Anyone who has followed the recent debate surrounding the resignation
of ICA chairman Ivan Massow could be forgiven for thinking that
avant-garde art is all but dead in the capital. That is what Massow
inferred in his now infamous article about the state of modern art
in The New Statesman, but had he taken the time to wander a mile
north of The Mall to a mews tucked away behind Russell Square Tube
station, then he may just have found the very thing he claims that
the ICA has long ceased to be.
up the wooden-slatted ramp to the first-floor gallery of The Horse
Hospital (which really is a former equine sanatorium), Massow could
well have come across work by passionate, obsessive underground
artists, challenging exhibitions by foreign newcomers and even art
that utilises the "craft" he found so lacking at the ICA.
Sure, there is no restaurant, just one toilet and the heat comes
from three-bar electric fires, but The Horse Hospital is the current
home of London's avant-garde.
of its roster of film, art and talks it is often referred to as
"an alternative ICA", but The Horse Hospital is privately
run by a staff of just three and receives next to no public funding.
There is no board of directors and little in terms of a hierarchy
- curator James Hollands sells tickets, acts as technician and even
sweeps the gallery's cobbled floor, as does its founder, Roger Burton.
In the 10 years it has been open it has received just £4,300
in grants and it is still subsidised by Burton's work as a costume
and production designer. There has been little cross-pollination
between the two venues, but Oliver Payne and Nick Relph premiered
their first film, Driftwood, at The Horse Hospital, which was subsequently
shown at the ICA - though Payne makes it perfectly clear which he
Horse Hospital is infinitely cooler because it comes from an organic
mind-set and doesn't concern itself with any cosmetic bullshit,"
says Payne. "It doesn't give a f***, it just shows what it
wants. Not like the ICA. For example, it would never dream of showing
some sh**ty films and then getting Talvin Singh to bang a couple
of tablas in front of it and charging 15 quid to get in. The Horse
Hospital wouldn't do that, it would do something good, charge you
five quid to get in and you'd have a lot more fun. I mean, f***
exactly the sentiments you would expect from a young artist whose
nomination for the £20,000 Beck's prize means that his work
is to be on show at the ICA this month, but Payne doesn't believe
he owes them any favours. "Having your work shown at the Institute
of Contemporary Arts in London, on paper, should be a really great
honour," he says. "If it provided the service that it
purports to provide then it would be an honour, but it's so badly
mismanaged that it's actually something that's just rather embarrassing."
may not be as vitriolic in his dislike of the ICA and still goes
to see films there, but he feels it is stifled by its status as
a public institution. "The restrictive thing about the ICA
is that it has to be programmed so many months or years in advance
that it becomes sterile and homogenised," he says. "If
somebody came along and said, 'I've got to have this exhibition
next week, have you got a space?' then I'd do it."
was this can-do attitude which led to Burton opening The Horse Hospital
in 1992, with the first retrospective of Vivienne Westwood's punk
designs. From the opening night, he found himself rubbing the Establishment
up the wrong way as visiting representatives from the V&A took
exception to what they saw as a less-than-respectful hanging of
designed these body-bags and all the clothes were hung on these
from the ceiling, so everything was at head height and you could
touch things and smell them," says Burton. "The people
from the V&A were horrified, people were smoking and drinking
and it was like: 'These should be under special conditions with
proper lighting' and they were really angry about it."
that nod of disapproval Burton has been putting on shows he enjoys
by people he respects, regardless of their position within the art
world. He was first in the UK to exhibit outsider artist Joe Coleman,
sticker artist Shephard Fairey and also scooped Cathy Ward and Eric
Wright's Grimm's fairy-tale forest meets-Tirolean souvenir shop,
TransRomantik. He even managed to get Anita Pallenberg to turn the
gallery into her living room for a night to screen the Super 8 films
she made with Keith Richards. Ever since, more and more art lovers
have been adopting The Horse Hospital as their own second living-room
and it has developed into an atmospheric salon where it is unusual
to not see introductions being made, chairs being pulled up and
total strangers conversing - all actions that would win you little
more than icy stares in the ICA bar, particularly if your name happens
to be Massow.
Hospital is situated in Colonnade, London WC1.