Visiting The The Lisson Gallery, London

05.04.16

At the forefront of developments in contemporary art since 1967 – the Lisson Gallery has always challenged the status quo and this year will be no exception, as Stevie King discovers.

The London gallery scene has expanded, contracted and moved numerous times over the past half century, shifting from Cork Street behind the Royal Academy to the trendy neighbourhoods of East London and back to the central streets around Mayfair. While many commercial galleries have come and gone, only one pioneering, artist-centred space has stayed put throughout, remaining on the same street in Marylebone. The Lisson Gallery (actually on Bell Street, adjacent to Lisson Grove) was opened in 1967 by Nicholas Logsdail, then an art student at the Slade School of Art. For the first exhibition, Logsdail featured friends from his course, including filmmaker Derek Jarman, but was subsequently expelled for his extra-curricular activities. Spurred on by colleagues, Logsdail continued his nascent gallery experiment, showing Yoko Ono later that year and, within a decade, legendary international artists known for their ground-breaking interest in Minimalism and Conceptualism, including Richard Long, Robert Ryman, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and Daniel Buren.

Long before the art world became the truly global industry it is today, Lisson Gallery began working with artists from all over the world – whether from Brazil, Japan, China or America. Indeed, it was in 1977 that Logsdail first exhibited some of the British artists he was working with in New York, the city where much of the world’s most innovative contemporary art was being made. It is apt then, that the gallery will open a fourth permanent exhibition space under the High Line in New York’s Chelsea district next year, in the run up to its fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 2017. This will supplement the two existing bases in London, on Marylebone’s Bell Street – one of which is a purpose-built minimalist structure by the architect Tony Fretton – and another gallery in Milan, not to mention a retreat on the east-African island of Lamu.

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Despite its history and international connections, Lisson Gallery remains close to its roots – not just geographically and conceptually – but also in terms of supporting the best artists of its time. Many have grown up with the gallery, most notably a whole generation that became known as New British Sculptors, who began learning from the minimal artists in the 1970s and then applied those lessons to actual material in three dimensions, making use of wood, plastic, stone and marble, among other tools and techniques. Although many have gone on to be big names in their own right – Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon among others – these sculptors grew in tandem with the scales and ambition of the gallery.

Rather than pledging allegiances to just British artists or to any specific style of art, the Lisson Gallery prides itself on taking on and representing some of the best new international artists. In the past decade it has expanded its roster to include Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović and others, in the last year has begin to work with an important British filmmaker John Akomfrah, whose first solo exhibition fuses contemporary issues with history, fiction and mythology. Collaging archival film footage, still photography and newsreel with new material, he investigates personal and collective memories, post-colonialism and aesthetics in works that frequently explore the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the US.

Akomfrah first came to attention in the early 1980s as a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, with whom he still collaborates today. Their film Handsworth Songs (1986), which marks its thirtieth anniversary this year, explored the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archival material, that won international prizes and attracted a huge audience when shown at Tate Modern in the wake of the 2011 riots. Similarly, The Unfinished Conversation (2012) combines found and newly shot footage to create a kaleidoscopic biopic of the cultural theorist Professor Stuart Hall’s life and work — a piece that is simultaneously projected onto three screens and has been described by the critic Jennifer Higgie as being “as sensitive to the nuances of music, collage, atmosphere and biography as it is to the brute facts of politics”. Other works such as Mnemosyne (2010), Peripeteia (2012) and Vertigo Sea (2015) borrow their premises from literature, mythology and art history, adopting fictional registers to create meditations on memory, African diaspora and global migration.

For his debut at Lisson, Akomfrah is making two new diptych video installations, shot in Greece and Barbados respectively. The former looks at Greece’s precarious economic position through the cinematic references or ‘the eyes’ of one of the country’s greatest film-makers, Theo Angelopulous, to consider the eye more generally; while the latter approaches the current refugee crisis through the handwriting of the Caribbean writer George Lamming, layering contemporary events in Europe with a little known event from 1654, when Sephardic Jews, escaping the Inquisition in Catholic Brazil, fled to the island of Barbados. These will be shown together with other new and recent works including Tropikos (2016), a film that transforms the landscape of the Tamar Valley into a sixteenth-century English port of exploration on the African continent in order to reveal the deep-rooted and darker history of the river.

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