Using leather and ropes, Leonor Antunes’ site-specific installation revisits the protagonists of the Whitechapel Gallery’s famous 1956 exhibition
It’s the smell that first strikes you when you walk into Leonor Antunes’ new commission The Frisson of the Togetherness at Whitechapel Gallery. At first, you can’t place it but then it comes to you – it’s the aroma of leather, one of the key materials in this large-scale installation that fills an entire gallery.
Antunes, a Portuguese-born, Berlin-based artist, has created a site-specific piece that responds directly to both the gallery’s East End location and its archive of past exhibitions. It is an intriguing installation of hanging ropes and leather straps, interspersed by screens and nets, that divide the space and guide the viewer as they navigate their way through the gallery. Some of the ropes loop across the ceiling or are anchored to the floor as the piece embeds itself in the very fabric of the gallery.
What’s it all about? This is certainly a piece that benefits from some decoding. As gallery chief curator Lydia Yee explains, the use of leather and rope in the commission are typical of Antunes’ artisanal approach as well as referencing the historical context of an area known for its leatherwork and also the rope manufacture that gave nearby Cable Street its name. For two centuries there was also a haymarket at Whitechapel and the exhibition’s smell, says Yee, is also suggestive of stables.
While this helps establish a sense of place, the key reference in this work, we learn, is the gallery’s seminal 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow, in which a dozen collaborative groups of architects and artists explored the theme of habitation. Antunes’ work frequently tackles the often unrecognised contribution of women artists and artists to modernism – such as Eileen Gray, Lina Bo Bardi and Anni Albers – and the latest work continues this theme.
Its title is taken from a text by Alison Smithson (1928-93), one of the participants in the 1956 exhibition, in reference to the way in which young people bring together elements of style to define their identity and social allegiances.
Antunes has taken inspiration from the work of another participant, British artist Mary Martin (1907-69), generating a large-scale floor pattern of geometric shapes derived from one of Martin’s works. Entitled ‘Discrepancies with Mary Martin’, this is created in bold, black lino cut into cork. The same shapes are also used at a different scale as cut-outs in totem-like standing pieces among the hanging ropes and loops of interlinked leather horse bridles.
Another participant in the 1956 show was the Hungarian émigré architect Ernö Goldfinger. Antunes visited his house at 2 Willow Road in Hampstead and drew direct inspiration from several of its architectural elements, most notably the tensioned rope bannister of the spiral staircase. These inspired the floor-to-ceiling ‘Ernö’ ropes within the installation. She also references the house’s white louvres as well as a metal grille from the balconies, and interprets these as devices which, says Yee, ‘guide the viewer through the space’.
Antunes generously uses her installation to also showcase the work of Lucia Nogueira (1950-98), whose jewellery is displayed in spherical hanging glass cases designed by Danish designer Nanna Ditzel, alongside an original piece from Mary Martin.
Antunes isn’t the only artist revisiting the gallery’s archive to generate new work. In the other ground floor gallery, German photographer Thomas Ruff’s exhibition Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979-2017 (until 21 January 2018) includes a series of photographs of Jackson Pollock’s 1958 exhibition. In this show, Trevor Dannatt’s exhibition design displayed the paintings on walls of breezeblock. Ruff has digitally retouched the photos using a colour palette inspired by the era to create new photographic works. Both this and Antunes’ commission eloquently demonstrate the fertile role of the past in generating the new.
Leonor Antunes: The Frisson of the Togetherness, until April 8, 2018, Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QT.