There is a specific joy that flares when a familiar space is reanimated by art—whether it’s public sculpture appearing at a junction travelled through often, like the new fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, or something as quiet as a different postcard image on an office bulletin board—it’s a little visual jolt for a view that’s become tired.
When I first arrived at the Courtauld Institute, I was perpetually lost and in a kind of state of wonder walking up and down the Alice in Wonderland staircases, through the tiny doors and along back corridors. For someone whose schooling was mainly spent in North American institutional blocks designed, it seemed, after prison architecture, this was entirely enchanting. A decade later, the building is no longer an unfolding mystery, but the recently launched East Wing X has harnessed that sense of discovery, filling the college with art, and, at a packed private view a few weeks ago, ebullient revelers.
This year marks the tenth instalment of the Institute’s East Wing exhibition, a biennial show of contemporary art that invades the school’s stairwells, corridors and seminar rooms. The tradition began two decades ago when Courtauld student Joshua Compston lamented the lack of contemporary art at the Institute and sought permission to mount a small show, including work by Damien Hirst and Gilbert and George. EW has ever since offered a counterbalance to the official collection, across the arched drive on the Strand side of Somerset House, where the more famous Western half of the building houses the renowned Courtauld Gallery, and a response to the progressive research interests of the student body. The comparison is indeed hard to avoid: while the eighteenth century William Chambers architecture makes a greaceful backdrop to the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces on one side, it sits in stark, though aluring, contrast to the contemporary installations. Like the Saatchi Gallery’s old County Hall site, the well-matched convergence of old and new can generate a particular brand of site-specific magic.
For twenty years, Courtauld undergraduate students have taken up the EW gauntlet, passing down the tradition as they matriculate through their Bachelor degrees, and the exhibition has continuously grown in ambition and scale. This year some fifty students have taken on roles as curators, press officers and installers, as well as managing special events, education and sponsorship. It is an impressive collaboration, and the resulting show, including work by over forty artists from Hirst and Howard Hodgkin—nods to the original event and in celebration of this benchmark year—bursts with all that energy and enterprise.
This year’s curatorial theme Material Matters: The Power of the Medium is purposefully inclusive, allowing for a breadth of media from more traditional painting and sculpture to large-scale installation pieces, projections, photography and, at the launch event, performance. In the main reception, the show is introduced with Arman’s Blue Paint Tubes where materials and composition coalesce. An apt place to start, the work sits framed and hung high, an overlooking touchstone for the rest of the show, largely more recent and dynamic work. Below, Kirsty Howe’s yarnbombing intervention kits out the institute’s permanent sculpture as Olympic mascots in swimming costumes.
There’s too much work to detail all of it here, but highlights for me included both stairwell installations, graceful works falling through narrowly turning spirals. Off the main reception, Shi Jindian’s delicate blue steel wire footsteps are a distraction and a guide for those on their way up the long winding path the lecture theatre. The show’s scene-stealer, though, is Gabriel Dawe’s colourful thread installation in the back, white-washed stairwell, a shape-shifting spectrum of colour, it changes with varying light and points of view, like cascading prisms.
Tucked away in the quiet corner on the top floor, a section titled Anniversary includes more sombre work that considers the slow passage of time: the material objects that mark it out symbolically, like Enzo Guaricci’s concrete balloons, or physical markers of deterioration under the weight of everyday use, like Rachel Whiteread’s Yellow Edge and Sam Belinfante’s Improvisation with Drumsticks, which look like delicately rendered lunar lanscapes.
Downstairs in the zones well-trafficked by students, sparks of lighthearted wit extend moments of respite from long library sessions. Korean artist Shin Meekyong’s Soap Buddha sculptures adorn the otherwise sterile loos—an alternative to the soap dispensers, if the user can bring themselves to rub a bit off these functional icons. And, in the student café, a selection of Slinkachu photographs from the Little People Project hang in the alcoved seating areas, restaging moments of urban life as miniature monuments, wry reflections on contemporary ambition and desire, a different food for thought.
Additional work by Stephen Carly, Hugo Dalton, Dirk Dzimirsky, Rohini Devasher, Simon Edmonson, Patrick Hughes, Laura Keeble, Mung Lar Lam, Emi Miyashita, Simon Monk, Erik Sanner and Rupert Shrive, among others. Open days including exhibition tours are held on the last Saturday of every month, check the EWX site for future talks and events as they unroll in coming months.