• Bryony Neylan-Francis

'la Caixa' Collection of Contemporary Art - Whitechapel Gallery 2019-2020

Founded in 1985, this collection now consists of over 1000 works of contemporary art. Initially focused on Spanish art, the collection now features works from artists of various recognition from around the globe. The beginning point was to bring the art world of Spain into the present tense, pulling current art that had a notable significance and impact to the forefront of an otherwise classically focused Spain, whose galleries at the time did not have an established focus on modern art. Overarching this was the idea that harmonising diverse forms of art that reflect and influence each other when being viewed would allow space for collaboration and for young creators to flourish. Over time this has broadened to include work created by major artists of the 1960s and 70s representing all artistic practices, from more traditional modes such as sculpture, painting and photography through to film, installation, multimedia and video.

Whitechapel Gallery is one of many to have hosted a selection of these works, this time selected by novelist Tom McCarthy, titled 'Empty House of the Stare, a new work of fiction and exhibition'. McCarthy writes that there are two premises, "Firstly, that we live in an era of mass-mediation, mass-surveillance, mass-control – technological and visual systems that form the architecture within which we dwell. Secondly, that far from being a streamlined, perfectly-calibrated system, this regime is prey to glitches, malfunctions and perhaps even general collapse. It tends towards implosion”.


Although I hesitated to write up my visit until now, as in my eyes it was not a complete, nor particularly cohesive curation, once I returned to my notes there remains some stirring, evocative pieces that I found to be noteworthy, and artists that I would encourage further exploration of outside of their inclusion in this display.


Eugenio Ampudia - Habitable Space (Day) [2003]



Colour photograph on aluminium and electrical installation


Playing with the illusionist nature of photography and its ability to transport the viewer through construction of 3D realities via a 2D medium, Eugenio Ampudia takes this aspect literally in creating a portal evocative of a lucid dream; we are conscious, but the reality of what is behind the door always lingers just out of reach, dancing on the edge of our minds.


The artist explains that he was inspired by the idea of creating an 'inhabitable space inside books', to do this he 'dug out the interior of eighty of his exhibition catalogues and built a model of a space characterised by different levels accessed via staircases'. Following this he took a photograph during both night and day, subsequently enlarging them to the size of a door and placed inside a light box; the finished product stands at 2.1m, enhancing the feeling that you could walk right in, further breaking down the the line between our reality and his mental space.



Sophie Ristelhueber - Fait #60 [1992]



Colour photograph, silver print mounted on aluminium, with golden polished frame


An ambiguous image that is given multiple interpretations by those who look upon it - do you see a helmet, a tank, a spaceship? This photograph evokes images of a dystopian future while also harkening back to lost civilisation, simultaneously a fragment of the past and the future, reflecting upon each other, and the enduring mark that war leaves on both the planet and humanity. Individuals may forget and be forgotten themselves, but there will always be a reminder in the continuing formation of our landscapes and societies. Taken in Kuwait after the Gulf War had ended, this photo is part of a series of close up and aerial shots documenting the trail of destruction left behind. Fait serves to record the pieces left behind before the desert reclaims them. One cannot help but be reminded of the poem 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley - 'Half sunk a shattered visage lies... look on my works, ye mighty and despair! Nothing beside remains', an ode to the vanity of the power of men that remains not only a recurring theme in arts of all kinds, but history itself.



Isa Genzken - Bookshelves [2008]


Metal, plastic, spray paint, textile, animal teeth (fragment)

Complementary yet contrasting to Fait #60, this piece is another ode to war which is almost the opposite to Ristelhueber's piece. Rather than bringing you to the history it is brought to us, and we are directly confronted by the remnants of war themselves. The allegory and its impact only hits you with its full weight once you know the history of the sculpture, and when it does the reality is unforgettable, and there is nowhere left to hide.


Genzken's architectural sculptures often sit, this time painfully so, merging construction and destruction. Bookshelves belongs to his group of sculptures titled Ground Zero [2008], where everyday objects are reconstructed into tower forms. Poignantly, these bookshelves themselves were found by Genzken on the streets of Lower Manhattan following 9/11.



Aitor Ortiz - Destructuras 069 [2002]



Black-and-white digital print mounted on aluminium



Seen in real life this is truly awe inspiring. Although the print itself only measures 2.5 x 1m it feels as though the entire wall is consumed by it as the sheer scope demands your attention and holds you there; it almost seems to bend, moulded to your eyes as every point of view offers a new angle, a different perspective. This print opened my eyes to architectural photography, and I haven't looked away since.


It is a conscious choice by Ortiz to capture architectural forms that translate abstractly by focusing on elements such as perspective, scale, structure, space and negative space, marrying them with photographic elements of framing, light and optical liquidity and lucidity. His exploration of negative space and optical illusion lends a fictional aspect to these functional objects that is reminiscent of an Escher painting. 069 is one of many in an ongoing series of black and white prints titled Destructuras, beginning in 1995.




Words and images: Bryony Francis

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