« I wanted to go to the opening of this. I'm old enough to remember Michael Heseltine and Sophie Rickett first time round, funny old world, eh, and I needed to soak up some art "like a sponge". These late 80s cafe-gallery shows would sink artists whose skins weren't as thick as Peter Doig's.
I got all spruced up and said to Maggie: 'Come on doll you deserve a night out. Chuck some lippy on and lets go - Oh, and don't forget Jack!' Anyway, when we got there it was full and there was nowhere to park and there were stacks of teenage girl Japanese students (belonging to John Stezaker) - and Japanese students are not known for their discernment. But sensing something late Blake Edwards was up we drove off to Sainsbury's where I 'read' Dazed and Confused while she did the shopping.
Actually I did the shopping. »
(Matthew Arnatt, "100 Reviews", Black Dog Publishing Limited 1999)
In a frozen but sunny morning I find myself walking through Old Street. This borough has got a distinct metropolitan character, with its gigantic glass skyscrapers and old buildings in bricks, darkened by time and by the steady stream of pollution. Reddish, grey and a sort of clear blue are the predominant colours. It is Saturday and there is no-one on the streets. On Saturday Old Street is more like a ghost town than a metropolis, a no-one's land at the edge of the City. This corner, in particular, has a bare and gloomy pre-industrial appearance, if we ignore the modern looking pub with its big windows on to the street, packed with young (and less young) people, all busy eating their brunch.
I have been to 'Gallery Westland Place' once before, on the occasion of the very first exhibition "River Deep Mountain High". I must admit that even after Matthew Arnatt's ironic review (but he is an artist and tries his best to spread a dark shadow on the reputation of this recently opened space), I still like this gallery: not only for its friendly and cosy athmosphere, for its style and abundant space, for its good natural light linked closely together with the artificial one, but also for the enthusiasm and open-minded attitude of its Managing Director, Michael Chanarin. He is the person I am due to meet today.
The gallery consists of two floors, with a large stairway that links the first floor to the basement, giving a feeling of an airy vertical development to the whole space. The ground floor is mainly lit up by the natural light spreading through a large skylight, which displays a very urban view to the neighbouring industrial buildings. The basement, instead, is illuminated by artificial light and offers an interesting dark room, ideal for video art. A cafe-bar with a number of large tables at the ground floor is a very pleasant area to have a rest, drink a cup of coffee, read a book and discuss the work.
Thus, where does the idea of this art gallery come from? Michael Chanarin has an extraordinarily "eclectic" professional background. In short, he was an entrepreneur involved in a series of activities that he quickly mentions with a spontaneous modesty (IBM programmer, expert in technical support for international banking, distributor of catering equipment - a huge Gaggia sits on the bar - service engineer, project manager, owner of a building company ...). However, since he was a student he has always been interested in visual arts and photography, and eight years ago he decided to move back to this pastime and study Painting at the Manchester University. Then he completed a Master in Art Criticism and Theory at the Canterbury University, and gradually the pastime became something more than a simple hobby. As his more recent studies in Humanities close in a perfect circle his already vast knowledge and experience, he likes to call himself a "Renaissance man". By a coincidence, a major exhibition on the subject, "Renaissance Florence in the 1470s", is presently held at the National Gallery and the Medici model is now somehow very much in fashion in England (maybe a model even for the labour cultural policies in these years).
After the Canterbury University, Michael Chanarin spent a year writing, painting and taking photographs. At the same time he was searching for the best way to find his career out of his artistic interests, in order to finally dedicate all of his time and energy to his main passion.
The next step was, of course, to open an art gallery.
What Michael Chanarin likes in the arts is the fact that they do not have an immediate practical use but they offer a neutral room for discussions from the most diverse points of view. According to Michael, arts have the ability of intruding, enjoying and at the same time putting crucial questions. However, as in our conversation his attention to the playful and entertaining aspect of the arts appears to me too "easy", immediately a question arises: where is then the emotional (as long as it is still worth mentioning it) and practical labour of producing art, where the financial effort to make arts happen? As a seaman who is experienced in rough seas, as a typical entrepreneur who faces any sort of risks without letting them discourage him, Michael gives me tit for tat: the cursed beauty of the job is in the constant challenge it encompasses, in the obstacles one finds and in the knowledge that comes from overtaking them.
The acquisition and refurbishment of the gallery has been a difficult task from the very beginning. Although now so bright and spotless, the space was completely dilapidated when it was first discovered by Michael. It had been vacated for twelve years, apart from a photographic gallery which occupied the first floor but has now left. Generally, the whole building showed a number of serious problems, starting from the lack of basic facilities such as a heating and a drainage system.
Furthermore, while the gallery's "body" was defined and refurnished, Michael Chanarin had to establish what the gallery should be, what it should offer. After a short experience as a shadowing assistant in a West End commercial gallery, Michael Chanarin was sure that he would not want his gallery to become a fashionable "accessory", alive only for the private viewing hours. He wanted his gallery to be intended as the active core of his initiatives, a place where everything happens and every subject is discussed. The first reasons for this space are, therefore, not those of the classic "white cube gallery", regardless the appearance. What Michael has in mind is, indeed, an "arts centre" concept, a forum and a space for discussions, for communicating through arts, a "cathalist for conversation", as he explaines. To this purpose, he would like the gallery to stay open from 10am to 10pm and he would like his programme of shows to provide a continuous recharging of ideas and forms with displays to be changed every 2-3 weeks.
Michael Chanarin's taste is lead by the conceptual, but he is generally interested in young artists' on the cutting edge. He explains that the already popular artists do not need galleries to promote their work: auctions on the internet prove it, and so do the retrospectives in the major museums and public spaces. The real reason for galleries to live today is rather in the advocacy and support they offer to either youngsters with good curricula but not yet a defined presence in the market, and those artists with not much experience but engaging and intriguing work. Gallery Westland Place should be a space for these two categories, a stage where artists can test and develop a "dialogue" with the general public.
Thus, Michael Chanarin's aim is to build a strategy open to various national and international trends. Nevetherless the risk of a financial struggle, Michael will not exclude less commercial works and the most innovative and alternative proposals. This does not surprise, though, as these proposals are responsible for having generated an international recognition in the recent past towards the English artistic world. Amongst the shows planned at the Gallery Westland Place, Michael mentions an exhibition on the subtle demarcation line between photography as document and photography as fine art (curated in collaboration with Cristina Fedi).
A question is raised about the relationship between Gallery Westland Place and the area of Old Street in which the gallery is located.
At the end of the 70s, the area started being occupied by a community of artists, which had been pushed out of the docklands. Thanks to the very low rent rates, they settled around this area their new studios and exhibitions spaces in Old Street. From then on (and mostly after the raise of the YBA in the 80s), Old Street has been considered "the most accurate barometer of the contemporary art scene" (Martin Coomer), where large deserted spaces are transformed into temporary exhibition spaces and where a rich cultural network was established. "Gentrification of the area may have made rents prohibitively high but, somehow, new spaces continue to open."(Martin Coomer)
Old Street and Hoxton Square are now the reign of the "ultra-cool" with their interior and graphic design studios (a typical example is the block known as The Factory with the Manhattan lofts). Next to these studios but incomparable to them, there is still a number of artists-run spaces. Not far from the Gallery Westland Place, 30 Underwood Street presents narrow and dark steps leading to a "barely decorated" basement. This space has an exuberant history which includes shows by artists such as Tatsumi Orimoto (from Fluxus) and Hermann Nitsch, and deals especially with mixed media. Next to it, there is the block that accommodated from 1995 to January 1999 the ex-gallery Poo-Poo, "stormly" held by the iconoclasts of BANK. These are spaces, as many others, where the sensationalist forms of British contemporary art are controversially displayed on purpose, as expression of the irriverent attitude of those artists who during the recession managed to build their own reputation and a strong confidence.
In this context, Gallery Westland Place would like to propose shows of a diverse and better quality, at least in the presentation: something less "sensational" and clearly less aggressive and controversial. The entrepeneur's competitive attitude has not disappeared from Michael Chanarin, but it has been mitigated by the already reported idea of a gallery standing as cathalist for conversation. An exchange of ideas is therefore expected from the relationship with other spaces, studios and galleries of this area.
A final question: what does Michael Chanarin thinks of the press? On one side, he has got a preference for a specific format, the "listings", that he thinks is the most useful to the most various sectors of readers. On the other side, more and less negative comments and articles on shows largely contributed in the 80s and still contribute to foster and to make appreciate or detest the young artists' world. Unable to deny its power, Michael Chanarin can, of course, confirm the pleasure of its support and the nuisance of its hostility.
The formula adopted by Michael Chanarin seems to be open to revisions and amendements, and now ready for the experiment.
The exhibition chosen for Gallery Westland Place's opening already reveals a subtle intention to take complex subjects, as eradicated in the artistic tradition and in our contemporary cultural sensitivity, and propose them to a public not necessarily interested in deep and abstract intellectualisms, nor in banal decorative artworks. "River Deep Mountain High" was an attempt to newly translate landscape painting in a contemporary language. The exhibition presented paintings, video works and photographies that tackled the notion of sublime and its move from the biblical narrative to an "other space", which is not the urban landscape.
From the time when the interview happened until now gallery Westland Place has held a large number of exhibitions amongst which I like to mention, for the interesting background
concept: Confederacy of Pleasures, performances and interventions curated by Jo Bennett and Denis Glaser, from 3 December 1999 to 8 January 2000 Is there anyone home ? Images of absence and imminence, photographs curated by writer Roy Exley, from 19 May to 24 June 2000.