A celebration of historic LGBTQ+ spaces at Whitechapel Gallery

Performers masqueraded as ten of London’s iconic LGBTQ+ buildings opened the reception for ‘Queer Spaces: London, 1980s-Today‘ last April at the Whitechapel Gallery. The performance, devised by Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall and first presented in Summer 2017 at ‘Queer Fun’ cabaret night, echoes the 1931 Beaux Arts Ball, ‘Fête Moderne: A Fantasie in Flame and Silver‘ in New York.

Wearing make-up and dresses made of flyers and posters, the performers read out the petition applications in order to save the buildings from closure: for instance, The Black Cap , a legendary drag venue situated off Camden High Street, was shut down by Faucet Inns to convert into high-end apartments and a restaurant.

Performer Tom Kendall in ‘Fabulous Facades‘, 2018. Ph: Rafael Pereira do Rego.

The exhibition ‘Queer Spaces: London, 1980s-Today‘, curated by Nayia Yiakoumaki, Vassilios Doupas, with Cameron Foote, sheds a light on the history of LGBTQ+ London’s venues by considering how gentrification had affected the shift of the UK’s cultural landscape.

Queer Spaces‘ gathers rare archival material with original works by artists such as Tom Burr, Prem Sahib, Ralph Dunn, Evan Ifekoya, and Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings, concerned with themes such as queer spaces and belonging.

First Out Café, Soho (1986-2011); The Black Cap, Camden Town (1965-2015), and The Joiners Arms, Hackney (1997-2015) are some of the LGBTQ+ spaces closed between 1980s to the present, as research carried out by Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall with UCL’s Urban Laboratory illustrates. The number of LGBTQ+ venues has dramatically fallen from 125 to 53, and the drivers for this closure are multiple, as previously mentioned.

Co-curator Vassilios Doupas elaborates on the social value of a queer archive, that is alive and pulsating, “something that has a life on its own and represents the people who collect the flyers, invitation cards, and posters”. The archive stems in response to daily threats to the LGBTQ+ community, as a way to build up communities and memorialise the past.

Other case studies such as The Joiners Arms in Hackney (saved by the community campaign group Friends of The Joiners Arms) and The Royal Vauxhall Tavern highlight the crucial role of coming together and joining forces to save venues that would have been otherwise closed.

The Scarcity of Liberty #1‘ (2016) is a large-scale installation piece, made up of cork board mounted on wooden frame covered in gay magazine cutouts (Attitude, Zone), flyers for queer events, and public health leaflets by artists’ duo Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings.

Quinlan and Hastings’s work resonates with their interest in considering “queer sociality as a mode of resistance”. While the artists were filming for the 2016’s film ‘UK Gay Bar Directory‘, they started collecting ephemera belonging to more than one hundred clubs around the UK to reflect on archetypal ideas of gay masculinities.

Ralph Dunn, ‘Public Toilets‘, 2004. Courtesy of the artist.

London-based photographer Ralph Dunn captures the intimacy of cruising areas in the series ‘Public Toilets‘: the five photographs on display documents a toilet block in Lewisham, South London, demolished to make space for high-end housing.

Dunn deploys flash to make venues normally portrayed with a sense of nostalgia and decadence alive and bursting with presence.

The most arresting piece in the exhibition is Prem Sahib‘s ‘Helix IV‘, a plaster cast representing a ripped Greek god. The work is inspired by an original piece saved from the demolition of the Shoreditch branch of the gay sauna Chariots, closed in 2016 to make way for a four-star hotel.

As Sahib said to me during a pleasing chat in his studio, the piece aims to go beyond the contextual boundaries to function both as an artefact and as a signifier: the piercing through the plaster aims “to cut through history and blur the boundaries between bodies and architecture”. It is interesting to meditate on the use of historical references to legitimise archetypal notions of masculinity in contexts such as saunas and bars.

As a reflection on what we have lost as a community, the show sparkles a conversation on the need for activism: the only way to push towards a more inclusive society is to promote our local LGBTQ+ venues and artists. ‘Queer Spaces‘ is a small exhibition but put together in a smart way, which will make me persist in my believe that art institutions can have a crucial role for social change.

London Lesbian & Gay Centre Flyer’, 1987. Courtesy of Hall-Carpenter Archives and UCL Urban Laboratory.
Soroya Michelle performing on the stage at Royal Vauxhall Tavern‘, 2018. Ph: Léa Le Attentive. Courtesy of Léa Le Attentive.

Queer Spaces: London, 1980s-Today‘ is running at Whitechapel Gallery, Galleries 4 until 25th August. For more info about events and upcoming exhibitions, visit the website.

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