White Cube: Bermondsey

Zhang Huan and Daniel Turner

Visiting this gallery space for the first time is a challenge to the uninitiated.  I can’t think of anywhere else in London quite like it, and of course it’s been designed that way. The hub of Jopling’s White Cube empire, this vast building was a warehouse in a previous lifetime. Now it comprises three sets of exhibition rooms (collectively the ‘North’ and ‘South’), a diminutive bookshop, a slightly too pristine to be welcoming front desk, god knows how many rabbit burrows of staff space, and a handful of bewildered/nonchalant looking visitors (delete as appropriate).

On entering the building the giant open corridor concourse, which acts as the backbone of the public areas, creates an atmosphere of being in transit. Or at a very expensive high-tech private hospital. As you move around, peering into some of the galleries, you realise that there is giant space absolutely everywhere. It is the main component of this building. Everything, the works themselves, the minimal wall labels, the singular row of plastic seating, sits in an expanse of white and polished gunmetal grey. The resulting atmosphere (especially when almost empty as I guess it is regularly) is subterranean and futuristic. It feels like an under populated airport terminal for space flights a few hundred years in the future.

This August, the feel of the work on show adds to this impression. It is as though ‘White Cube’, as an all-powerful being, has an insight into our future. They have travelled forwards in time and unmasked an intimate knowledge of what relics of the present we should be keeping close and worshipping. They alone understand the art which will continue to intrigue and amaze us (and steadily increase in value). It is almost as though some of the current exhibits weren’t even designed for human eyes, so futuristic do they seem.

In the North Gallery, under the umbrella of ‘Inside the White Cube’, three of Daniel Turner’s works hang luxuriously in one large room. These mysterious objects could be created from ceramic, glass, highly polished metal or pooled oil as far as I could see*. They are basically smooth, liquid-like bends and folds formed into beautiful things. As you walk closer to them, to try and discover something more from their impenetrable surface, all you see is light and fragments of your face reflected back at you.

Further along, in the main South Gallery, is a solo exhibition of the work of Chinese artist Zhang Huan. This is an exhibition of monumental sized scenes being presented alongside military portraits and family photographs. The paintings as a whole resemble blurred movie stills or turn of last century photographs, fuzzy and familiar. Grit-like sandy ash sits on the surface of the works, some are visibly littered with larger chunks of the debris, and further reading reveals that they are entirely constructed from Buddhist ceremonial ash.

Looking at the whole show felt like walking around a pristine far-flung palace viewing the State art collection. The works seemed to speak of an older era, a dead epoch, or a faded dictatorial utopia. Prim and serious men in military uniform sit alongside beach scenes, and a portrait of a wizened old Chinese man wearing a traditional conical hat and a big smile. The scale is fantastic; I couldn’t imagine this show working as well in any other gallery I’ve been to, with the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin perhaps coming a close second, and especially not anywhere else in London.

I would urge people to visit this chapel of contemporary art, a very pure experience unhampered by textual interpretation and huge crowds awaits.

Interior view of White Cube Bermondsey

[*Later, reading through the notes for the exhibition, I discovered that they are actually made from bitumen emulsion encased between two sheets of transparent vinyl.]

Both exhibitions are on display until 26th August 2012.



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