Life is More Important Than Art

14 June – 17 September 2023

All Eight Onsite Galleries, Zilkha Auditorium & Studio, Online

Free Entry; Ticketed Events: £5

Taking inspiration from African American writer and novelist James Baldwin (b.1924, USA – d.1987, France), who observed that life is more important than art … and yet that is why art is important, Whitechapel Gallery presents a free three-month programme of collaborations with artists, performers and thinkers to examine the interface between art and everyday life, and connections between local and global concerns at a time of uncertainty and change.

Visitors are invited to find meaning and create poetic, playful and reflective connections as they explore works by artists including Rana Begum (b. 1977, Bangladesh), William Cobbing (b. 1974, UK), Sarah Dobai, (b.1965, UK), Susan Hiller (b. 1940, USA – d. 2019, UK), Matthew Krishanu (b. 1980, UK), Jerome (b. 1991, UK), Janette Parris (b. 1962, UK), John Smith (b. 1952, UK), Alia Syed (b. 1964, UK), Mitra Tabrizian, Mark Wallinger (b. 1959, UK), and Osman Yousefzada (b. 1977, UK) spanning sculpture, photography, film and installation.

Co-curated by new Whitechapel Gallery director Gilane Tawadros and artist Janette Parris, the exhibition begins with Hiller’s Untitled “singing pushcart” from 1999, comprising a collection of five wrapped parcels placed atop a wooden barrow. The parcels, labelled and described in a museological style, contain remnants of ritual objects recovered following the demolition of an East End building once home to a tiny shop-front synagogue. At certain moments, visitors will hear fragments from a Jewish morning prayer emanating from an embedded music player. The prayer thanks God for restoring the soul after sleep.

New works shown for the first time include graphics from Janette Parris’s forthcoming book titled This is Not a Memoir. The works on display, which Parris describes as a ‘graphic A-Z for East and South London’, humorously map locations in the East End, which are of significance in the artist’s personal life. The upstairs gallery houses a new work by Rana Begum, made especially for the Gallery’s summer season. Building on the artist’s recent experimentation with powder-coated mesh, Begum’s installation comprises a mix of 2m and 4m-wide colourful metal grids suspended from the ceiling, transforming the architecture of the space. Interlapping with one another, the mesh sections provide a striking and sensory framework.

Known for sparse, dreamlike paintings exploring childhood, familial memory and imperial history, Krishanu’s In Sickness and In Health series are small-scale paintings charting a woman’s life through marriage, childbirth, motherhood and dying. The works were made over the course of more than a decade spent with his wife, the writer Uschi Gatward, before her untimely death from cancer in late 2021. The visceral experience of Begum’s installation contrasts with the elliptical experience of Krishanu’s beguiling compositions.

Artist Osman Yousefzada draws on his own autobiography in his work An Immigrant’s Room of Her Own, 2018. The installation is a fictional recreation of his mother’s bedroom and is inspired by his experience of being born into a conservative Pakistani family in Birmingham, UK. Visitors encounter furniture and decoration signifying cultural displacement and the impact of migration on the domestic sphere, with many of the objects cloaked in cloth or plastic, including a wardrobe and a totem of stainless-steel cooking pots.

Also on display is Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom (2000), which was shown in his Whitechapel Gallery survey 20 years ago. Made in City Airport, the film captures 45 minutes of activity at the International Arrivals gate, accompanied by Allegri’s Miserere mei Deus, a piece of sacred music which was first notated by Mozart aged 14 after hearing it in The Sistine Chapel. The combination of music and the sporadic bursts of visitors loads otherwise mundane moments an unexpected profundity.

Visitors go on to find the Archive gallery transformed into The Somali Museum by NUMBI, a Somali-originated African-centred arts and heritage organisation based in East London. Building on a long partnership with Whitechapel Gallery, The Somali Museum imagines how Somali heritage can be celebrated in the UK, with displays and workshops that evolve throughout the season.

The journey continues into two project spaces, where artists and play specialists Sarah Marsh (b.1980) and Stephanie Jefferies (b.1982) invite families, school children and audiences of all ages to engage with tactile, sensory objects in Sculpting Conversations. In the adjacent gallery, Youth Collective Duchamp & Sons have worked with artist Gaby Sahhar (b.1992, UK) to present Escape the Slick, a space to relax, reflect, meet friends, and reflect on the dynamics of public space.

Visitors can view Susan Hiller’s moving film The J. Street Project (2002-2005) in the former Whitechapel Library. There are more than 300 roads throughout Germany whose names refer to a past Jewish presence.  Over three years, Hiller mapped every German street, lane, alley and avenue with the prefix “Juden” in its name.

Hiller’s film presents a sequence of static camera shots of these street signs, as the soundtrack records traffic noise, church bells and other incidental sounds. The work highlights the dissonance between these everyday street signs and the triggering memories of the country’s genocidal history. The sense of retaining evidence of the past despite evoking discomfort is resonant with current topical debates such as the removal of public statues loaded with controversial histories.

On evenings and weekends, Whitechapel Gallery becomes a dynamic space for live events, with large-scale in-person public talks, performances and takeovers bringing together contributors from across creative disciplines. Highlight event partners and contributors include Bow Arts, Chisenhale Gallery, Healing Justice London, and 2023 Writer-in-Residence Martin O’Brien (b. 1987, UK). The full events programme will be announced in due course.

Broadcast live from Zilkha Auditorium & Studio each week Thursday – Saturday, Whitechapel Radio Studio launches for the summer with artist interviews pegged to the events programme, playlists, and takeovers by local music venues including Dalston Superstore, George Tavern and more, available to watch live or tune in via the website.

From Sunday-Wednesday, the Zilkha Auditorium hosts a brand-new Artist’s Film International (AFI) programme.  AFI is a collaborative project featuring moving image works contributed by 20 partners from all over the world. The theme of the 2023 programme is Diaspora and includes multidisciplinary conceptual artist R.I.P. Germain’s (b.UK) new film, Everything’s For Sale & Everyone’s Welcome To Buy (2023), commissioned by Forma.

Led by Director, Gilane Tawadros with artist Janette Parris, the summer season’s programme project team comprises Richard Martin, Director of Public Programmes & Education, Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung, Asymmetry Curatorial Fellow, Katrina Schwarz, Curator, Special Projects, Alejandro Ball, Gallery Technical Manager, Jane Scarth, Curator, Public Programmes, Siobhan Forshaw, Curator, Communities, Helen Davison, Curator, Families, Kirsty Lowry, Curator, Schools, Luke Gregory-Jones, Head of Visitor Services & Civic Engagement with Sam Williams, Technical Production Manager. 

Notes to Editors  

Life is More Important Than Art runs from 14 June – 17 September 2023.

The list of exhibiting artists includes Ahmed Abokar, Amaal Alhaag, Rana Begum, William Cobbing, Sarah Dobai, I.P. Germain, Rahma Hassan, Susan Hiller, Matthew Krishanu, Martin O’Brien, Elmi Original, Janette Parris, Jerome, John Smith, Gaby Sahhar.Nadine Stijns, Alia Syed, Mitra Tabrizian, Mark Wallinger, and Osman Yousefzada.

Artists Film International (AFI) is a collaborative project featuring film, video and animation around the world. Established by Whitechapel Gallery in 2008, AFI pools the knowledge of 20 global partner organisations, each organisation selects an exciting recent work by an artist from their region which is shared amongst the network. The theme of the 2023 programme is Diaspora, previous themes have included climate, care, technology, conflict and collaboration. Everything’s For Sale & Everyone’s Welcome To Buy (2023) by R.I.P. Germain was commissioned by Forma.

The summer season has been generously supported by artist Sir Frank Bowling, Aldgate Connect BID, The City of London Corporation ‘Inspiring London Through Culture’ grant, and the Life Is More Important than Art Exhibition Circle.

About Whitechapel Gallery 

Whitechapel Gallery was founded in 1901 to present “the finest art of the world for the people of the East End, London”. More than one hundred and twenty years later, Whitechapel Gallery is renewing its founding mission under the directorship of Gilane Tawadros, recognising our unique role as a pioneering art institution that sits in the heart of London’s East End and our global, diverse communities. Successive waves of migrants have shaped the distinctive character of the Whitechapel Gallery and its surrounding area. Generations of artists and makers have lived and worked in the area contributing to its creative vibrancy. We are proud to be a contemporary visual arts organisation that is locally embedded and globally connected.

In 1939, Pablo Picasso’s iconic painting, Guernica, made its first and only visit to Britain, and artist premiers are as diverse as Barbara Hepworth (1954) and Jackson Pollock (1958), Helio Oiticica (1969) and Gilbert & George (1971), Eva Hesse (1979), Frida Kahlo (1982) and Sonia Boyce (1988), Sophie Calle (2010) and Zarina Bhimji (2012), Emily Jacir (2015), William Kentridge (2016), Theaster Gates (2021) and Nicole Eisenman (2023). Influential surveys include This is Tomorrow (1956), Liberty, Equality and Sisterhood (1978), From Two Worlds (1986), Woven Air (1988) Live in Your Head (2000), Back to Black (2005), Adventures of the Black Square (2015) and Electronic Superhighway (2016).

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