After a week stomping the pavements (and gallery floors) for London’s busiest art week, Becca Pelly-Fry finds herself fired up for next month’s opening of Elephant West—as she commits to trying new things, and leaving a healthy amount of room for failure and refinement.

Illustration by Becca Pelly-Fry
Illustration by Becca Pelly-Fry

It’s getting close. After a year and a half of plotting, proposing, planning, negotiating, reproposing, renegotiating and overcoming all manner of obstacles, Elephant West is just a few weeks from opening. We’re not out of the woods yet; the builders are still on site. But it’s close. Tantalizingly close. And it’s starting to feel very real.

Now that we have an opening date in sight, it means that the myriad of tasks that had been put on hold are now kicking into action. We’re starting to select the work for the first installation, order the prints and decide where to put the lights. We’re mocking up the catalogue, designing our launch party invitations and drawing up the guest list (hot tip: sign up to our mailing list and you’ll be on it!). We’re now also able to plot the dates for upcoming projects across the next year; it’s a juggling act until the first date is set, but as soon as it is, the domino effect takes place and the programme starts to take shape. We have the first year’s programme at least in discussion; for us, twelve months is a comfortable amount of time to be planning ahead, and we’re leaving enough space in the calendar to allow for spontaneous opportunities as well. There’s always a balancing act between forward planning and spontaneity—allowing room for both means there is flexibility and variety across the programme, but it’s not always easy to achieve.

Visualization of Elephant West

I touted myself far and wide across London during Frieze week, thrusting flyers into the hands of anyone passing within an arm’s reach and telling anyone who came close enough in an excitable, slightly high-pitched voice that they should be keeping a close eye on White City in the next few weeks (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Marketing and PR is just as much a curator’s job as it is anyone else’s on the team; getting the word out is a big and daunting task, especially when faced with the sheer quantity of amazing things going on in London at any one time. One of my greatest fears is putting on an event and no one showing up to see it, so I take this responsibility very seriously. So really all that Frieze week socializing and champagne-drinking was just a way of dealing with my own personal anxieties… But hopefully it had the additional benefit of spreading the message a bit too.

“There’s always a balancing act between forward planning and spontaneity—allowing room for both means there is flexibility and variety”

Talking of Frieze: across the London art scene there’s always the age-old dilemma of whether to capitalize on the hordes of collectors, curators and art writers in town for a short time, or to simply join them in the frenetic whirlwind of breakfast viewings, lunch meetings, private views and late-night parties. As for me, without a venue yet ready to show off, I did my best to follow the crowd, and saw some pretty wonderful things along the way. Highlights inside the tents were mainly from the Focus section at Frieze London; in particular, Arcadia Missa’s presentation of Penny Goring and Zadie Xa at Union Pacific, which both made me smile and jump for joy. It’s such a blessed relief to see good, well-considered work from women who know how to engage their audience with a lightness of touch that allows for pure enjoyment.

Survey - Installation View at Jerwood Space. Commissioned by Jerwood Charitable Foundatio
Survey, installation view at Jerwood Space. Commissioned by Jerwood Charitable Foundatio

I also took the opportunity of attending a curator’s tour of Jerwood Visual Arts’ current showcase, Survey, and was delighted to find some new discoveries. Particular highlights for me were Rae-Yen Song’s turquoise, suspended, ceremonial creature with gnashing teeth and dripping teets; Lindsey Mendick’s table of lumpy ceramic mementos; and Emma Cousin’s wrestling, writhing pile of painted women. In all there was some really energetic and relevant work, selected by a range of more established artists, presented beautifully by JVA.

“It’s important to just get on and DO things, try out new ideas and surprise people, with room for some failure and refinement”

On a more sombre, but no less interesting note, I was lucky enough to catch an “in-conversation” between Rachel Thomas, senior curator of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, chaired by Tim Marlow. Salcedo was absolutely entrancing; I felt privileged to be in the same room as such an extraordinary person. I’ve long been captivated by her work, but to hear her speak was an incredible experience. She seems to have the capacity to hold onto the entire world’s grief and pain, and transform it into something beautiful, redemptive and completely universal. I haven’t yet made it down to White Cube Bermondsey to see her show, but it is now top of my list.

Hannah Perry, Mechanism at Somerset House
Hannah Perry, Mechanism, at Somerset House

Another interesting moment during the week was an inaugural artist takeover of Somerset House Studios, entitled Annual General Meeting, which included Hannah Perry’s extremely moving installation and film which deals with the complexities of grief; specifically, her own grief in losing her best friend to suicide. It seemed a bit odd to be immersed in such an intense experience, whilst the rest of the building seemed to be revving itself up into a big after-hours rave-up, with DJs and bars scattered around the various floors open to the public. It was altogether a bit of a confusing event, but I applaud the intention and suspect next year they will adapt it so that it makes more sense to the audience. I’m interested in organizations making attempts to remove barriers and do things differently, and it looks like the team at Somerset House are doing this bravely and with the right kind of energy. It’s important to just get on and DO things, try out new ideas and surprise people, with room for some failure and refinement. How else do we innovate, experiment and ultimately learn? Our hope for Elephant West is that it becomes a site for all these things to take place.

 

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