Getting to Newham’s Thamesmead Industrial Estate from South London feels like a sort of pilgrimage. The journey, consisting of buses, overground and DLR trains, culminates in me and my friends weaving single file down narrow pavements bordered by grey blocks and shipping containers, finally locating our destination by the sounds of life beyond its gates. Indeed, once you ascend the stairs and enter the first room of Thorp Stavri’s new group exhibition, The Factory Project, the space does take on a quality akin to the religious; the converted warehouse, this afternoon flooded with sunlight, colour, and visitors, proving impressive before one even begins to admire the work on show.
Thorp Stavri is the joint venture of Eric Thorp and Nicholas Stavri, a duo committed to platforming, developing, and supporting artists’ practices, and increasing the accessibility of art. The Factory Project, a free admission, museum scale-exhibition intended to ‘complement and complete’ London’s Frieze week, fuses that constellation of curatorial ambitions into a single event. Bucking industry elitism, the exhibition plays hosts to 10 independent, UK-based curators each at different stages in their career, producing their own shows within the larger site and platforming upward of 100 artists in the process. Working in a vast array of disciplines, these creatives are themselves a mix of established names and emerging talents, showcased shoulder to shoulder, without a hint of hierarchy.
This subversion of industry norms – rejecting a sense of precious ownership and prioritisation; a distinct pecking order – is something Pacheanne Anderson, one of the curators selected as part of the Project, seeks to actively address in their practice. “I want to work as much as I can outside of the institution,” he told me, a conviction reinforced upon learning of the site’s status as a former Tate & Lyle factory. The company, founded by sugar magnate Henry Tate, has a history tightly intertwined with that of the the art world, with Tate having founded his namesake network of galleries with a fortune amassed from this industry so rooted in chattel slavery. Subverting the troubled legacy of the site itself and disrupting the oft-exclusionary art establishment thus became twinned ambitions for Anderson when selecting artists. “When I found out what this space was used for before I was hesitant…but then I thought, how can I reform it”? The answer he settled on was simple; “taking up space, reimagining [the location’s] meaning and purpose just by us being there”. The resulting show, Scratching The Surface – featuring work by seven artists, the majority of whom are people of colour – is an “inquiry into aspects of portraiture which assess and thus reveal the true essence of human nature”.
I asked oil painter Sam Wootton, one of Scratching the Surface’s featured artists, whether that assessment of his subjects’ ‘essence’ is at the forefront of his mind when creating. His exhibited work, comprising portraits of friends, skaters and rappers, draws together perhaps the most traditional fine art discipline with modern youth culture. “It’s an over-romanticisation, I think, when artists speak about portraiture as a way of getting to know someone intimately”, he tells me. “If anything, picking them apart, that de-assembly isn’t necessarily conducive to deeper understanding. Our truest perception of someone is often best gleaned from our first interactions, before we start compartmentalising each other”. For Wootton then, the process of portraiture is less a ‘scratching [of] the surface’ in an individual sense, more a reflection of the ways we attempt, and often fail, to understand each other through such close observation. I can’t help but agree as I watch another of Anderson’s selected works, a live performance wherein artist Holly Jackson, enclosed in a box with arm and face holes, silently goes about her morning routine before a crowd of onlookers. The almost slapstick silliness of the piece holds a mirror up to how ridiculous we can feel when we expose ourselves to others, indulging that all too human urge to be seen. Tonally, it treads the line of tragicomedy; murmured laughter punctuated the piece from the audience I was part of. Between performances, Jackson tells me, she sometimes sheds a tear.
This strange playfulness, an absurdity bridging the light-hearted and the sinister, extends into the Estate’s courtyard, where a series of freestanding door frames, each transformed by a different artist, feel oddly familiar. I immediately think of knock-down-ginger and the door into Narnia – I hear someone else point out their resemblance to the children’s doors used for harvesting fear in ‘Monsters, Inc’. Having stepped through, scrawled on, and rang the bells of these various thresholds (the latter, I’m told, sounds somewhere inside the main exhibition hall, spooking everyone who passes), one is greeted by the offerings of Skip Gallery, a curatorial platform which presents artwork inside a series of industrial skips.
Inside are some of the most memorable pieces on show at The Factory Project, due in part to the clever irony of the curatorial concept itself – quite literally subverting the notion of art on a pedestal by lowering it into vessels usually reserved for refuse – and the ways in which the artists have incorporated said vessels into the pieces themselves. “That’s every wee lad’s dream” my friend smiles as we approach Dion Kitson’s Ballpit, the skip filled to overflowing with footballs old and new, an estimation – I imagine –of all those lost over fences and atop roofs during years of boyhood kickabouts. The artist himself plucks a ball from the piece and begins dribbling it around the courtyard, telling us that he envisioned, and even encourages, people nicking them as they leave. Another skip contains an altogether darker piece, Hayden Kays’ Snitch, which needs to be seen in the flesh to avoid being spoiled.
Stepping into the third and final space of The Factory Project – an enormous warehouse housing the majority of works on show – there’s a bustling, circus atmosphere here on opening day. Amidst the remaining skips one finds performers in drag, reading aloud and posing questions to the audience; in the centre of the room, an audio piece composed in real time is accompanied by interpretive dancers; everywhere one turns, a catsuited man slinks between sculptures on rollerblades, trailing a big red balloon behind him. Small crowds dot the space, some gathered around these performances, others before video installations, photographs, and paintings. Indeed, this exhibition is as much for those who enjoy the quiet contemplation of traditional and fine art disciplines as those who’d prefer watching a woman bounce on a trampoline whilst puppeteering a rubber skeleton. With a balance of humour and solemnity, irony and earnestness, The Factory Project does what it sets out to achieve, providing a space for communion between all manner of curators, artists, and art lovers, the latter of whom are bound to find within it some familiar names, as well as new ones to watch.
The Factory Project is open 12-6pm daily until the 22nd of October. Book here.