In the last couple of years, Londoners have taken notice of an increasing interest by the city’s cultural institutions to address and examine queer-related artistic themes through exhibitions. Most recently, Tate Britain’s Queer British Art 1861 - 1967, taking place during summer 2017 with its particular focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) identities, marked the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England, in 1967. Two years later, in 2019, the Whitechapel Gallery - inaugurated in 1901 as a public art gallery exhibiting modern and contemporary art - opens in its compact Archive gallery, a highly informative and succinct exhibition examining the changes in the so-called queer spaces in London throughout the last forty years.
Since 2001, with the appointment of the art critic and lecturer, Iwona Blazwick OBE, as the institution’s director, the Whitechapel Gallery has been producing cutting-edge and thought-provoking exhibitions. In this vein, the curator of programmes at the Contemporary Art Society, Vassilios Doupas approached the East London gallery’s curatorial team with a proposal to assess the transformations in LGBTQ+ spaces in the British capital. Doupas and Whitechapel Gallery’s senior curator, Nayia Yiakoumaki, and assistant curator, Cameron Foote, envisaged an enthralling exhibition which combined captivating works of art by established and emerging contemporary visual artists, with some fascinating archival material from LGBTQ+ community centres, pubs and bars collected by Urban Laboratory at University College London.
The exhibition curators cleverly and deliberately arranged the artworks by visual artists, who have been dealing with LGBTQ+ themes in their practice alongside the archival material. There is not any notion of hierarchy between the art and the archival objects, as noted by the senior curator, Nayia Yiakoumaki,
‘we are against hierarchies within materials themselves… whether they are from informal sources, formal, original, print-outs of tweets and the artworks. We feel that they work together in bringing a different approach. The artists’ approach are very different to a historian or an archivist’s, but they all, in a way, contribute to an alternative historiography.’
Such approach becomes evident as the visitor enters the exhibition, with the artworks blending in with archival objects, encouraging the viewer to explore the connections between the objects on view.
As the visitor unravels through the historical significance embedded within both the archival objects and artworks, the core narrative of the exhibition arises, allowing the viewer to immerse into the informative material content, which is filled with a sense of history, memory, provocation and critique. Queer Spaces: London, 1980s - Today focuses on how queer identity has survived through the city's redevelopment with increasing gentrification. The exhibition is also informed by a compelling survey produced by Urban Laboratory which examined the transformations in LGBTQ+ venues throughout the British capital between 2006 and 2017, providing evidence of the consistent closure of venues up to 2016, when according the survey, fortunately the number of closures appeared to have stabilised. Although there has been a general increase in the closure of pubs and bars overall in London as well as in other parts of the U.K., spaces dedicated to the LGBTQ+ communities have significantly been affected. The survey suggests a direct link to real estate redevelopment in the city, as one of the main motives causing the closure of venues. This should not come as any surprise, as Britain embraced the ideology of neoliberal economics forty years ago, added to the ruthless effects of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Tory-led austerity. Londoners have witnessed rising social inequality, homelessness and the closure of many independent businesses, community centres and venues, which have sadly given space to increasing gentrification, with the so-called ‘luxury flats’, becoming the material symbol of neoliberal greed.
An appropriate example of this urban pattern was the legendary queer venue, The Joiners Arms, at the heart of London’s East End on Hackney Road, which sadly closed down in 2015. The Joiners Arms was not only a pub which would turn into an intimate alternative queer club between Thursdays and Sundays, it was also a ‘second home’ for many LGBTQ+ people from the area as well as residents from other parts of the city. Thus the venue functioned as an important community space for many to feel safe and socialise with their familiar faces and friends. Everyone was welcomed, regardless of their gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, religious, socio-economic and cultural background. In fact, The Joiners Arms was one of the most democratic and welcoming spaces dedicated to the LGBTQ+ communities in the city. Despite attempts by the LGBTQ+ community and local Joiners’ lovers, who passionately campaigned to reopen the venue as a pub, there is the possibility of the space coming back to life as a local LGBTQ+ community-centre, though this is not yet confirmed.
The nostalgic locals visiting Queer Spaces: London, 1980s - Today, will notice a rainbow flag (symbol of the LGBTQ+ cause) on the wall of the Archive gallery, which in fact, was the same flag flying over The Joiners Arms until 2015. Since the venue’s closure, this rainbow flag has been part of the artists Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’s collection, who used the symbolic object as part of their @Gaybar project (2014 - 2017). This particular flag is an urban archaeological symbol, alluding to political and cultural resistance particularly when placed within an exhibition context at the Whitechapel Gallery. The feeling of ‘queer disruption’ is evoked within the exhibition space, as stated by the curator Vassilios Doupas, therefore it is entirely appropriate to describe the exhibition’s narrative as well as the rainbow flag extracted from the The Joiners Arms, as a compelling material symbol of that transgressive spirit.
The survey conducted by Urban Laboratory reveals that,
‘21% of venue closures were influenced by development with 6% linked to large-scale transport infrastructure development and 12% to mixed-use or residential development. This is significant when we consider the relatively small number of venues in the first place, and also the impact of development on clusters of venues.’
From all venues’ closures examined by this survey within the period concerned, community centres and bars servicing women, trans people and people of colour have been particularly sacrificed. This is worrying as many people of colour and trans people suffer significant prejudice, including, at gay bars, pubs and clubs, as examined by The Urban Laboratory survey. Discrimination within the LGBTQ+ communities is a sad reality and utterly shocking. It only demonstrates the unhealthy and toxic attitudes from many white gay men towards ethnic minorities within the community, as pointed out by Dennis Carney, a black gay activist and former member of the Black Lesbian Gay Centre’s management committee, who talks about his own experience on an film excerpt from Under Your Nose: The Story of the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre (BLGC), 2018, played on a loop at the Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition.
The recent creation of the U.K. Black Gay Pride, which celebrates LGBTQ+ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle-Eastern and Latin American origin, may be understood as a counter-response to the issue of discrimination within the wider community and the need for more diversity, respect and a stronger queer representation, compared to what is currently offered at the established Gay Pride Parade in London. Moreover, there has been a surge in offence, violence and harassment against LGBTQ+ people in the U.K. A recent report published by The Guardian indicates that offences against gay and lesbian people have doubled, while trebling against trans people since 2014, with transphobic attacks soaring in recent years increasing from 550 reports to 1,650 over the period analysed. These recent figures bring light to the serious concerns from LGBTQ+ people who should feel safe and welcome anywhere, hence the existence of community-centres, clubs, pubs and bars dedicated to this community is paramount.
However, there have been pockets of positive resistance. For instance the assistant curator Cameron Foote recalled during our conversation that the iconic gay venue Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London had its existence threatened by ‘an Austrian property developer who wanted to build a hotel at the site.’ Fortunately, the RVT as it is best known by its frequenters, won the battle and managed to extend its lease at the premises for the next twenty years.
The Italian queer theorist and revolutionary left-wing political activist, Mario Mieli, born in 1952 into a prominent Milanese family, took part in the 1968 global student uprising, eventually relocating to London in 1971 for a few years. He wrote extensively on homosexuality and queer identity, in relation to the ‘dangers’ that capitalism poses including in his acclaimed book, Toward A Gay Communism, which still is a reference in queer theory. In it, Mieli reflects with a sharp sense of humour, upon capitalism as an oppressive economic system which suppresses the ‘Eros’ and thus the liberation of sexual desire, which could potentially present a threat to homosexuality, gay and queer culture. Although published in 1977 and therefore placed within the context of the Cold War ideological struggle, Towards A Gay Communism strikingly reflects contemporary reality, particularly when pitted against the products of neoliberalism, such as gentrification and consumerism. Mieli fiercely criticises the vulgarity of consumerism:
‘We’ve seen how, if on one hand the perpetuation of the Norm guarantees the repression of Eros and its sublimation of labour, on the other this sublimation and this labour serve only to prolong the domination of capital and barbarism. Today, there are above all useless factories that produce useless commodities, and useless and destructive reality (the whole of advertising serves to flog superfluous products). Today, it is a suffocating and cancerous ‘cultivation’ that dominates: we lack life, lack green, lack houses, lack breath. Our existence and our psyches are largely constructed like the polluted city of capital: too much unhappiness and non-communication that is choking out the human being within each of us, as within the society that is composed of us all.’
The powerful extract above could be an accurate account of contemporary history. The queer author, who died in 1983 in Milan, almost predicted back in the second half of the 1970s what was about to unfold, from 1979 in Britain, and subsequently from 1981 onwards in the United States: the roll out of the neoliberal ideology championing the de-regulation of the markets, gradual and significant corporation and income tax cuts, and reduction of the State by Mrs. Thatcher and President Reagan. Not to mention, the controversial approval of Section 28 in 1988 by the British prime minister, which prohibited Local Authorities in the United Kingdom to promote and discuss homosexuality. This clause, greatly stigmatised gay communities in Britain, and would have probably made Mieli ‘erupt' with rage. The curators of Queer Spaces: London, 1980s - Today deliberately chose the year of 1980 as a starting point since that historical period represented a real shift in both economic terms and social attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people, against the backdrop of the proliferation of HIV and AIDS.
In tune with the disappearance and transformations in LGBTQ+ places in relation to gentrification in London, Prem Sahib, an emerging and talented British artist trained at the Royal Academy of Arts in visual arts, and working mainly with sculpture, has creatively and provocatively responded to the issues of queer spaces in the city, as demonstrated at the Whitechapel Gallery show. One of the most striking works of art within the compact exhibition is by Sahib, entitled Helix IV - 2018, the artwork features a classical male figure epitomising the ‘ideal’ body from antiquity. The sculpture is perforated with harsh-looking metal piercings along its edges, contrasting with the almost fragile and beautiful classical figure in the centre.
But what makes this work of art by Sahib particularly interesting is the research process behind the final work. A sculptural relief, which was originally displayed above a whirlpool Jacuzzi in the Chariots gay sauna, provided the inspiration. The East-End gay sauna was closed down in 2016, unsurprisingly, to make way for the construction of a luxury hotel. Whilst talking to Sahib at the exhibition opening, he reveals that through a dear friend, it was possible to recover and exhibit some of the original lockers used in the gay sauna before its closure at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, Germany. Prem Sahib’s research process is informed by urban archaeology, as he saves objects of a homoerotic and queer historical significance from near destruction, in this case, the lockers were resurrected from the debris of capitalist redevelopment. It would have certainly been interesting to witness Mario Mieli’s response to Sahib’s take on recuperating and reworking such objects which are filled with memory, and perhaps a dose of protest.
The exhibition also presents the American artist Tom Burr’s Shoe Mirror (Blue) - 2006 sculpture, placed on the gallery floor and though perhaps only noticeable when visitors are confronted with the reflection of their own legs and feet walking in front of the mirrored sculpture. Interestingly, the artwork only comes to life when visitors are present within the gallery space, giving agency to viewers as the true protagonists of the show.
Another compelling artwork presented in the exhibition is Ralph Dunn’s stylised printed photographs featuring Public Toilets - 2006, which contains a captivating homoerotic message. The photographic prints depict a blue-tiled concrete public toilet, with its glossy and reflective surface, which existed until the mid-2000s in the area of Lewisham south-east London, giving space way to a high-end housing development. The facility was famous for being a place for gay and bisexual cruising encounters. Dunn’s works push the boundaries with a true sense of provocation as it transgressively deals with gay sexual themes such as cruising and sexual practices in public places, interestingly, contradicting the apparent sleek aesthetics of the images.
The Scarcity of Liberty #2 - 2016, by the artists Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, features a large cork board containing pinned magazines pages and flyers. The artwork is the result of their Gay Bar Directory project from 2015 and 2016 through which the artists documented the environment of around 170 popular and historic gay venues in the U.K., many of which closed down. The artists collected magazines and flyers from those venues, preserving the printed record of those places. This cork panel not only registers their critique of the disappearance of iconic gay venues, but also communicates their thoughts on the homogenous gay body model - often looking white, young, hairless and healthy, and according to the artists, ‘a toxic model for what a queer body looks like.’
Although the curator Vassilios Doupas makes an important point that the exhibition does not aim to portray the LGBTQ+ communities as ‘a good group’ and the markets as ‘evil’, the show raises a legitimate critical argument regarding the development of neoliberalism as a force that can damage the social fabric of communities. The true queer spirit, however, is to disrupt these hegemonic socio-economic systems and heteronormative social norms. The dichotomy between these two forces is demonstrated by the survey findings and archival objects collected by Urban Laboratory, with the curators intelligently selecting works of art by artists who are consistently responding to such themes. This Is How We Bite Our Tongue, an exhibition up at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2018 - showing the artworks by the partnering Berlin-based Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset - also dealt with gay sexual and cultural themes within today’s unsettled times of increasing gentrification. I recall that during the show’s media preview last year, Ingar Dragset commented on how, for instance, ‘spaces for gay encounters have been gradually “cleansed” from the city space’, whereas his work partner, Michael Elmgreen made an interesting analogy on London’s growing number skyscrapers, perhaps with a sharp sarcastic tone, ‘we have noticed an increasing number of high-rises in London, looking like penises where bankers work from the top.’
Queer Spaces: London, 1980s - Today is an attempt to create a dialogue about the kind of city we are inhabiting in relation to queer identity while considering the diversity within LGBTQ+ groups and cultures. The exhibition comes at a very appropriate time when the Pride movement begins to be celebrated from the months of June and July, reminding society as a whole that protecting minorities and their safe spaces should still be paramount, particularly and regrettably, with rising hate crime plaguing London. Events taking place during Pride should not only celebrate and promote parties, such events should democratically and politically engage and represent all LGBTQ+ communities in a dialogue with the wider society about many pressing problems still affecting LGBTQ+ people in Britain. Rainbow flags flying over retailers’ buildings, posted on social media and on advertisement billboards by corporations would only be ‘pink-washing’, if the latter only means the capitalist appropriation of a historical and political movement that has fought for true equality in society. Queers do not want to be treated as consumers, queers want to be respected and recognised as equal citizens, by having their spaces preserved and considered.
Queer Spaces: London, 1980s - Today is on at the Whitechapel Gallery from 2 April to 25 August 2019. Free entry. Visit whitechapelgallery.org for more information.
Mieli, Mario. Towards a Gay Communism Elements of a Homosexual Critique. London: Pluto Press, 2018.
Essay Co-editing: Author and Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York, Dr. Emily Orr (RCA/V&A History of Design PhD)
Film and Editing: Lara Elliott
Vassilios Doupas, Curator, Contemporary Art Society
Nayia Yiakoumaki, Senior Curator, Whitechapel Gallery
Cameron Foote, Assistant Curator, Whitechapel Gallery
Lucy Hawes, Head of Press and Corporate PR, Whitechapel Gallery
Anna Wates, Media Relations Assistant, Whitechapel Gallery
Dr. Emily Orr, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Design, Cooper Hewitt Museum
Lara Elliott, Filmmaker and Editor, @lara_elliott