The Whitechapel Gallery, London, 13th March - 6th May 2018


“Art Capital” - the most self-illustrative exhibition title I could have asked for.

Okay, yes; that’s the point of exhibition titles, isn’t it? To be self-illustrative.

In this city, the arts and creative sectors are used as a selling-point for affluence. This is something which has trickled down through the commuter belt - where the artists go, the money will come (indeed, similar taglines have been used to promote developments in South London to wealthy investors). Put simply, art has become capital. The Whitechapel Gallery’s “Art Capital - Art for the Elizabeth Line” seemed to greatly encapsulate the tricky stance of art within London’s over inflated market.


From the 13th March - 6th May, the Whitechapel Gallery displayed public art commissioned as part of the Crossrail Art Programme, intended to allocate work by internationally renowned artists to the new central London Elizabeth line stations. The show was curated by the Whitechapel, in partnership with Crossrail, and with funding from the City of London Corporation (this is not my complaint, of course - these days galleries have to get what they can, when they can). And it features artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Douglas Gordon - some pretty big names.

Whitechapel holds a certain significance, as it will hold one of the Crossrail’s central stations. Each commission is intended to reflect the surrounding area of each stop - and Chantal Joffe has been commissioned to create the piece for Whitechapel. Proposed as “a large-scale collage”, here Joffe provides sketches taken from time spent in a nearby park; with the final piece being “inspired by the rich diversity of the local community”.


Throughout “Art Capital”, I’m reminded of those hoardings seen around new developments, with Photoshopped images of people living their normal lives in the proposed space. Interestingly, the language of the Crossrail programme adopts that more commonly used by these new developments too. “Only 30 minutes from Canary Wharf!” “In the heart of London!

With increased connectivity comes the ideal of instantaneous inclusion. So these images are created, rightfully so, to promote diversity. But swanky new flats are not built to accommodate the existing richness of their communities. Tellingly, too often this “diversity” is portrayed as people being either “white and affluent”, or, simply, “non-white”.


Michal Rovner’s proposed piece, a digital film to be displayed on the walls of Canary Wharf, showed a station milling with silhouettes of commuters. Trains move in and out of the scene, represented by a stream of more shadow people, their blank shapes moving up and down escalators for eternity. Anyone who has spent a sustained period of time commuting may feel this resonate - a perpetual time spent travelling, moving continuously onwards through spaces and then back again, the mundanity of existing as either cattle or sardines alternately.


Here the cityscape is portrayed in dense, foreboding shadows, rising up through the smog - the grey of which the commuters become inseparable from. Such a bleak description of the routine. Maybe this will look stylish in the backdrop of Canary Wharf station, where most commuters will not have the time to stand and ponder it for long. But displayed on these screens in the Whitechapel Gallery, the Crossrail’s promoted convenience and speed seems to be illustrated with some cynicism here; now that you can get around the city with increased speed, there’s no excuse not to! No escape. Nobody is going anywhere. One’s agency in the great movement of space and time is diminished, for non-stop inertia.

Furthering this idea of in-escape is Spencer Finch’s proposed commission, a hand drawn cloudscape to be printed on the canopy of Paddington’s station.


I have a theory (whether this has been said elsewhere, I am unsure) that the supersized, glass-sided skyscrapers appearing recently in the capital (20 Fenchurch Street, Heron Tower, or the Shard) are intended to mimic the natural landscape - by reflecting clouds and sunsets, they become simulators. Almost satirically, this can detriment actual surroundings - the curve of 20 Fenchurch Street, for example, creates a powerful wind tunnel in the streets below. And, in especially hot weather, it can reflect sunlight onto meltable objects in its adjacent area (such as cars), and proceed to melt them.

Returning to the idea of giant glass skyscrapers as simulations, this attempt to blend in seamlessly with the environment, made more ridiculous by their form (20 Fenchurch Street is also known as “The Walkie Talkie”), only adds to the suffocating nature of central London. Surroundings become surrealist.

Finch’s overlay of a hand drawn cloudscape, to be hung over the station’s actual sky, is in a similar vein to this phenomena. Of course the installation will be enhanced by the natural light coming through the canopy. I can’t help but perceive it as another cynical substitute for the real.


In the future, when everyone is connected by wires and wireless and tunnels and trains and driver-less transport - will we be content in this world? Or will we find spaces to recreate the land destroyed, the land swallowed up by such means, the life that was before, to reassure ourselves?

I did, however, enjoy the inclusion of a maquette here, installed over the skylight in the gallery (the panes of which still included the overlay maker’s name, apparently). “See? The discombobulation even works here!”


So, what else does this have to do with the role of art in the city's wealth? Aside from the usual - great oversized pieces placed in Instagrammable locations, only to dissolve into mere backgrounds (once the novelty wears off). When the city seeks to redevelop or reinvent, it only perpetuates itself. As the Crossrail becomes a celebration of accelerationism, the semiotics of "Art Capital" are ever-clearer - visual culture will be the backdrop, the surrounding landscape, and so the embrace.