Observations on Whitechapel Gallery in liminality

Zoe Diao

Curatorial Fellow 2021
Whitechapel Gallery, London

Two features are often singled out for the Whitechapel Gallery when it opened in 1901: the building was equipped with electric lights while most museums were still closing at dusk, and it was designed with no steps at the entrance to avoid the sense of a sacred place. However, after over a century later, what de Certeau called the ‘spatial story’[1] of the museum has changed substantially.

Even someone who hasn’t been to London for several years would be surprised by the development in the neighborhood around Whitechapel Gallery. Right across the Whitechapel High Road, a former six-floor school building has been added with another six floors to become an office space, advertised as “where tradition meets innovation”. To the museum’s southwest and across Commercial Street, spreads out a whole area of grand apartment complexes and high-rise towers, mostly built within the past decade. Even on the east side, luxury hotels are scattered in between Altab Ali Park, East London Mosque and the Royal London Hospital. As the urban-scape keeps shifting, one could argue that Whitechapel Gallery is no longer a progressive space amidst a half industrial neighborhood, but rather a historical museum on the edge of local gentrification.

Intramurally, personnel transitions are taking place as the director since the 100th anniversary of the museum has stepped after two decades. For art institutions this usually means adjustment or overhaul of curatorial narrative, or even total transformation of the institution’s mission. In history, after Bryan Robertson (1925-2002) took over the position from Thomas Hugh Scrutton (1917-1991) who directed the museum from 1945 to 1952, the museum “earned its rightful legend”[2] for showing modern American artists including Jackson Pollock. At the same time, East Asian art disappeared completely from the museum calendar until 1970, when the British-Chinese artist Li Yuan-Chia was included in a group show, followed by a group show of Japanese artists in only 1991. Another twenty years later, Yoko Ono’s MEND PIECE for London was shown in the public program space, which is a hallway connecting two galleries.

View from the Whitechapel Gallery office. Image courtesy of Zoe Diao

Street market near East London Mosque. Image courtesy of Zoe Diao

In the spatial, temporal and intellectual liminality, the museum opened two exhibitions at the turn of year, Galleries in the Groove: Three Visionary Dealers, 1960s–80s and A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920 – 2020. The former is an archival exhibition in honor of three groundbreaking galleries and their founders, while the latter looks at artist studios as alternative spaces like a factory, kitchen, or prison, with artists and artworks acting as supplementaries. Although curated and executed separately, both exhibitions foreground the concept of space in which art is created or has happened, like disguised self-portraits for the museum to reflect upon its own past, present and future.

As Asymmetry Curatorial Fellow, I had the privilege of working on both exhibitions. The six-month fellowship offered me a meaningful opportunity to observe how Whitechapel Gallery installed the two exhibitions amidst the Omicron variant outbreak, as well as their openings and audience receptions. The role of the participant observer was particularly illuminating for me to contemplate my own previous and current positions across various art institutions and has inspired me to start my independent research project on storytelling of artists.

For Galleries in the Groove: Three Visionary Dealers, 1960s–80s, I worked closely with Dr. Nayia Yiakoumaki, Head of Curatorial Studies and Archives to explore the short but splendid journey of Robert Fraser Gallery (1962–69; 1983–85) in London, Wide White Space (1966–76) in Antwerp and Just Above Midtown (1974–86) in New York. As an archival exhibition, the challenge was not only to select materials that the audience would find both informative and engaging, but also to fit the extensive archives and research materials within the rather limited exhibition space. Unlike the presentation of artworks, exhibiting archives means creating narratives through grouping and stacking, partially concealing documents to highlight the most attractive page of a notebook, the key person on a photo, or even a logo which could create an unexpected connection. On the other hand, archives can be easily reproduced, and the final exhibition had a reading section where the audience could listen to the lively discussions that once took place at Just Above Midtown, or read up on Robert Fraser's eccentric life.

Exhibits from Galleries in the Groove: Three Visionary Dealers, 1960s-80s. Courtesy Linda Goode Bryant. Image courtesy of Zoe Diao

Although the exhibition is organized in three sections to present each gallery’s archive, I became interested in the temporalities they were sharing. In my essay “Crossroads of Art Worlds: Notes on Galleries in the Groove: Three Visionary Dealers, 1960s–80s”[3], I try to present how the galleries were reacting to the same vicissitudes of art market and artistic trends, and how the three art dealers’ shared ‘unprofessionalism’ became the best way to support emerging artists. The essay was later re-tailored and expanded into a blog article “Just Above Midtown (JAM) and Its Unrealized 'Afro-pop' Projects”.[4] The article focused on the conceptual structure JAM envisioned in promoting black culture through their projects.

Installation view of A Century of the Artist's Studio: 1920 - 2020. Image courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery, London.

The Whitechapel Gallery team had been working on A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920 – 2020 since 2018, an exhibition praised by The Guardian as “a magnificent way of entering the minds of artists through the places where they worked, and what they made there.”[5] Although framed within one century’s time, the panoramic exhibition didn't opt for a linear structure. The works, archives and reconstructed ‘studio corners’ are loosely bounded by the binary themes the ‘public studio’ and the ‘private studio’, with an impressive number of modern and contemporary artists enumerated in a poetic yet intricate design. While working along with the curatorial team on the final stage before installation and editing artist biographies in the catalogue, the exhibition motivated me to think about space of art institutions. If one of the pathways to understand an artist is from the space where their works are produced, in particular, through the divide of the public (exterior, objective) and private (interior, subjective) conditions of the studio, should gallery spaces - created to promote the same understanding - see themselves as an extension of a ‘public studio’, or a peephole of the ‘private studio’?

Inspired by the daily Jack the Ripper walking tour right next to Whitechapel Gallery, I initially proposed an ‘archaeology’ project looking for former locations of great artist studios in London for the exhibition’s public program. I wanted to present how the urban-scape around the studios have shifted, and how the buildings’ functionality has changed over time. But this idea faded as I realized that artist studios should be considered without location or specific architecture. An artwork might be executed in studio but it’s not where the sole work of the artist takes place. The artist studio is not an isolated or closed system, but an open one existing in the interactions between artist and artwork with studio and exhibition space, as well as the local landscape and social-cultural temporalities. It is also an intellectual space shared with collaborators, curators and audiences from both the present and the future, in the same sense that art institutions cannot be seen as a self-evident black box, a mere space that validates artworks. As the past, current and upcoming exhibition sections on every gallery’s website constantly remind us, the institution exists in the state of transition and flux and hence always needs reflecting upon.

Set up for my research seminar “Storytelling of Artists in Post-war London”, April 30, 2022 at Whitechapel Gallery. Image courtesy of Zoe Diao

During lunch breaks at Whitechapel Gallery, I would usually take walks to the north or to the east of the museum, where one finds Arabic perfumes, Bengali sweets, African textiles, and a city farm, while tourists gather on Brick Lane to take photos of graffitis and groups of corporate employees in suits buy takeaways from food trucks. Throughout my residency, I was fascinated by the synchronicity within and beyond the museum. As time provides the condition for change to happen, coexistence enables possibilities of the future.

[1]See De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven F. Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002 (1980).
[2]Little, Harriet Fitch. “The Whitechapel Gallery — historic space, cutting edge”, Financial Times (online), March 4, 2021.
[3]Published on, February 7, 2022.
[4]Published on Whitechapel Blog (online), April 8, 2022.
[5]Cumming, Laura. “A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020 review – congealing palettes, fading light and magic”, The Guardian (online), February 20, 2022.