Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Piece of the week - Buy British Art
After winning the South London Gallery Open Artist’s Prize in 1995 I was hopeful the exhibition offers would come flooding in. In fact the only offer was from a newly opened gallery space called the Conductors’Hallway. This was part of the ASC studios, which were housed in the offices of a former bus garage in Camberwell. The rather poetic name for the gallery, referred to the fact that the exhibition space was the former entrance lobby for bus staff. With the old entrance door at one end, and the stairs blocked off at the other, the Conductors’ Hallway was basically a long narrow room with a tiled floor.
Yet this alternative space would over the next 5 years host a surprising number of good exhibitions. Artists who showed at the Conductors' included: Brian Griffiths, Dave Beech and David Burrows, John Workman, Fiona Crisp, Marq Kearey Bob & Roberta Smith, and Monika Oechsler to name but a few. Despite some initial reservations I showed there on three occasions, firstly with the solo installation, Somewhere over England, and then twice in the group shows Collectables and Gym. It is from Collectables that Buy British Art is taken.
Perhaps why the Conductors had such a good selection of work was that despite being an unprepossessing space, the panel that ran it was quite choosy. This was rather cheeky, as there was no help with installing, promoting or invigilating the exhibition, but it did mean that the gallery didn’t just turn into a venue for work by artists in the studios. There were some not so good shows but in a couple of weeks they would be gone and the next one would be up.
The group show, Collectables was a curious affair. Staged on one Saturday, artworks were hidden in and around the vicinity of the gallery and cryptic clues provided as to their whereabouts. The public (mostly other artists) then had to set off and try and locate the works, collect them and return them to the space.
I toyed with a few different ideas for the show. Perhaps film strips hidden in hedgerows that could be ound and then be reassembled back at the gallery to show footage of the bus garage in its heyday? However whilst time wasting in one of Peckham’s many one pound shops I came across a consignment of red plastic busses. These were discontinued stock and bore the legend Buy British Toys on the side. At this point I was still regularly reviewing for Art Monthly and whatever the review was about was always keen to work in some critique of the seemingly unstoppable tide of YBA art. I had also only that week been to up to the then Saatchi gallery on Boundary Road with Gina Raincoat on a routemaster bus so the whole thing seemed to click.
Buy British Toys was changed to Buy British Art and the destination on the front made Boundary Road, whilst the back display panel showed the bus had come from Lewisham Way (home of course to Goldsmiths College). The little red bus was hidden in a shoebox on top of a bus shelter on the No 36 route and so was only visible from the top deck.
At the time I was concerned people might think it was an explosive device, now of course most of Camberwell would be cordoned off and I would be jailed for sedition. Anyway the bus was found soon enough and taken back to the depot where it belonged.
A jokey throw away, probably? Though even today it still seems to capture something of that heady nationalistic fervor that swept the UK art establishment and caused them to pass on critical judgment in return for a seat at the international art market table.