It can be touch and go whether it’s on or not each year. The logistics are huge. The goodwill required for this annual impromptu show is necessary and substantial. Q Park, the network of underground car parks, the company management and staff, the Geoff Leong Foundation (and Geoff kindly negotiates with and on behalf of the curator), the artist-curator who originally set up the foundation, the curator Rebecca Feiner and the volunteer artists and friends who help install, organise and invigilate are absolutely essential to make the ritual of the Chinese Open happen.
This opportunity mingled with uncertainty creates a unique space for a community of underground artists to express spontaneity, to show their skills and to create something spectacular in a large environment. Some go to town, bringing work into central London and install it in one or two parking bays, taking advantage of the monumental location which favours big, impressive monolithic works. There are intelligent, low-weight solutions taking place all around. Challenging materials that might look heavy but are light, contemporary and perform a trick on the eye. Modern approaches such as vinyl lettering of poetry, easy to transport and easy to take down are part of the ingenuity that regularly comes to play for this show.
This year it’s the Year of the Pig. Artwork that follows that concept is preferred but is not compulsory. Most artists rise to the challenge and do so with a creative spin on their own skills and approach. Although we know in advance what animal theme the new year will be, as this is set by the Chinese astrological calendar, the slight doubt as to whether this incredible exhibition will actually happen means that creating strong work, putting your investment into this show, is not something an artist will be able to rely on.
Plus, this year the curator set an additional theme which rustles through the work. Quoting George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the revolutionary slogan ‘Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad’, she has encouraged the contributors to consider themes that might echo with the current revolutionary impulse that is playing out in and around Brexit, the political theme that Londoners in 2019 cannot get away from by simply turning off the news.
It is the range and passion of work that has to be the most impressive artistic statement at a show like this. It is a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. As a show it offers more than pieces, the artists are often present with their work, interacting with visitors, whether that means simply talking about what they are presenting or whether it is more fully fledged, for example, theatre designer Riitta Hakkarainen’s huge paper pig theatre (also present on the poster) or Hanne Kemfor and Rebekah Dean cavorting in pink tutus and snouts, offering us bloody knives to cut off their trotters.
Quieter, colourful work nestles in corners. Keith Ball’s black box lit like a pig shed where they never turn off the light, allows out tiny pigs like the filling of an infernal sandwich. Maybe they are driven insane by the lack of natural darkness, the removal of the healing cycle of day and night. They look happy, decorative as a bunch of posies against this disturbingly simple trap of the black box. Jessica Bailey’s migraine representations are increasing each year. She is using more ingenious found forms to explore the aura and sensations that have been irregularly dominating her life and creative output since she was twelve years old. Particularly intriguing was the strange, heavy engineered metal container in which she had placed a peep-light show using what looked like LEDs, wire and tissue.
Many works are handmade with a nod to the domestic kitchen table but one artist who was taking this type of ‘Blue Peter’ influenced making to a high level, and consistently, is Sarah Doyle. Sarah this year produced an extremely well made, well sewn, totem-like pig, ridden by a naked character who I read as a May maiden, wearing a splendid headdress of primary coloured flowers, resplendent in red and pink roses, verdant foliage and yellow and purple petals. Her level of craftsmanship is, for me, perfect. It’s very well executed but stops short of becoming machine-like or pseudo-realistic. As a result her piece echoes back to all the crafts traditions that I admire, work that was never destined for the professional, academic gallery but meant to be enjoyed and appreciated either locally or regionally, perhaps at a village fête or fundraising sale of work, high quality production often associated with anonymous women makers, particularly when it is crafted, like this, in needlework. Talking to Sarah, I discovered that the soft sculpture ‘Baubo’ was inspired by the Greek goddess of mirth whose family farms pigs.
Two pieces of the larger scale work that I impressed so much with audacity, scale and aplomb were Steve Pettengell’s milk crate sculpture and Jim Roseveare’s ‘Huff N Puff’. Parker dairies, acknowledged on Steve’s label were presumably essential to his wall of milk bottles in crates, arranged so that from a distance, and particularly through the magic of the camera’s eye, the word LIES becomes visible. It was a hilarious trick, well-executed, and even the smell of the off milk contributed to the effect of the piece, imbuing it with a sickly, sour-sweet, gone-off atmosphere. The political impact was undeniable. I couldn’t help thinking of Maggie Thatcher, milk-snatcher, and although this story is not at the centre the political subject today, Cameron’s betrayal of the people and his own confessed opinions having offered the referendum resonated perfectly and horribly in my mind as I stared at that wall. Roseveare produced a more classic piece with repeating elements, Jenga-esque and classically lit to reveal the shadows as part of the form. I felt the shadow of Grenfell inside the piece without it having to be overtly expressed. And the nod to the little pigs, safe in their houses was there in the title, for all to read. ‘Huff N Puff’.
On which note, it feels appropriate to take this small overview to the conclusion that I hope this alternative institution will continue despite the prevailing winds blowing through London that threaten so many ships of art, big and small. Artists are losing their studios due to hiked prices. Charities are being pressurised to take money from their users rather than using funds from other sources to subsidise small-small makers. It’s a time when the thriving, vibrant, cunning, brilliant, multi-national community of artists that have settled in London are looking in despair for where to run, where to live, where to work. There are some few, much-needed stratagems in place from the odd altruistic network but increasingly the news is bad and the options are fewer. Let us keep this moment alive, blessed by the good luck of the new year. The pig, I am told by the artist Aowen Jin, is a symbol of abundance. Oh, let it be so, let its humble influence bring us some joy.