Time To Crossover: Future Art Emerges At Hackney Wicked

Words and photography MATTHEW MILES

On the ‘wrong side’ of the Olympic Park blue fence, and hemmed in by a canal and a dual carriageway, the industrial warehouses of Hackney Wick were easy to ignore. Then its creative festival began making some noise – and new trends in art too.

With a combination of permanent galleries, pop-up group shows, street performance, music, theatre, stalls and open studios, this summer’s Hackney Wicked was a brilliantly varied three-day event which – in the energy, optimism and improvisation stakes at least – topped the capital’s more established art fairs. And, though Hackney Wick is also on the ‘wrong side’ of London’s A-list gallery scene, its annual festival didn’t fall over itself to attract the super-buyers’ Mercs to the car-park. Instead, it got bigger and bolder doing its own mixed-up thing – and that could just be the mutated shape of art events to come.

Sure, it’s a touch ambitious to try and read the future in the studios reflected on the Wick’s canal waters – especially when there’s a coracle regatta breaking the frame. Indeed, at first glance, the festival was closer to an olde tyme village fair than hover pads and holograms. But, though very much real world (handmade signs and all), Hackney Wicked had web generation written all over it.

Free and inclusive to the core, the festival was big on young group shows, collaborations, open studios, temporary art, video work and pieces in part created by passers-by or ‘the public.’ It resulted in a weekend that felt unplanned, amorphous and user-generated – and that’s exactly the way Hackney Wicked director Joanna Hughes wants it.

‘We’re not strict on quality control,’ insists Hughes. ‘It’s about giving artists space and saying “get your act together.” A lot of the artists are in the early career stages so it’s great experience – a chance to learn skills on the job and put on an exhibition or curate a show. For me the festival is a journey of discovery every time.’

Citing the varied pleasures of Young and Fantich’s razor-blade gym and the ska band that played on a roof as her most memorable moments, for Hughes ‘art and music go hand in hand.’ And, with her eye already on 2011, there are plans to increase the amount of live performance stages. Though gig-meets-gallery isn’t every art connoisseur’s cup of tea, this summer it sounded a lot like the future – and one we’ve been building up to over the past 15 years or so.

With a push from Saatchi, Tate Modern and the YBAs et al, contemporary art has become ever more accessible, and audiences have increased in tandem – the average Brit now more likely to visit a gallery on a Saturday than attend a football match. The art has been swelling to giant proportions too, culminating in installation pieces that you’d struggle to fit in your turbine hall. Dismissed by some as ‘fairground attractions’ these slides, spiders and space-like matrixes anticipate a hunger in audiences for something greater than the ‘white cube’ experience. There’s a sense of change – a shift towards art as an interactive experience that can’t be bought or sold; that could be everything today and gone tomorrow.

While immersive installation, ‘happenings’ and ‘bring your own’ art fairs are nothing new, for young and second-youth audiences at Hackney Wicked standing and gazing at objects was only part of the experience.

‘This festival is really about celebration,’ echoes Sydney Southam, curator of the Gadjes group show, Hackney Wickipedia. ‘People aren’t necessarily looking to buy art. They’re more interested in seeing something new and different… and then getting drunk.’

Southam’s living room in a mound of dirt, Konrad Wyrebek’s painting installations and Helene Butler’s remote control bunnies were standout moments at Hackney Wickipedia, a busy, site-specific exhibition that was part of an even busier festival. Across the yard ‘Deceit’, a powerful all-round showing by The Modern Language Experiment, competed with hundreds of artists for a share of an estimated 18,000 visitors over three days – almost double the previous year.

All those people, all that art, it was time to take a deep breath (or swig of pound-a-can lager) and head on into sensory overload – where the pressure was on artists to present in a way that stood out from the pack. Ben Woodeson pushed that to extremes, his power-drills exploding into life with attached wires or hammers eliciting screams from unsuspecting audiences at the Elevator Gallery’s ‘The Tomorrow People 2010’. The gallery is a permanent fixture of Hackney Wick and its directors, Snoozie Hexagon and Simon Reuben White, are convinced both the area and festival point to the future.

‘It’s only inevitable that these young artists will inspire the art of tomorrow,’ says Reuben White. ‘Hackney Wicked is already making a strong impact on the art world of London with collectors and gallerists at last taking notice of this exciting scene. It’s impossible to ignore.’

Artists striving for a career boost will be encouraged by Gavin Turk’s appearance in the Agile Rabbit show, and the presence of Tate director Nicholas Serota on the opening evening of ‘I See Myself There, Where I Am Not’ at the Foreman’s Smokehouse Gallery, where highlights included the video vultures of Greta Alfaro and installation by Blue Curry . From DIY graffiti sessions to the finale burning of the Wicker Man, there might have been a carnival spirit at Hackney Wicked, but it was clear that many of the artists were striving for the serious prize of old: representation by one of London’s top contemporary galleries.

‘Every year artists pick up galleries off the back of their Hackney Wicked exhibition,’ confirms Hughes.

Just as artists will continue to need sexier shop windows to sell their work – and inject cash into grander realisations of their vision – so Hughes is realistic about the future of Hackney Wicked. ‘We want to grow each year, and offer more, so we’ll look to match more sponsors to separate elements of the festival. But I’d rather avoid a partnership that covered the entire event because we’d never want to jeopardise its unpredictable diversity.’

As long as it’s rough around the edges and true to its grass (or concrete) roots ethic, Hackney Wicked will surely become a stronger pulse-point for tomorrow’s contemporary art. And, for next year at least, the Coracle Regatta comes free too.




Up close: Artist Konrad Wyrebek

Konrad Wyrebek is a young Polish-born artist based in London. He works primarily in painting but also drawing, print, installation and digital media. He showed his series of paintings ‘Beauty in Petrol’ at Hackney Wicked.

When I look at the Beauty in Petrol paintings, I think of beautiful gone bad – glossy imagery that’s become deformed maybe.

With that work I took a lot of inspiration from fashion magazine photography and advertising campaigns for luxurious brands. I’m interested in the way people and products appear idealised, promising a better life and happiness in exchange.

You have these twisted but anonymous faces and also some that seem to be portraits of stars – like Beth Ditto and Agyness Deyn and Lady Gaga. Are you placing everyone on the same level?

It’s like working with icons, symbols of certain cultural and lifestyle values that these people carry or expose in particular poses. It fits perfectly to the circle of themes I work with.

Aside from advertising, fashion and celebrity imagery, what has influenced your art?

People and their life choices, motivations and desires. The things we look at and things we look to. I go through a lot of newspapers, magazines, blogs and Google searching for initial inspiration. It’s a great indicator of the modern condition. I also listen to a lot of electronic music while creating. It gives me rhythm and flow.

With some of your painting it’s hard to be sure if it’s abstract or landscape…

I like the idea of landscape painting that is edging with an abstraction. I think Turner was a master at it. My landscapes are nothing like Turner’s, but still I like to confuse the viewer, get them to question whether it’s a landscape, an object or an abstract form. I explore the way we exploit resources throughout our existence, whether those are natural resources, human resources or just our own bodies. We transform our environment and also bodies to mark our place in the world or society. That’s where things connect for me.

Your digitally manipulated work for light-boxes often feel like a mapping of distorted spaces. The 3D concepts for entire rooms seem to take that further. Do you plan to create those as installations?

Yes, I definitely want to realise them. I see them as installations that actively engage the viewer. There are people within that might be hosts or might be slaves, and there’s an element of performance, power, intrusion and ritual. It could be uncomfortable to experience, a bit alien.

Finally, what’s your fault?

I’m depressed.


Matthew Miles is a London based art, culture, script and fiction writer, and a fashion photographer too. You can see more of his work at www.matthewmilescreative.blogspot.com