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Art, Fashion, Aerialists and Sax - Jemima Burrill on curating for the Greenwich Peninsula

Image: Circus artist Lily Raptor.

NOW Gallery, located on Greenwich Peninsula, is an exciting space in more ways than one. Sparkling amidst the developing industrial landscape of Greenwich Peninsula, its sleek glass frontage, is an iconic piece of design in itself, connected by an aluminum-clad canopy to a specially purposed cafe, restaurant and champagne bar next door. This awareness of breaking down the traditional white cube is not lost in its exhibition programme, which allows not only artists but also, designers and architects to construct work that responds to the unique space and the wider climate of redevelopment.

Their current exhibition Floating/Falling/Drowning/Flying - An Introspective Of Process, features new work by the much talked about, London based designer Phoebe English. Central to the show is an incredible textile installation made up of 10 kilograms of hand stitched silver glass beads. Visitors are also able to share in the creative process behind the ambitious project through the accompanying display of sketches, photographs and ephemera from her previous collections.

Francesca Goodwin caught up with the curator and artist Jemima Burrill to talk about the show and the accompanying events, her curatorial approach and the positioning of the gallery at the forefront of social and cultural change.

Run Riot: One of things that caught our attention about NOW gallery is that it is not just an exhibition space but, an integral part of the developing landscape of Greenwich. Could you first describe the initiative behind the gallery and how it relates to its location and social context?
Greenwich Peninsula is a new place to live. Place-making is vital to this project, creating an environment which makes the most of its river location but also has a cultural element– there are 160 acres with 8000 homes being built over the next twenty years. The aim is to bring people here not just for the O2, but for events, art and culture which you might not see in other parts of London. I am a west Londoner and have never been to Greenwich before I got this job. I now love coming here, with the views of the Thames you feel as if you are almost at the sea.  

The gallery is in the same building as the marketing suite for Greenwich Peninsula, I see my job as giving people who come to buy apartments an opportunity to see interesting art and design, they wouldn’t normally encounter. I see the gallery as a place for the local community, which will increase in the future, their own gallery to get involved with; and for passers by heading for the O2 to capture a glimpse of an exciting cultural world they weren’t expecting.

RR: You have previously worked with Great Western Studios, Architecture Week and The Serpentine Gallery. How did you first get involved with NOW gallery and what have been your goals for the space?
Greenwich Peninsula approached me to come up for an idea for their as yet unbuilt gallery space. It seemed to me that it would be exciting to have a gallery which was not just about art, but represented other creative forms, such as fashion and design. My background is in architecture, art, film, and literature and I believe that interesting things can happen if you give people space to explore their practice. From working at organisations as varied as The Arvon Foundation to Architecture Week, I have always been interested in putting people’s widest objectives first and believing in the impossible.

RR: What form have your past exhibitions taken and what has been your selection criteria for artists and designers to work with?
We have had three exhibitions so far, all have been incredibly different. Simon Heidjens wrapped the building in an intelligent skin that flickered and reacted to the prevailing Peninsula wind. Contrasting this, we followed with a work by artist Robert Orchardson. This was a grounded, sculptural work, which referenced Hershel’s objects Orchardson researched at the Greenwich Observatory. With its concrete walls, delicate cyanotypes and playful suspended objects, the work filled the space with complex materiality and a careful contextualisation to Greenwich. Now we have the fleeting, floating Phoebe English with an intelligent demonstration of how fashion is created and how it can work in a gallery setting.

A selection process with three shortlisted artists has worked well for the last three exhibitions. We create a long list of artists, designers, or fashion designers and then select three whose work we think will best suit the space. We asked them to come up with a paid presentation of a concept for the gallery. There was then a long discussion trying to work out who would be the best choice.  Everyone who presents is always exceptional, so it is inevitably a hard decision.

We are looking for artists who are keen to experiment, explore and think big - putting their practice into scrutiny, producing work that inspires and adds a new dimension to the way our gallery is perceived.  We have seven metre ceilings and a vast area of plate glass; it suits an artist who is happy to be exposed. Give me Roman Signer, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy, Katharina Grosse.  
RR: You mentioned that your current exhibition features an installation by Phoebe English. Could you expand upon what influenced your decision to collaborate with a fashion designer?
NOW Gallery is a space for creatives to explore something they wouldn’t normally have the chance to do. Fashion is a creative process, I enjoyed seeing how great McQueen looks at the V&A. I spied a handmade globe of Phoebe’s a while back and knew that she would have the creative capacity to work in the confines of a gallery space. But what would she do? Her glittering cascade of beads reacts to the ever-changing light we have here.  It is a joy to have this 70kg silver bead construction hanging like a wave of water splashing into the gallery.  

RR: There are similar themes in the work of Simon Heijdens and Robert Orchardson of initiating dialogues across boundaries– between inside and outside, past and present, nature and industry, lightness and weight. Is this a trend that you are consciously constructing and, if so, how does Phoebe’s work fit into this?
Sometimes you are not aware of these re-occurring themes until the work is in the gallery. With Phoebe’s installation, there is a conversation between her beaded work and the gas cylinder that sits in the background away from but in view of the gallery. It is a good connection, this new sparky mesh of beads with the old lattice of iron that sits on our horizon. I am not sure we were aware that there would be these contrasts old/new, bright/black, industrial/modern and similarities in the form of the gas cylinder matrix and the meticulous structure of the hand-woven beads but the juxtaposition works.

RR: Alongside the installation is an introspective of Phoebe’s preparatory sketches, photographs and research images. Could you firstly describe the process that went into creating Phoebe’s work and secondly explain the importance of revealing that process to the public?
This credit should go to Caitlin Evans Storrie who worked with Phoebe to represent each collection in each cabinet. There are seven collections since Phoebe started showing Autumn Winter/Winter 2011. Caitlin meticulously went through photographs, found film, collected together samples and sketches and collated the most delicious story of how a collection is put together. My favourite are of all the backstage polaroids. Girls being set up for photographs or pre-shows views, all the in-between stuff we wouldn’t normally get to see.

This exhibition reveals how fashion is. The sketches show some of Phoebe’s thought processes, the small mountain of glitter shows the actual substance inside the garment. The examples of fabric or crocheting show the texture and substance of her work. There are so many little details that are a pleasure to examine. I particularly like the mouthpiece from Spring/Summer 2013.


Image: Current work by Phoebe English, one of the cabinets showing the design process she takes in her creations (exhibition is on until 9 August).

RR: What is the dynamic between each artist and the gallery in the creation of each commission?
The NOW commission is an opportunity for an artist to create something remarkable as well as fleeting - a commission which will attract its own public as well as benefitting from the remarkable footfall to the area. We have a clear brief and clear objective, and discuss the commission before the initial proposal is put in, so that by the time that we choose the work we are clear what we will be getting. This means the artist is left to their own devices to create the work while we support them for the installation and are there as a sounding board to discuss the work as it is being made. I see myself as a facilitator to get great work made.

RR: Phoebe’s fashion collections resurrect old techniques to create pieces that reveal a more constructive than decorative aesthetic. Your own art practice has investigated the beauty that can be found in the domestic and the mundane and, the role of different environments as stages for work; much as you invite artists to use the gallery like a canvas. How has your own artistic practice informed your relationship with the artists you select and curatorial decisions?
That is an interesting question. I am definitely interested in subverting space.  We had an incidence of this with Florence Peake’s dance piece, which reacted to Simon Heidjens' installation for our first NOW Later. Her composition Shift Construct inhabited under the canopy between the gallery and Craft café. Two dancers were moving around the the space from Peninsula Square towards the O2 with long sticks. People were surprised and intrigued by the unexpected appearance of two dancers poking sticks into this public area.  I will always be interested in how public environments can be used as stages. In my own work I explore a supermarket, or a car wash as a location for the peculiar to occur. In my recent Space Invader performance at a Private View it was about inserting myself into other people’s space. In an intimate yet intimidating way.  

I feel fortunate enough to inhabit two worlds, one where I make my own work and enjoy that freedom and another where I have the opportunity to work with really interesting artists and designers giving them an opportunity to do something in an extraordinary space. It is also important for me that within this new development, art and culture becomes integral to the design, feel and ethos of the Greenwich Peninsula. As Camus said: “Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.” We are trying to create a place at Greenwich Peninsula with its own authenticity; a place where interesting and unexpected things happen and where people can have fun.


Image: Jemima Burrill in her performance piece Space Invaders.

RR: You have worked with musicians in the past, can you tell us more about the gallery’s upcoming live event involving the circus performer Lily Raptor and Saxophonist Ben Vince? How do you foresee these collaborations complimenting the static artwork?
With the NOW Laters, our free late night events, we have an opportunity to revisit an exhibition with a live element which reacts to the work. Lily Raptor, the aerial performer, will be wearing Phoebe’s clothes so we will see an outfit being used to compliment Lily’s performance and Lily will of course make the clothes work as they should. Phoebe’s clothes will become ‘live’. Ben Vince is a musician who has worked with Phoebe in the past and knows her work. He is creating sound which not only reacts to her interest in texture and complex combination of fabrics, but with live saxophones, he will also be reacting to the space creating a music which will fill and blend and build during the evening. A fabric of sound will immerse Lily and Phoebe’s work and the gallery.

RR: What do you hope that:

A)    The viewer
B)    Both established and emerging artists

Will take away from the experience?

Our aim is to draw everyone and anyone into the gallery to see Phoebe’s work. Lily Raptour spinning on a hoop suspended within the space will bring an audience into the building that may not necessarily be interested in a fashion show. If someone comes into the gallery for this spectacle and then goes away having seen the work of an exceptional fashion designer, understood a little about her fashion practice, then we are spreading the word about creative process. We also want to have an alternative evening with music, beer, films – look out for Gareth Evan’s collection of top fashion clips in NOW Cinema – which is fun and mixes it up a bit.


Image: Design drawings of 'Straight Jacket Star Jumps' by Alex Chinneck. Commission for NOW Gallery.

RR: How do you foresee the relationship between business, art and design progressing in general in the creative sectors and what’s next for the gallery?
The benefits of including the creative industries and culture in business has long been acknowledged. Case in point– the fact that Tate Modern is sponsored by big business or the investment of the Prada Foundation or Louis Vuitton making their own art intuitions. With the increasing lack of public funding artist and art institutions have to rely on the philanthropy of business. As long as the artists and art institutions are able to follow their vision without unnecessary interference to their creative endeavors, then this philanthropy can be a saving grace.

In September we are excited to have a project by Alex Chinneck whose work is renowned for it’s unconventional nature and imagination defying form. He will be installing Straight Jacket Star Jumps, a 20-metre-long curled up pylon.

The work will, we hope, create a physical and material tension between the object and the glass space in which it stands. Like a ship in a glass bottle, the wound-up 20-metre-long pylon will defy logic to fit within the 7-metre-high gallery. It is a companion piece to a larger sculpture on the Peninsula itself – an upside down electricity pylon giving a view of a spectacular feat of creative engineering which will be seen from all around the Peninsula. Another example of exciting work that Greenwich Peninsula is involved with, this time in collaboration with London Design Festival. Watch out for September at NOW Gallery and beyond.

Floating Flying
NOW Gallery, North Greenwich
18.00-21.00, 9th July 15


Image: Alex Chinneck 35m high outdoor piece titled ‘A bullet from a shooting star’.

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