack Kirkland, curator Marta Kuzma and Whitechapel Gallery curator Kirsty Ogg.

2012 marks the 80th anniversary of open submission shows at the Whitechapel Gallery. These exhibitions have showcased artists early in their careers who have later gone on to achieve great prominence such as Antony Gormley, Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread. 

Whitechapel Gallery

77-82 Whitechapel High Street
London Greater London United Kingdom E1 7QX

Opening hours:
Monday Closed
Tuesday 11am-6pm
Wednesday 11am-6pm
Thursday 11am-9pm
Friday 11am-6pm
Saturday 11am-6pm
Sunday 11am-6pm