Open Mind: In Conversation with Polly Staple

The word curate has been hijacked by pop culture, describing everything from house blends at coffee shops to the product haul at zeitgeisty boutiques. So why shouldn’t a figure like Polly Staple, already tagged a ‘critical friend’, think outside the box, likening her role to that of a music producer? Interview by Andrew Hale.

Polly Staple, Director of Chisenhale Gallery, London. Photo Credit: Mark Blower.

Polly Staple has made her mark as Director of Chisenhale Gallery, which, throughout its award winning, 34-year history as one of London’s most innovative forums for contemporary art has been operating alternately as an exhibition hall, production agency, research centre and community resource. Located in a former veneer factory and brewery on Chisenhale Road, a residential street in the heart of the East End, the gallery backs onto the Regent’s Canal and is close to both Victoria Park and the Olympic Park.

A registered charity and one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations, Chisenhale was founded by artists in the early 1980s – and the gallery places artists at the centre of everything they do, commissioning and producing contemporary art whilst supporting artists to pursue new directions and make their most ambitious work to date. Discursive events, including lectures, screenings and workshops, run concurrent to the commissions programme.

In the 1990s the gallery produced first solo exhibitions in the UK with artists such as Rachel Whiteread, Cornelia Parker, Pipilotti Rist, Wolfgang Tillmans, Gillian Wearing and Thomas Hirschhorn. More recently the gallery has commissioned new works by artists such as Helen Marten, Ed Atkins, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Hito Steyerl, Camille Henrot, Jumana Manna, Maria Eichhorn and Yuri Pattison. The 2017 programme includes major commissions by Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, Maeve Brennan, Luke Willis Thompson and Hannah Black. Artists participating in the recent programme have been awarded the Turner Prize, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists, the Jarman Award, the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, The Future Generation Art Prize and the Hugo Boss Prize. Chisenhale artists have also participated in major international exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale and documenta. Director of the gallery since 2008, Staple was awarded the Genesis Prize in 2014, ‘recognising her work as an outstanding mentor of artistic talent’.

Andrew Hale: Hi Polly. I thought a good place to start would be when we first met 15 years ago. You were working as Director of Frieze Projects curating the artists’ commissions and talks programme for Frieze Art Fair. The fair itself was new and you asked me to participate in a talk on collecting. It’s easy to forget how different the art world was then in London. What is your recollection of that time?

Polly Staple: The London art scene was a very different place back then. Tate Modern had only been open for a couple of years. There weren’t the large international commercial galleries we have now in London. The art world was so much smaller. I started working with Frieze in 2002 – I’d been working as the curator at Cubitt, a small previously artist-run space in Islington which has an important historic reputation, producing a fairly energetic talks and events programme. Frieze asked me to come and work with the fair. I remember visiting the first edition of the Art Basel Miami fair in 2002 for research – I had never been to an art fair! I remember it being a time when cheap air travel was becoming more common – which of course we take for granted now – increased mobility meant it was easier for people to get to London, the economy was also in a positive shape. I remember thinking as a curator who had previously been working in non-profit art situations that it might be strange working for a commercial art fair, but at that time the notion of the publishers of Frieze magazine creating an art fair seemed interesting and an important cultural moment for London. When I first spoke to Matthew (Slotover) and Amanda (Sharp) about their plans for the fair, they were interested in a new way of engaging broad audiences with art and that was exciting. As a curator that was a great project to be involved with at its formation. My role was to curate the artist projects and organise a programme of talks, the aim of which was to provide a navigational narrative to what the fair was as much as produce great art and debate. But as well as thinking about the art I also participated in meetings with the architect David Adjaye about the design of the exhibition tent structure, Graphic Thought Facility (GTF) about the design of the fair’s identity and Mark Hix about how the food element would work – sandwich tasting sessions were a high point [laughs] – all those elements alongside the art which made it feel new. Frieze Art Fair taking off was, to me, an important marker in terms of this city becoming international and London having a really dynamic energy to rival New York for example. In contrast this is what I personally find so depressing about our current Brexit situation which feels like we are going backwards.

Installation view of Yuri Pattison’s exhibition, user, space (2016) at Chisenhale Gallery, London. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist; mother’s tankstation limited, Dublin; Helga Maria Klosterfelde, Berlin; and Labor, Mexico. Photo Credit: Andy Keate.

AH: You talk about how exciting that time was for you as a young curator – moving forward to the present when it seems the term “curator” has been hijacked by much of popular culture – you can curate a coffee shop or a shopping centre – what do you think a curator’s role should be?

PS: The term curator has become so popular because embedded in curating is the selecting of objects, items, ideas – whatever it might be, and then putting them together to create a theme for example from the grouping of those items. And yes of course anyone can do that. Traditionally in the art world curating has a specific resonance – if you think of a museum curator for instance who’s role involves caring for and preserving objects and academic research in relation to those objects and so on, whereas now curating has become a catch-all term for putting a programme together. My experience as a curator has always been working closely with artists, working collaboratively and the prioritising of the process of making the art. I really love making exhibitions where you bring existing works together with a theme, but actually what I spend a lot of my time doing is working with artists directly commissioning work, and that I sometimes feel is closer – you would understand this as a musician and producer yourself – to the role of someone like a music producer, or an editor in publishing – you are helping the artist shape their idea and presenting it. Great music producers will always bring a strong vision and content of their own to the work they produce and I would say the same applies to any great curator. My role can be to bring a degree of knowledge to the artists’ subject. At Chisenhale Gallery I often work with quite young artists, but I feel it works well because I bring a certain art historical knowledge – as much as all the years now of producing commissions and making exhibitions – to bear on being able to think about their work in a much bigger trajectory. I’ve seen artists we work with make less successful projects with other people, and I know it’s because the artist hasn’t been pushed, and they haven’t asked difficult questions of the work – and that’s what a music producer might do.

Installation view of Helen Marten’s exhibition, Plank Salad (2012) at Chisenhale Gallery, London. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist. Photo Credit: Andy Keate.

AH: In terms of that communication, art’s interaction with an audience, what role should an art space fulfil? Is it for performance, is it a white cube, is it a place to socialise? And coupled with that, how is that role affected being the director of a public institution as opposed to working in the commercial gallery world?

PS: A lot of commercial galleries and institutions all look the same now – some very large commercial galleries look like museums. And you go to some museums and they can seem very commercial. There are also many private foundations that look like public institutions but do not have the same public accountability. Chisenhale Gallery doesn’t necessarily look like an art centre – like Camden Art Centre or the South London Gallery for instance – because we don’t have flags waving, and a café and so on. So I appreciate it can be confusing for audiences. Chisenhale Gallery was originally founded by artists in the early 1980s and was entirely artist run in its first years, it subsequently developed a broader remit and started receiving public funding in 1986. The gallery is in part defined by the fact that we receive public funding which contributes 27% to our annual turnover – the institution is accountable to a public audience in a way that is very different to a commercial gallery. I’m not saying either is better or worse, you’re just accountable in different ways. We are also a charity, and we have a remit to support artists, and educate audiences about contemporary art – creating debate around that work, shaping intellectual discourse and making all that activity accessible to as many people as possible. At the heart of the organisation is this idea of representing many different voices, presenting work and ideas which aren’t defined by a commercial agenda. It’s a particularly testing environment at the moment with the reduction in public funding – the privatisation of higher education for example or the pressure on public institutions to develop income from increasingly commercial fundraising activities. If you have to make decisions about presenting work or supporting work in order to sell it – however creative you may be about it, that’s a different decision making process from one which foregrounds education, or giving as many people as possible the opportunity to have a voice and a platform, and be supported. And that also applies then to our audiences as well.

Performance view of Eddie Peake’s Interim commission, Amidst a Sea of Flailing High Heels and Cooking Utensils, part 2 (2012) at Chisenhale Gallery, London. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist. Photo Credit: Mark Blower

AH: So you are saying there is a public role there too…

PS: Well it’s about what the idea of the public is. What is at the heart of it is the question of what a healthy, functioning, civic society could be? And to me this would be a society which has flourishing cultural opportunities, where people can learn and experience ideas, and experience perspectives which might be different from their own, in a safe environment. Good schools, good hospitals, a good functioning civic fabric, which means everyone can engage – and there should be public investment in that; we should all contribute. Those ideas have become degraded within our current political climate.

Views of Alex Baczynski-Jenkins’ exhibition, The tremble, the symptom, the swell and the hole together (2017) at Chisenhale Gallery, London. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist. Photo Credit: Mark Blower

AH: Do you think that prioritising artistic production as a distinguishing factor – which a public space like the Chisenhale does – is becoming eroded elsewhere?

PS: It makes the work we do more interesting and challenging, and important. As director of a public organisation, I have to maintain a clear ethical position in relation to these urgent, commercial or political questions. For example, it’s important for us to be working with artists who present images of difference. If I can explain that; it’s about giving a voice or a platform to people so their voices, ideas and positions can be heard. To use our current show as an example, a new feature-length film commission by the artist Maeve Brennan shot in Lebanon. A lot of our received images, from Lebanon historically and the wider region more recently in the news are these terrible images of destruction and war, of people degraded by the conditions they are living under. We have however become completely desensitised to these images. Maeve is presenting instead an image of this region which depicts people taking care of its heritage, and taking care of their lives, and she populates it with these very engaging characters that you as a viewer connect with. So let’s imagine an audience member with limited knowledge of the region wanders into the Chisenhale to see this image of ‘the Middle East’, and it’s very different from the image they’re used to receiving, and it makes the Middle East not seem so alien to them, this other world that it’s otherwise so very easy to bomb. There’s real politics to Maeve’s film and its presented in an original and powerful way.

AH: The idea of helping us see the world in a new way – is that more important than ever in our current situation? What should art be for now?

PS: Art reflects its time. The important and urgent art of our time, at first glance, may not look like art – and it may look difficult and challenging. Because for example – its form may not be painting, it may not even be moving image work, it may be an action that an artist is making – that’s the product of our time. To go back to Maeve’s film – we live in difficult times, there’s war, there’s economic austerity – the art that’s meaningful might not make a direct picture of that, it may communicate in a very different way. That might also tell us something about our time. Another example could be Alex Baczynski-Jenkins’ performance at the Chisenhale earlier in the year. One of the aspects that appears to have struck people a lot, is the atmosphere Alex managed to create in terms of the idea of slowing down time. A lot of people who lead very frenetic lives, they’re on their phones all the time, they’re running around, really appreciated this work. When you were with the performers in the gallery space, their slight actions created a very focused moment of time experience, with you, the audience member, implicated within the performance alongside them. That absolutely heightened the experience, which then enabled you to think about the performers gestures, about where you were in the world, about where they were in the world – what your relationship was to them, your body, their body… That also says something about our time.

Maeve Brennan, The Drift (2017). HD video with sound, 50′ 29” (production still). Produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London and Spike Island, Bristol. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery; Spike Island; The Whitworth, The University of Manchester; and Lismore Castle Arts, Lismore. Courtesy of the artist

AH: I found that performance strangely moving. Coming back to your process – you’ve been described as a ‘critical friend’ – your engagement with the artist, often at quite a critical time in their career, when they’re still often young, they haven’t had a show of this size, and it must be quite overwhelming to them. How do you navigate that conversation?

PS: It’s always hard to answer when people ask me this because it’s something I just do. I think the artists always relish a dialogue about the work because it pushes their arguments. Not letting them be casual about their position in any way. It’s asking them about the decisions they’re making. It’s always good when the artist trusts you, and trusts that I have the experience to give advice. But again this comes back to having a good dialogue because I’m not always going to be right and the artist needs to push back against me – I’m learning from them all the time too. It’s not always a comfortable process, this push and pull, but it is a productive one. I’m continuously asking myself, ‘What is needed by the art, by the artists, and what is needed by our audiences?’ Those are the most important questions. But in there somewhere is what is needed by me and my team – how are we also learning and growing? With each of the artists we choose to work with, there’s normally an aspect to what they are doing which I don’t quite understand – for example the artist Florian Hecker, exhibiting experimental acoustic sound, which I had very little knowledge of but I was really interested to understand it so I invited him to make an exhibition. Or Jumana Manna, whose work focused on the history of Palestine and the history and politics of that region. Through working with Jumana I gained
a deeper understanding of that context.

AH: That’s a really important point – that you’ve discovered something and you hope the artist does, and therefore the audience too. If that trust extends all round then something magical happens.

PS: I heard an interview with David Bowie recently, and he was talking about making work and it chimed with me – I’m sure you feel this as well – he described it as similar to the feeling you have when walking out from the beach into the deep sea, and you reach a point when you are in far into the water but still just about on your tip toes. When you then suddenly lose your footing and you’re in an unsteady state, that’s the state in which good work happens. When you feel some fear. You’re in a place you don’t know, it’s terrifying but it’s also exciting and creative.