Art Night, the London-based nocturnal arts festival inspired by the Nuit Blanche festivals established in Paris in 2002, in its second edition took place in London’s east end. Curated by Fatoş Üstek, of the recent Fig.2 series at the ICA, with host partner Whitechapel Gallery it held a series of openings, events and screenings throughout the night.
This time around I decided to go it alone and get my game plan on (last year was a somewhat frustrating experience for me consisting of long queues, a fear of missing out and always being late). This year 11 core commissions in 13 venues all marginally within walking distance (I cycled) were peppered across east London alongside a new associate programme of over 50 screenings, exhibitions, performances, installation and music, its aim: to explore London’s vibrant east end, its history, culture and architecture, through art.
I eased into my tour with Do Ho Suh’s video installation in the nave of the Christ Church Spitalfields. A loop of vertical and horizontal panning shots through dwellings belonging to Suh, his family and friends, individual rooms were filmed as if located in a single apartment block. A continual flow through intimate spaces, rational yet sensual, the video seemed a measure of the interconnected spaces we inhabit and the processes by which the artist connects with his surroundings. In perfect harmony with the 18th-century church, quiet and contemplative, it was a welcome start to my night.
Up next, Jake and Dinos Chapman at Dennis Severs’ House, a Georgian terraced building bought by Severs, a Californian artist who moved to London in the 1960s. An immersive experience of meticulous detail, the house is a portrait of 18th century Huguenot living interspersed with a selection of paintings by the Chapmans. Each room thick with ornate furnishings, lit only by candlelight, I peered greedily amidst curious antique objects, artworks, books and photographs as I navigated the two-storey house, somewhat forgetting there were works by the artists to be sought out. I think I saw three, subtle twisted fantasies hidden amongst the curiosities, and smiled in the know, or what I thought was the know.
I rushed next to catch Benedict Drew’s performance at Whitechapel Gallery, a multi-media installation of pulsating, dripping video screens and hand-drawn backdrops set amidst a stage of experimental musicians performing a live, improvised score of minimalist, electric-acoustic sounds. Continuing Drew’s exploration into materiality, where the physical and digital meet, I waited eagerly, the performance akin to the calm before a storm, transported into a reflective space mixed with the thrill of being in a museum after hours.
Onwards to St Katherine’s docks, following many another art-hunter marked by their fluorescent Art Night maps, to Charles Avery’s Of the Island. Amidst the shiny restaurant chains and tourists, components of Avery’s imaginary Island set up shop. A vendor ‘selling’ the island’s main trade, eels, was positioned on the river-edge, a homage to the area’s history of trade but somewhat light in touch and lost amongst the bling development that has since taken hold of the area. A quick pit stop followed across the way at Avery’s The Egg Eating Egret, the only original warehouse left on the docks from 1858, for a delicious custom-made egg cocktail. There was quite a scramble for the free drinks, and I felt the tension of a night spent queuing.
Perhaps the most anticipated commission of the night was Ian Whittlesea’s Becoming Invisible, a guided descent into the belly of the Bascule Chamber inside Tower Bridge. The only ticketed event, apparently booked up in three mere hours, I waited eagerly in the true spirit of Art Night, for a chance to explore the vast chambers. The rhythmic breathing and calming voice of a hypnotherapist guided participants down a precarious winding staircase into the near total darkness at the pit of the tower. Once inside the voice continued, proclaiming “in this space, hidden from the world, you will perform an exercise intended to allow you to become permanently invisible”. The deep breathing and bare orifice of the tower damp with water and slime, was all a bit much and I was grateful to finally exit and breath outside.
I closed my night witnessing a mass group hug atop a temporary stage in Exchange Square, as part of Melanie Manchot’s Dance (All Night, London). A collective dance performance originally conceived for Nuit Blanche in 2011, ten dance schools from east London performed public dance classes from Irish Dance to Capoeira to Flamenco, exploring dance as expressions of culture. Complete with Bluetooth headphones providing the sound, the mass gathering was reminiscent of a flash mob and perhaps a fitting free for all to end the night.
There is a risk that works get lost amidst such overpowering and extraordinary architecture and a delicate balancing act to the commissioning process is required. Speaking to friends the morning after there was a general consensus of frustration at the long queues, many of whom gave up and as a consequence a concern that its unique selling point, the thrill of one night only, is too limiting for the mass crowds that set out to experience Art Night on Saturday. That aside there’s no doubt as to this festival’s remarkable ambition and the undeniable thrill and energy encountered exploring the city by night, I can’t wait to see what they do next.