Ocula talked with Scott Wright about what defines a ‘Victoria Miro’ artist, the state of the market, Frieze and past, present and possible future shows.
The gallery acts for a roster of some of the most well known artists today: Isaac Julien, Grayson Perry, Peter Doig, Yayoi Kusama and Chris Ofili to name a few. Is there a particular quality that defines a ‘Victoria Miro’ artist?
It is interesting. When Victoria and I talk about the program and the artists we are interested in and the artists we are considering taking on, we always feel it is an intuitive process. We always take the long view and when we decide to work with a new artist it is done slowly and with great care, first and foremost we both have to have a real love and connection to the work.
It is almost a question that is better answered by someone outside of the process, someone who brings more objectivity. One of our artists actually pointed out to me about six or seven years ago that “Victoria Miro artists tend to be imagists”. And maybe there is something in that.
You currently have a solo show of Alice Neel’s painting at the Mayfair space, and solo shows of Wangechi Mutu and Eric Fischl at Wharf Road. Was there a particular reason you wanted to show their work at the same time during Frieze week?
The shows are very contrasting. There was certainly no attempt to combine these exhibitions particularly or to create a dialogue. We simply felt they were the strongest bodies of work that we could present during this important London season.
You are also showing Yayoi Kusama’s Bronze Pumpkins at Wharf Road, and one was included in Frieze’s Sculpture Park. Kusama’s show Infinite Obsession will continue to tour Central and South America during 2015. Kusama of course is one of the most well known artists globally, but to what extent has the Central and South America tour introduced something new about her work?
In relation to Kusama, there are two going on in the world at the moment; the other is in Asia. In terms of the South American tour, what this did most importantly is introduce a new audience to her work. She has never shown in a significant way in South America before, and the exhibition has had over two million visitors, and generated screeds of articles, which have been read by an even wider audience. So many people have been discovering her work for the first time. Kusama is someone who has a truly global audience and collector base. Her work has a type of universal language, so it appeals to the young and the old and to people who are very sophisticated and know a lot about art history and what is going on, as well as to people who have never looked at art before.
Those are huge numbers for Kusama’s show, but the gallery itself also receives relatively substantial numbers of visitors. I heard that for Francesca Woodman’s show, you had up to 500 visitors in a day.
Francesca Woodman was in our Mayfair gallery in September and the numbers of visitors was extraordinary. Our exhibitions in our Wharf Road spaces, which are much larger and more institutional in scale, generally attract larger audiences. Our record to date was Grayson Perry and Sarah Sze’s solo exhibitions in the summer of 2012 which were visited by 30,000 people!
It is interesting Francesca Woodman’s work received so much attention here. I always felt she was an artist’s artist.
The critical response to the exhibition in the media was also very positive and I think you are right that early on she was an artist’s artist. But that has changed. I mean the first show that we did was in our old Mayfair space at Cork Street—about 15 years ago when she was just starting to be known outside the art world—and then mostly artists attended that show. For this exhibition, we had student parties arriving by the coach load. She really has a huge public following and it was amazing to see so many people engaging with her work.
The numbers of people who visit the gallery’s shows are akin to institutional shows. Is there any sense of responsibility or pressure to deliver a show that is institutional in a way?
What we aim to do is produce great shows for our artists and because of the scale of the galleries they are able to be very ambitious and often produce new bodies of work that are conceived especially for the spaces. The shows are very much the product of a dialogue with each artist. As Victoria always says “artists do what they have to do. As a gallerist, you can advise them but you cannot ever get in the way of the work”. We hope that comes across. So when we showed Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room—he said he wanted to do a show of 13 new paintings and he wanted to work with his friend the architect David Adjaye and they had this idea to build a room in the gallery. Now looking back at that, it seems like an institutional show, but that was actually never the departure point. The departure point was talking to an artist and wanting to do the best show that we possibly could do with him. The artists come up with the ideas, and we act as the facilitator. For our first exhibition with Elmgreen & Dragset in 2008 they created their remarkable show Too Late and transformed the gallery into a gay disco after the party ended during Frieze week; or Isaac Julien’s seven-screen installation Playtime which premiered here in January, where part of the story and film was located in the gallery in which it was shown. Grayson Perry’s iconic Walthamstow Tapestry was conceived for our top floor gallery space. I could go on, but it is a very rewarding and generous spirited way of working with the artists and has resulted in remarkable works.
The Francesca Woodman show did feel like it had an institutional element to it. It was tightly curated about a specific aspect of her work.
That is right. I think it is good you picked up on that. The temptation with Woodman, because she has a large, rich and defined body of work—and this is usually what people do when they do a show about her—they select and present groups of work from distinct periods: from Rome, then the fashion photographs from New York and then the works she created from the period in Providence, Rhode Island. But for this show, we worked closely with George and Betty Woodman and the estate’s curator Katarina Jerinic who along with one of our Exhibition Directors, Rachel Taylor—who recently joined the gallery having been a curator at the Tate— devised this exhibition and they were looking at a particular formal concern, the zigzag. This was very different than shows that had gone before and has resulted in people looking at the work from a new and fresh perspective, more in formal rather that biographical terms.
What was the gallery’s experience of Frieze like this year?
Frieze has been our best fair. We do twelve fairs a year and Frieze is the fair that we do consistently best at—partly because we are on home turf. We do both the fairs: Frieze London and Frieze Masters. And we have three shows, often four shows during the fair. What differentiates Frieze from other fairs is that a lot of the other fairs are regional, whereas Frieze is truly international. It is like Basel in Switzerland, which is also truly international. Interestingly Tate always hold their regional committee meetings during Frieze week—whether it’s their Latin American committee, African committee or Asian committee—because it coincides with people coming to London. They all fly in during this week and are engaged in London.
What did the gallery show at FIAC?
At FIAC in Paris last week we presented a three-person stand, showing Secundino Hernández, Idris Khan and Yayoi Kusama. We had pretty much sold out within the first four hours, it was the busiest it has ever been.
Where do you feel the markets are going?
It’s an interesting question. Twenty years ago the market was tiny. It was Western Europe and North America. And by North America, I mean just New York and Chicago. I think it was Jeffrey Deitch who said that in the late eighties there were 500 people in the art world, and no more. Now it is so completely different. We have to think about all these new markets. And that is why we have to do so many art fairs.
The East is of huge interest to us. Simon Kirby is working for us and he is permanently based in Hong Kong. He has lived in China and speaks Mandarin and was formerly with the British Council in China, so has a strong network of contacts and is developing interesting opportunities, both in terms of our collector base but also institutional projects and commissions for our artists in China. I travel to South America quite a bit. We represent two artists who live there, Adriana Varejão and Maria Nepomuceno, so that is always a reason to go and see them.
In the Middle East—we didn’t sell anything five years ago, and we now are selling a lot of work there. The latest and most significant piece we placed there was Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room - Filled with the Brilliance of Life, which was acquired by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. They are about to do the first ever show with works from the collection and they are including this work which opens on 5 November.
Do you think that means your artists need to always resonate on a global level?
I think great art should always have some type of universal language—it should be able to transgress political and geographical boundaries. That is part of its appeal; that it can speak to different people and cultures.
I feel that ability to resonate both personally, locally, but more widely in a universal way, relates particularly to the work of Wangechi Mutu, who you are showing at Wharf Road?
Yes. She is taking the vocabulary she grew up with and she is using that to translate it into something else. It is a little bit different: the work is both political and subversive, and she is certainly telling her own stories, but it is also very beautiful.—[O]