Artists Fairs United Kingdom

For Artangel, no rules are good rules

The London-based commissioning organisation builds on its history of creating open-ended projects with artists

Ryan Gander’s “Locked Room Scenario”

For more than 25 years and especially since James Lingwood and Michael Morris became joint directors in 1991, the London-based commissioning organisation Artangel has become a byword for artists working in unexpected forms and locations. “Artangel has always represented the freedom to explore different kinds of projects with artists, writers, musicians and dancers, and the freedom for these artists to go to different places, both geographically and concep­tually,” says Lingwood, who was formerly the curator of exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Morris, who was the ICA’s director of live arts, agrees: “From the off, we were interested in ideas, regardless of the form of their expression.”

Artangel’s co-directors are reluctant to single out any of the 80 or so projects they have realised, but their fluid approach to the artistic process has resulted in some of the most acclaimed works of recent years. These include Rachel Whiteread’s concrete cast House (1993-94), Gregor Schneider’s Die Familie Schneider (2004), involving a cast of actors performing in identical adjacent houses, and Mmm… (1992), Michael Clark’s extravaganza in a disused depot in King’s Cross, featuring the late Leigh Bowery and the dancer’s mother.

Although Artangel has started to work overseas—a process begun in 2007 by Roni Horn’s Vatnasafn/The Library of Water in Iceland and which continues with the final stage of Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, unveiled in his native Detroit last year—its working methods remain largely unchanged. Each project evolves from conversations with an artist, which can last several years, with little idea of the outcome.

Now, however, to mark the 20th anniversary of Lingwood’s and Morris’s co-directorship, Artangel is launching a more formal commissioning initiative to run in tandem with its open-ended projects. The aim of “The Artangel Collection” is to bring the organisation’s commissioned film and video works to wider audiences across the UK through a two-pronged approach. One involves giving eight bodies of work to the Tate, and the other is a partnership with Ikon in Birmingham and the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester to co-commission five new works. Two of these have already been unveiled: Yael Bartana’s Zamach (Assassination) and Anri Sala and Sejla Kameric’s 1395 Days Without Red.

But in true open-ended Artangel style, the other three are still under discussion. For, however much they have come of age, Artangel’s co-directors are still keen to emphasise that “we only have one rule—which is not to have any.”

Key past projects: the artists’ views

Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave, Orgreave, South Yorkshire, 17 June 2001

On 18 June 1984, one of the biggest stand-offs of the 1984-85 miners’ strike took place in a field near Orgreave, South Yorkshire, culminating in a mounted police charge through the village. Initiated by Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave was a partial re-enactment of what happened, which was also made into a Channel 4/Artangel film, directed by Mike Figgis.

“I couldn’t believe that anyone would do it, because to recreate a riot is almost a contradiction in terms. So it was as much a challenge to Artangel as an idea and I was very surprised when they said they wanted to do it. It was definitely a breakthrough moment for me. What is good about Artangel is that, because it’s not a gallery or a museum, it doesn’t have to have a regular programme and so there is not the same kind of time ­pressure—things can be put back or changed in a way that you can’t do with a fixed space. Now there are other organisations that aspire to Artangel’s status and skills, but none of them really have the organisational capacity or financial clout to do anything on that scale. Artangel gives artists the opportunity to step up a gear or two, and to become part of a wider conversation about art.”

Kutlug Ataman, Küba, The Sorting Office, New Oxford Street, W1 and then in other London locations, March-June 2005

Ataman spent two years among the inhabitants of Küba, a no-go, shanty-town neighbourhood of Istanbul, predominantly inhabited by Kurds. The result was an epic, 40-screen installation enabling some of the diverse residents of this shunned community to tell their many tales, in individual “portraits” each shown on different TV monitors. Küba was first shown in Pittsburgh in 2004, where it won the Carnegie Prize.

“I was very happy that Artangel supported me in this very risky idea—I had never created something on this scale before and Artangel made it possible. Artists need patrons like Artangel because they take risks. It is the nature of contemporary art that you have to constantly experiment and Artangel fills this need. I often feel that I am like a coal miner digging these holes, and once in a while you have these explosions and accidents, but you also discover the coal! I feel that Küba was a turning point for me: my work was well known in art circles, but with Küba, it went to the general public and that is who

I want to address. In terms of my own personal experience, it made me aware of the possibility that my work need not be confined to the art crowd but that it could open out to wider audiences—it built my confidence as an artist.”

Michael Landy, Breakdown, Former C&A department store, 499-523 Oxford Street, London W1, 10-24 February 2001

Over the course of 14 days, Michael Landy systematically sorted and then destroyed every single one of his 7,227 possessions in a recently vacated shop on Oxford Street. An inventory of his possessions made in the preceding year was displayed on the walls, and at the end of the period, their remains, weighing 5.75 tonnes, were buried in a landfill site

“I sent in the idea and James came to see me in my studio. At that point it [Breakdown] was more in the form of a tableau, a bit like my [earlier work] Scrapheap Services, with maybe a video somewhere in the background. It was James who introduced the idea of it being more performative, but I didn’t have any confidence in that form, or any idea of how to integrate it into my work. I felt that it was my idea and I didn’t want anybody tampering with it. It took me a while to understand that part of what Artangel is about is exploring the idea and opening it up, and that that was part of the process—and a good part of the process, too, because it made the work a lot better. Artangel got me to the point where I could destroy all 7,000 of my belongings in front of 50,000 people over two weeks. People could come in and experience the act of having all your possessions destroyed. That’s what pulled them in and that’s what made the piece.”

Rachel Whiteread, House, Grove Road, London E3, 25 October 1993-11 January 1994

Probably the most controversial of Artangel’s projects, House was a concrete cast of a Victorian terraced house in Bow. Following a vociferous debate, both local and national, which extended to questions being asked in the House of Commons, a short extended lease was granted for the sculpture before it was demolished on 11 January 1994.

“It all started with an innocent comment. James asked me if I had another project in mind since making Ghost [Whiteread’s cast of a room, made in 1990]. I said that I fancied casting the inside of a house in concrete. We mulled the idea over and then started looking for a house that would be suitable. That took some time, but we eventually settled on a site in Grove Road. It was a perfect situation: a row of houses that was to be demolished and we could use the ‘site’ for a while. After about two years, we filled it with concrete and unveiled it. I was deeply proud and exhausted: Artangel made it possible and I will always be profoundly grateful to them for their faith. Together we made a work that was tough and completely uncompromising. There was a big controversy and four months later it was demolished. It will always live on in my memory.”

Roni Horn, Vatnasafn/The Library of Water, Stykkishólmur, Iceland, May 2007-ongoing

Consisting of many elements, including 24 glass columns containing water from glaciers around Iceland, and situated in the library of the small town of Stykkishólmur, Vatnasafn/The Library of Water is Horn’s most ambitious project to date and was the inaugural commission of Artangel’s international programme.

“A little courtship went on for years, it seemed, between James and myself. He was especially interested in doing a project in Iceland. Artangel was looking to expand its commissions beyond England, and he was hoping to make The Library of Water one of its first abroad. I knew many of their projects and was secretly excited to be pursued for such a collaboration… it was Artangel’s special form of commitment that seemed ideal for my work—their way of developing projects in locations determined by the work itself, and their way of connecting the audience to the experience, wherever it finally wound up. Since the work tends to be an ongoing discovery process for me, and what you’re doing only becomes clear as it progresses, trust is essential to the relationship. As The Library of Water developed, Artangel became an active partner; not only with basic financial support, but with problem-solving—navigating political and social complexities and negotiating the subtleties of working in a small community. In short, I would like to have them negotiate my entire future.”

Artangel projects currently on view

Lavinia Greenlaw: Audio Obscura, St Pancras International Station, London NW1, until 23 October, free entry

Ryan Gander: Locked Room Scenario, Londonewcastle Depot, 1-3 Wenlock Road, London N1, until 23 October, advance booking essential:

Sejla Kameric and Anri Sala: 1395 Days Without Red, screenings held at 10-12 Francis Street, London SW1, until 23 October, free entry

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