memory palace @ white cube london - the memory’s a little hazy

Last week the UK heatwave came to an abrupt end with what seemed to be a start to monsoon season. As luck should have it, that was the day after I chose to take an overnight trip to London. What better way to see the city than whilst wrestling with a broken umbrella and taking tube journeys which were inexplicably wet yet still absolutely boiling.

Sarcasm and negativity aside, I did have a productive 30-or-so hours in the capital. I went to Guest Projects in Hackney, had multiple coffees, and floated around Southwark like a yuppie. I went to Tate Modern because it seemed wrong to visit London and not check in, but the main event was my visit to White Cubes’s two locations - Bermondsey and Mason’s Yard - for their 25th anniversary show, ‘Memory Palace’. I’d never been to White Cube, but based on their focus on contemporary art I was pretty confident I’d appreciate their angle. I’m also a fan of the white cube gallery format, in general, despite its historical criticisms.

According to their much appreciated free exhibition guide, White Cube defines Memory Palace as a mnemonic device developed by ancient and classical Chinese scholars, whereby the subject mentally ‘places’ objects along a familiar path - then each object can be recalled easily by retracing one’s steps along the path.  

An interesting concept, and one that suggests the exhibition will flow like a treasure hunt through an individual’s cognitive map - except we’re not sure whose cognitive map that will be. Perhaps Jay Jopling (creator of White Cube)? Perhaps that of the curators, Susanna Greeves and Susan May? Maybe the collective consciousness of international contemporary art over the past 25 years? Either of those, I suppose, since this question never really gets answered.

I entered the exhibition at the gallery’s Bermondsey location - the larger of the two. The first large interior gallery space, South Gallery I, was categorized as ‘Autobiographical’, and displayed work skewed towards personal experience and the individual’s navigation through life. The left-hand wall supported Liu Wei’s ‘Purple Air 2017 No.1’ - a stunning jigsaw-like accumulation of purple, magenta, green and blue rectangles. The Beijing-based artist often ruminates on his home country’s rapid urbanisation, and as such his work often resembles geometric sculptures or architectural blueprints.

Liu Wei, ‘Purple Air 2017 No.1’, 2016-17, Oil on Canvas

Personally, this piece reminded me of an impenetrably complicated barcode, or the static you used to get on analog TV’s when you sat on the remote and accidentally turned to channel 097. It wasn’t lost on me that the first large piece in an exhibition titled Memory Palace had sparked a memory in my own mind. I was impressed. But then, before I could wallow in my enjoyment, confused.

Housed in an alter-like temporary structure in the centre of the room was Raqib Shaw’s ‘Self Portrait in the Studio at Peckham (After Steenwyck the Younger) II’. Shaw is famous for creating outrageously elaborate and ornate paintings, brimming with subject matter as diverse as his working materials - he intertwines themes of mythology, fantasy, sexiality and Renaissance iconography with glitter and rhinestones. This particular piece, a cornucopia of mythological symbolism, dry humour and phantasmagorical absurdity, emits an undeniable presence. This comes at no surprise, since it measures 84 x 60 in, and its glitter-doused surface catches your eye from across the room.

Self Portrait in the Studio at Peckham [...]’ is an almost unfathomable work or art. It has a shiny, mosaic-like surface achieved with the use of enamel paint. The use of perspective is pristine, and just imagining how long it took to paint every tiny detail was enough to trigger a migraine. However, despite the obvious linear reference to a moment in Shaw’s Peckham studio, I couldn't see where or how it fit into the concept of a Memory Palace.

For one, the piece is too complex to represent one particular ‘thing’, and so the bottom falls out of the concept of a Memory Palace being a breadcrumb trail of objects. Unlike Liu Wei’s seemingly simple composition which stands on a foundation of complex yet clearly-defined roots (urbanisation in contemporary China), Shaw’s piece just seems too purely autobiographical; weaving together too many themes. It felt as though Shaw’s piece was placed centre stage like a golden goose egg awaiting an audience, who would undoubtedly stop to look, it’s impossible not to, yet its brilliance was lost in the crowds.

I was similarly baffled by the inclusion of Tracey Emin’s ‘I Came here For You’, a canary-yellow inscription of the words in neon bulbs. I have a problem with neon. I don’t think it’s pushed as far as it could be, as a medium, and this is especially apparent when arranged in a catchy sound bite that’s destined to be regurgitated ad infinitum on Instagram.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually admire Tracey Emin and appreciate her work. I think she’s often misunderstood and will forever live in the infamous legacy of ‘My Bed’ (1998), yet her work does a lot to normalise and explore themes of sex, shame and what it means to be a woman. Still, similarly to Shaw’s piece, I’m not sure Memory Palace is the best place to showcase her neon work. Adjacent to the neon piece is a large Emin painting of the same name, which thankfully I found altogether more relevant. ‘I came here For you’ (2018) is a large and deeply expressive canvas depicting the rigid body of a naked woman, presumably Emin herself, encased in scrawled tangles of maroon acrylic paint.

I love this piece because it feels as if it was painted in a frenzied rush. It’s chaotic, yet sparse and calm at the same time. The figure seems to be positioned between two walls, perhaps just outside of a doorway. Her head is hung slightly, half of it is sinisterly enveloped by the maroon paint scrawls I mentioned above, and the positioning of her arms, tucked behind her buttocks, gives the sense that the subject is submissive, almost shameful. This piece could be said to represent the murky pond of sexual politics.

It encourages us to analyse the role of the female - specifically in relation to this painting but also in general. Could the figure have been emotionally or physically abused? Perhaps let down or demeaned by a partner? The composition, along with the title ‘I came here For you’ could certainly be said to allude to either of these possible interpretations. It seems as though this piece is a reflection on a particularly raw and poignant moment in Emin’s life. It allows the viewer to empathise with the artist, and the figure in the painting, and the ‘memory’ aspect is immediately evident.

It’s no secret that White Cube solidified under the influence of the YBA’s (Young British Artists), and it’s here that the exhibition emits a whiff of self promotion. With heavy focus on Tracey Emin, and several installation areas dedicated to Turner Prize-winning duo Gilbert & George, the exhibition is one Damien Hirst Dot Painting away from collapsing in on itself.

Still, it does contain plenty of works which seem to have crystalized under the weight of such heavy names.

He Xiangyu’s piece ‘My Feet (160506)’ is an example. This time, showcased in the gallery space titled ‘Traces’, the piece is delightfully simple (at least at first glance) yet pulsates with implicit meaning. Produced as part of a series and displayed as a diptych, ‘My Feet (160506)’ comprises several ink and watercolour stamps of the artist’s feet, most of them stacked behind a thick black line towards the bottom centre of the composition. The line was used like a ‘start line’ from which the artist jumped across the paper, creating sporadically-placed footprints which seem to have appeared out of nowhere - not the usual chain of prints we generate simply by walking.

He Xiangyu, ‘My Feet (160506)’, 2016, Ink & Watercolour on Paper

Immediately the footprints read like tracks - as if their maker has walked through mud or tar and has carried the material with him - the footprints fading gradually with each repetition as the black material rubs off. The previously mentioned black line clogs the arrangement of footprints with an uncomfortable solidity. It reminded me of the lines you see on the floor at supermarket checkouts, airport immigration checkpoints, or general areas where one’s movement is temporarily restricted. Perhaps, then, it was Xiangyu’s intention to replicate this sense of temporary blockage. He has been known to comment on socio-political issues throughout his work, so this piece could convincingly be said to mirror the unpredictability and stagnation of the lives of some in marginalised communities. Underpinning all that symbolism of course is the depiction of physical footprints - a nice allusion to the ‘familiar path’ aspect of the Memory Palace mnemonic, discussed at the outset.

All in all, I spent about 2 hours at White Cube Bermondsey (before heading over to the smaller Mason’s Yard space), and could’ve stayed much longer. The exhibition was dense. Of course you could argue that from a visitor experience perspective this is ideal, (more work on show = more time spent in the gallery). However, as with the Emin and Shaw works I singled out, for me this created an exhibition with a few too many forks in the road.

Since memory is almost completely subjective, it’s difficult to question the synchronicity of Memory Palace. What I consider to have nothing to do with memory, another artist may view as intrinsic. Is this a clever way of the curators challenging interpretations and the nature of our collective consciousness? Or is it a sneaky way of establishing a fluid theme that can swell to accommodate works by the names that draw in the crowds?

Overall the exhibition views like a truncated set of Google Maps directions rather than a memorial path. It’s entertaining, but a bit of a brain teaser.