IF IT DIDN'T EXIST YOU'D HAVE TO INVENT IT: A PARTIAL SHOWROOM HISTORY: THE SHOWROOM GALLERY • London, England

When I go to a gallery I always have expectations about what I’m going to see, even if I don’t know the artist or group of artists. The invitation card, preview notices, or a friend’s description enhance your impression of knowing what’s coming, but it’s never quite how you imagine it to be. A recent case in point is a show at the Showroom Gallery—the last before the gallery closes for refurbishment—“If it didn’t exist you’d have to invent it: a partial Showroom history.” The exhibition looks back over the gallery’s prolifically successful 16-year history, showcasing a few of the many artists it has championed. The eclectic mix of artwork ranges from paintings to video installations and assemblages to digital projects.

I was expecting to see both old and new work from the artists listed in the press release, but was pleased to find only recent works on display. Within the exhibition’s context a divide appeared between those pieces that worked and those that didn’t, but there was something for everyone. As I moved through the space, it became apparent that there was an overwhelming amount of work. Nothing was labelled, so I navigated the exhibition with a rather tricky information sheet provided by the gallery. Although each piece was numbered on the diagram of the space, placed thoughtfully within the gallery’s two rooms, and never cramped or over-crowded, it took a while to figure out which work related to which artist. This became part of the fun and led to some interesting and unexpected discoveries.

Two photographic works by Karen Knorr from the Fables series, THE GREEN BEDROOM LOUIS XV (2004) and THE BLUE ROOM LOUIS XIV (2005) engage the idea of childhood stories, where animals play their part as much as humans. Pigeons fly around or perch on an ornate bed. Three foxes sit in a blue dining room, their warm rust-colored fur making them stand out against the cool blue surroundings. They look incongruous while complementing the scene. Were the animals real? Did Knorr let a flock of pigeons loose in a room full of antique and precious objects? Were they stuffed animals perfectly placed to create a pleasing but naturalistic composition? Or simply some form of post-production trickery? The contrast harks back to fairy tales and fables, those fabrications we stop believing in as we grow older.

Of the many screen and video pieces that were on view, two stood out. Sam Taylor-Wood’s THE LAST CENTURY (2005) easily lured its audience despite—or perhaps as a result—of the fact that very little actually happens. At first glance, the scene from a traditional English pub appeared to be a still photograph. Closer inspection of the varied modern characters gave the game away. A plume of smoke from a man’s cigarette curls upward. A woman, her head thrown back as she laughs, blinks. You realize that you are looking at a video of a scene where characters are holding their poses, as though frozen in time. Is it a comment on the disappearance of the “traditional”? Or perhaps a comment on the UK government’s imminent smoking ban? This video piece was surely the most outstanding piece in the whole exhibition.

Desperate Optimist’s LEISURE CENTRE (2006) is a video piece with a more traditional narrative. The key characters, with their soft Irish accents, made this simple tale engaging. Set in a municipal leisure center, the piece seemed to be filmed in one tracking shot. It starts with a young father’s uncertain yet proud interaction with work colleagues congratulating him on the birth of his first child. This segued neatly to a dialogue between the father and mother, revealing the father’s fear of failure, on to a rather dreamy monologue by the mother about their future, and lastly a slow motion track of the couple walking around a swimming pool. This charming story is a pleasing contrast to some of the more abstract video works on show.

Of the few paintings on display, Fergal Stapleton’s FIVE COINS (2004) stood out as a simple but beautiful work in the chiaroscuro tradition. It contrasted well against the more contemporary painting techniques on show. Curiously, the curators directed such a strong and direct light on the painting that the five coins could only be seen at an angle and not head on. Was this deliberate? It was hard to tell.

When I stumbled upon the attractive or humorous in unusual places, I couldn’t help but consider the discoveries a metaphor for out-of-the-way The Showroom Gallery itself, situated as it is on a residential street in East London. The first of these hidden gems was Hayley Tompkins’ NO TITLE (2006), which looked like the result of a sloppy “get-out” from the previous exhibition. Three scraps of paper, not more than an inch high, under this title were dotted on the walls of the gallery. They reminded me of the pop group posters I so lovingly hung in my bedroom as a teenager and then unceremoniously tore down when the infatuation ended. Always, a scrap of poster remained where the tape attached to the wall. Tompkins simple pieces of paper evoked so many memories, it was amazing how easily I might have missed it.

I nearly missed Gerard Williams’ FICTIONAL NEIGHBOURS NO 1 (2006), a small frosted window in a frame with striped fabric behind it, because of its high position and because it looked like part of the building’s structure. The intervention worked on many levels: it made one think about people living next to the gallery, about privacy, and about the act of looking. Too high to look at properly and impossible to see through: was it a taunt to the gallery goer? You can look but you can’t see?

Two works displayed in a similar way did not compare well. The first HENS E-PROJECT by Antonio Ortega (1999-2006) was a printout of e-mail correspondence; it concerns a project that aimed to give hens (chickens) freedom in public parks. I was disappointed by the means of display: it at once removed it from it’s original medium (like showing a photograph of a painting) and filtered what the visitor could see – images apparently attached to the original e-mails were not in the print out. By contrast Elin Wilkstrom’s DOES A BELIEVE THAT B REJECTS AN EQUAL SPLIT? (2006) is a simple description of the dialogue between the artist and two people participating in the Conceptual work about the division of a sum of money within set parameters. It was brief and amusing and it made sense to present the work as written documentation.

Though there were bound to be a few “misses” in an exhibition of this breadth, the diversity of talent made “If it didn’t exist you’d have to invent it: a partial Showroom history“ an exceptional “last” show for the Showroom Gallery before it closes for eight months. Many of the pieces raised more questions than answers, enough to make even the most jaded gallery-goer happy and the exhibition as a whole proves thought-provoking, diverse, and engaging.

Emma Quinn
London, England
2006