Is London’s Cork Street Revival All That it is Set Out to Be?

Salvador Dalî and friends at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition. Image courtesy of Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Zadie Xa and Benito Mayor Vallejo presented by Agustina Ferreyra, LIVE, Frieze Week 2020. Photo by Deniz Guzel. Image courtesy of Deniz Guzel/Frieze.
Installation view, “Martine Syms: Ugly Plymouths” at Sadie Coles HQ, offsite at 24 Cork Street, London, 2020. Photo by Robert Glowacki. © The artists. Image courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ and Project Native Informant.
Installation view, “Horizon” at Lisson Gallery, London, 6– 31 October 2020. Photo by Jack Hems. © Lisson Gallery. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.
Pascal Sender, Bet 7, 2018, 210 x 145 cm, oil on canvas. © Pascal Sender, 2018. Image courtesy of Saatchi Yates.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

London’s Cork Street was once the hotspot of contemporary art—in its heyday it was known as the place where Salvador Dalí nearly suffocated in the name of art. Now, with new galleries opening on this sleepy old street, will that radical spirit once again return?

 

TEXT: Louise Malcolm
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

Behind London’s Royal Academy of Arts in Mayfair lies Cork Street. Once the London address for radical contemporary art, it was home to a thriving avant-garde art community until spiraling rents in the 1990s drove galleries to East and then South London. Three years ago, the The Pollen Estate began spearheading a major redevelopment project which saw some 60% of the street’s front facades restored and nearly 43,000 square feet of purpose-built gallery space put in, an increase of more than 100%. This autumn, as Frieze LIVE, Sadie Coles HQ, Lisson Gallery and Saatchi Yates joined Goodman Gallery and old-timers Waddington Custot and The Mayor Gallery, renewed energy revived Cork Street into the pulsating art hub it once was.

First to open its doors on the legendary street was The Mayor Gallery, who inaugurated their space at 18 Cork Street in 1933 and co-organised Joan Miró’s first UK solo exhibition. In the same space still today, it is run by founder Fred Mayor’s son James, who took over in 1973; his blog Stories from the Mayor Gallery, written during the first lockdown, offers a candid insight into 20th century art dealing.

 

Salvador Dalî and friends at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition. Image courtesy of Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

 

In 1936, Cork Street became the epicentre of Degenerate Art and Surrealism in Britain. That year, artist E.L.T. Mesens (a friend of René Magritte) opened the London Gallery at 28 Cork Street while, around the corner, New Burlington Galleries hosted the first “International Surrealist Exhibition.” Seen by more than 1000 visitors each day, nostalgic tales recall the exhibition’s traffic-stopping events and wild parties. Most notorious was Salvador Dalí’s performance Fantômes paranoïaques authentiques. Wearing a vintage diving suit and holding two leashed Irish Wolfhounds and a billiard cue, Dalí’s lecture on “authentic paranoid phantoms” was interrupted when he began to suffocate. Luckily, young poet David Gascoyne arrived with a spanner to release him. Two years later, in October 1938, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) made its London debut at New Burlington Galleries in another truly seminal artistic moment.

American art collector Peggy Guggenheim ran her short-lived gallery Guggenheim Jeune from a former pawn shop upstairs at 30 Cork Street, from 1938 to 1939. With Marcel Duchamp as artistic advisor, she premiered works by Jean Cocteau and Vasily Kandinsky. Many noted gallerists have since graced Cork Street, including Bernard Jacobson, Victoria Miro, Alan Cristea and Victor Waddington. Victor’s son Leslie opened his own space, The Waddington Galleries, in 1966 to showcase American art—in particular, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Now owned by Stéphane Custot, Waddington Custot operates from 11 Cork Street.

“The great thing about this part of London in the 80s and 90s was the sense of community,” says Jacob Twyford, Senior Director at Waddington Custot, who has worked on Cork Street for more than 25 years. “When the yearly Cork Street Party happened, everyone was in it together: the artists were there, the museums were there, alongside the dealers and collectors, all getting drunk and enjoying themselves. It wasn’t an exclusive event just for the elite.”

Of course, Mayfair was a very egalitarian place back then. There was still manufacturing in Saville Row, with local butchers, fishmongers and picture framers among the diverse mix of people from different trades. “Eric Clapton was there [in the café next to the gallery], and Bob Geldof and I, all eating our bacon and eggs. Wealthy people mixed with ordinary people,” recalls Twyford. Low rents helped this artistic haven to thrive until rising costs in the 2000s drove many galleries out of central London. Without their radical spirit, Cork Street became genteel and, at times, stuffy. Now, The Pollen Estate’s “Cork Street Galleries” initiative is injecting energy and enthusiasm into reigniting the area as a hub for cutting-edge, breakthrough art.

Cork Street was at the heart of London’s Frieze week activity. From 6-11 October Frieze LIVE, curated by Victor Wang, Artistic Director and Chief Curator of M WOODS Museum in Beijing, occupied a townhouse at 9 Cork Street. Entitled “The Institute of Melodic Healing,” Wang’s 111-hour programme featured innovative sound and performance works by some of London’s most exciting artists.

 

Zadie Xa and Benito Mayor Vallejo presented by Agustina Ferreyra, LIVE, Frieze Week 2020. Photo by Deniz Guzel. Image courtesy of Deniz Guzel/Frieze.

 

Particularly mesmerising was Dream Dangerous, a 45-minute collaborative work by artists Zadie Xa and Benito Mayor Vallejo. It was performed by dancer Jia-Yu Corti who, in makeup and costume reminiscent of classical Japanese performance Noh—including a black tongue, a kimono and one of Xa’s distinctive headdresses, this time an illuminated conch shell cum astronaut helmet—captured spectators. Corti’s ethereal, writhing dance grew increasingly animated as the accompanying electronic tribal music by artist Haroon Mirza became evermore fervid. Expressing the artists’ interest in ancestral homelands and marine ecologies, the piece, with its bizarre costumes and dreamlike air, recalled Cork Street’s early Surrealist performances, with an added twist of contemporary eco-activism.

 

Installation view, “Martine Syms: Ugly Plymouths” at Sadie Coles HQ, offsite at 24 Cork Street, London, 2020. Photo by Robert Glowacki. © The artists. Image courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ and Project Native Informant.

 

On 6 October Sadie Coles HQ electrified Cork Street with the launch of their “offsite” residency at 24 Cork Street with a space bathed in red light. The glowing installation housed American artist Martine Syms’ immersive video work, Ugly Plymouth (2020), a one-act video play that examines representations of blackness in visual culture. In the spirit of collaboration, Sadie Coles HQ organised their current show, “DIS / Jonathan Horowitz,” in partnership with East London based Project Native Informant. This politically charged critique of American politics and economic structures is timely, given its proximity to the 2020 United States presidential election. A Good Crisis (2019), by New York collective DIS, mimics a Public Service Announcement (PSA) with the Night King from HBO’s Game of Thrones lamenting missed chances for economic reform in the mid-2000s. Jonathan Horowitz’s Leftover Glitter Abstraction (Two Rainbow American Flags for Jasper in the Style of the Artist’s Boyfriend (2018) mixes multicoloured glitter into a uniform brown to evoke the social flattening we associate with authoritarian leaders.

 

Installation view, “Horizon” at Lisson Gallery, London, 6– 31 October 2020. Photo by Jack Hems. © Lisson Gallery. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

 

Next door, 22 Cork Street is now home to Lisson Gallery‘s third London space, and one they intend to use for alternative projects, experimental performances and events. Also opening on 6 October, the group exhibition “Horizon” brought new and exciting pieces by internationally acclaimed artists such as John Akomfrah, Ai Weiwei, Mary Corse and Lee Ufan. Their current exhibition is a rarely-seen digital work by post-conceptual artist Cory Arcangel. Entitled Totally Fucked (2003), it’s a modification of the 1985 Nintendo video game Super Mario Bros, in which Arcangel traps Mario upon a cube hovering in blue nothingness. Downloadable as a ROM file from the artist’s website, Totally Fucked (2003) is a commentary on our obsession with technology and the absurdity of our expectation of it to enhance our lives.

In 2019, Goodman Gallery opened their first European space at 26 Cork Street. Their current group exhibition, “Living Just Enough,” addresses the global reckoning with structural racism led by the Black Lives Matter movement; with 10% of exhibition sales donated to charities foregrounding Black lives. One visual thread within the exhibition is ‘the political poster,’ represented by Faith Ringgold’s iconic 1970s work Woman Free Yourself, which reflects her Black Feminist politics of the time; and by Kudzanai Chiurai’s To Walk Barefoot (2020), a painted pastiche of posters used to incite political action during Zimbabwe’s turbulent 1970s. In keeping with Cork Street’s heritage of debuting important artworks in London, Goodman Gallery also screened video artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa’s video akindoncomethas (2018), a montage of found footage depicting impassioned sermons and song that testify to the social force of the African-American Christian tradition.

 

Pascal Sender, Bet 7, 2018, 210 x 145 cm, oil on canvas. © Pascal Sender, 2018. Image courtesy of Saatchi Yates.

 

Saatchi Yates—which opened on 15 October—is an exciting new addition to the neighbourhood. Founded by British collector Charles Saatchi’s daughter Phoebe Saatchi Yates and her husband Arthur Yates, their lifetime of hands-on experience makes it a sure ticket for an artworld shakeup. Inside, their 10,000-sq-foot space at 6 Cork Street is cavernously atypical for Mayfair; they deliberately maintain the traditional Georgian façade of its building: “We want to celebrate Cork Street’s heritage,” says Yates. “Cork Street is invaluable and magical: there’s no other street in London where Salvador Dalí nearly suffocated for art. We’re aware of that radical history and want to continue the legacy.”

Saatchi Yates launched with an augmented reality exhibition by Swiss artist Pascal Sender. Comprising large oil paintings that address the complexities of contemporary life—aesthetically they update Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase—the work is designed to be viewed through an iPad, which generates the augmented immersive experience. For Yates, physicality is essential, “It’s vital to have somewhere you go every day, to bring people to you. The irony of our first show is that although it’s virtual, it needs to be seen in person, in real life.”

Will the much yearned-for sense of community return to Cork Street? Phoebe Saatchi Yates certainly hopes so, “We are open on Sundays because we want to be a new kind of commercial gallery. We want to be accessible to the public and a real heart of the community.” Having more galleries on Cork Street—particularly those with open and collaborative mindsets—offers a return to human interaction and an engaging way of having conversations about art. It feels refreshing after a year of online viewing rooms. Twyford hits the nail on the head in saying, “It all depends on the attitude of the galleries here and how they choose to interact with their neighbours. If there is an air of isolation, it will be to the detriment of all. I’d like to see the return of the Cork Street Association. And the party.”

 

 

*The exhibitions discussed are closed for England’s current COVID-19 lockdown but will reopen when restrictions are lifted on 2 December 2020. Please refer to the gallery websites for further information and updates.

 

 

 
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