the students hacking the government art collection
embassyHACK questions notions of Britishness in art today.
You wouldn't think it, but just up the road from Warren Street station, down a short alleyway between a greetings card shop and a gym, is the home of the Government Art Collection: the largest collection of British art in the world. Holding-bay to nearly 14,000 pieces, it's here, behind a tightly secured entrance, that works are kept before making their way to places such as 10 Downing Street and Ministerial Offices in the UK, as well as, of course, the reception areas of British Embassies in nearly every capital city across the globe. And it's these very Embassies that are inspiration for embassyHACK: the GAC's fourth collaboration with postgraduate curating students based in the UK.
"It's inspired by the idea of an Embassy as an extended body of power," says Bar Yerushalmi, who along with Frankie Altamura and Tamar Clarke-Brown was one of three MFA Curating students from Goldsmiths, University of London selected to take part in the project, combining works from the collection with specifically commissioned pieces. "It's almost like a twilight zone: a sort of inter-sectional space that's hard to define."
Together, the trio went about using the GAC to recreate an Ambassador's Room in an open gallery context: inviting ten contemporary London-based artists to "hack" the set, with the hope of distorting the meaning of the space and its contents in the process. The result - including works by Louise Ashcroft, Guy Bar Amotz, Bishi & Matthew Hardern, Juan Covelli, Neale Willis, Cosmic Latte, Hannah Honeywill, Rob Heppell and Jasmine Johnson - is a truly, immersive piece of contemporary curation; one that invites questions about the validity of a fixed notion of Britishness today.
"Because the Government Art Collection is the most dispersed collection of British art around the world, we were really thinking, especially in this day and age, "What is British art?" and "What does British art mean today?" says Clarke-Brown. "My background's Jamaican and there's so many other identities that make up British identity. Especially in the collection. We were surprised by how dispersed it was and how different it was when we got into it."
And that getting-into-it was difficult for reasons other than just the size: "The works are constantly moving, constantly going in and out," explains Yerushalmi. "The ones that you see are basically specific works that are held here by the GAC but tomorrow, after the exhibition, they can go off to somewhere else, they can emigrate."
The works may move, but there's a real feeling of the curators as present in the exhibition; the space evocative of a mass of information or an abstract image that is best viewed as the sum of it's parts. "In a way, it's exhibition making as a medium," says Altamura. "We're artists and curators at the same time and we're using exhibition as our medium to do something creative for ourselves as well as the artists involved."
Clarke-Brown picks up the theme: "It's important that art today engages with it's environment, it's important that it comes from an environment and it comes from things. It's not just someone presenting something to you. It can be more engaging than that."
More information about the embassyHACK - including a performance by artist Louise Ashcroft this evening (29 April) as well as an evening tour next Tuesday (3 May) - is available here.
Images Bishi & Matthew Hardern