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Frank Lebon at Soft Opening
Frank Lebon at Soft OpeningPhotography Rosie Marks

This new London gallery will challenge your idea of what an art space is

Curator Antonia Marsh launches a new, permanent space inside a central London tube station called Soft Opening

Alternative spaces as a catalyst for art projects is nothing new. Skips have been transformed into galleries and a former gun workshop even turned its hand towards contemporary installations. Yet, in the hands of curator Antonia Marsh, a special kind of artistic rebellion is taking place in the most unexpected of places; a central London tube station.

Soft Opening, based in the heart of London’s commercial art world, is deconstructing our notion of what an arts space is. Set in a storefront inside Piccadilly Circus tube station – amidst a backdrop of tourists, commuters, straggling Thursday night party people and school kids on their way to a class trip – Soft Opening will see a monthly exhibition of some of the most exciting and certainly urgent artists of the international art scene. With plans for a ‘part two’ extension based in Marsh’s own home, Soft Opening might prove to be one of the most audacious art ‘openings’ in the city – a feat considering there’s no need to ever set foot in the space itself.

Marsh’s reputation for creating instantly provocative and community centred makeshift shows has followed her around the globe. Groundbreaking residency programmes such as Girls Only, suitcase shows in different hotels around the world, as well as curatorial shows titled, Toilet Humour and Send More Nudes are emblematic of the DIY attitude at the heart of Marsh’s practice. As Soft Opening prepares to ‘open’ with its first show (from Chicago-born, New York-based artist Matt Hilvers), we caught up with the curator/gallery owner to find out more.

Can you tell me more about Soft Opening and how it came about?

Antonia Marsh: It really started because I was looking for a bigger space. It had got to the point where I had done 30 something shows and pretty much all of them bar one had been in a different space. So I had this urge to mix it up, see what happens in shows when you don’t change the variables and give artists a more stable infrastructure that allows you to work with them in more depth. Whilst this was all happening I was getting the tube through Piccadilly and I kept noticing these little window display spaces. I’d previously seen this in New York where they already had these department store style windows where artists put their artwork in and I thought it'd be interesting to put work in there rather than advertising.

With Girls Only, I had a show in Old Street underground and the people seeing it were people who didn't expect to see art in that context. What made the idea of Piccadilly Circus tube so interesting and cool because is that there’s such a mix. There is a baggage shop, there’s a key cutters, an old watch repair place, a cupcake shop…. and also Piccadilly is right in the heart of the commercial art world. We started looking into it. I wanted to know how hard it was to get these spaces; what are the regulations; how open are TfL to more experimental projects? We started filling in all the paperwork and bureaucracy, all the applications, and we took our time with it. We didn’t have any expectations and one day it just randomly pulled through.

What do you think this kind of display says about art and the art industry?

Antonia Marsh: It’s certainly made me ask questions. What happens to an art work when you see it behind glass? Or, what happens when you put it in a shop space, a space that is associated with commodity culture? In that way, it’s a nod to or critique of the commercial art world, definitely. Soft Opening is also coming at a point in my career when I’m advising collectors a lot more and it’s becoming a lot more commercial. It gets to a place where you’re getting older and you need to pay the bills, so it’s a little self-reflexive in that way.

There’s also this potential to have the Soft Opening space for three years and that’s great for me. Rather than having a gallery space which I have to tend to and manage, all day every day, I’ve got this experimental space which is far more freeing. In terms of programming, it’s good practice because I can book in an artist every month. In that way, I can be a lot more current and urgent in terms of what I’m programming, and the artists I want to work with, I can immediately work with.

The audience is really important too. It leads on to the conversation about all the learned behaviours in an art context. Six million people go through Piccadilly Circus every year. People make a conscious choice to go into an art gallery, but, putting it in a tube station, everyone has to see it. It’s no longer a choice because it’s just there. While this gives you the opportunity to communicate things to a wider audience, there are also things you have to consider. There are loads of rules with TfL about what you can and can’t put out there. We so easily rest on our laurels on what can be considered controversial or radical art practice. Yet, with Soft Opening, there are children walking past so you can’t have any nudity. Equally, some people are more conservative than others and it’s important to be respectful of that. However, it’s equally as important for artists to be radical in their practice. You have to take a nuanced approach: remaining accessible without coming across as condescending to your audience.

“I can be a lot more current and urgent in terms of what I’m programming” – Antonia Marsh

So challenging the idea of what an art space can be is an important component to Soft Opening?

Antonia Marsh: Yes! I love walking along the street and seeing art in a space I didn't expect. I want people and artists to see Soft Opening and think, why am I seeing the artwork I associate with a gallery on the tube? What’s that about? I think it’s really exciting to be going on the tube and suddenly being confronted with the language you associate with an art gallery. It’s not something you’d expect to see whilst you’re out and about your commute. We’re not prepared for it, so the hope is that there will be more of an organic response to it. We’re not conditioned by the conventions of the gallery.

I also want to make evident and break down all the constructs we have around the white cube. I’ve put these three white walls behind a pane in the middle of a tube station. We’re making it so obvious that this is the facade and it raises questions about how artificial the constructs of the art world are.

Part of Soft Opening will see some of the shows also taking place in your home. What’s the idea behind this?

Antonia Marsh: Part of the joy of this project is that you can’t have any actual exhibition openings inside the station. It’s an ideal space for me because you can lock it up and sod off. Essentially it’s almost like, “Ok, we’re done, bye!” Obviously, that’s only one side of it and it is really important to engage with people for an art show and interact with an audience. In Piccadilly Circus underground station there will be so many people walking by the space and I wanted to think about what could be the complete opposite of that?

So it felt right that some of the shows we’re doing will have a ‘second part’ in my house. Those two things opposing one another feel really productive and challenging. This pops up a lot in LA and New York, but really the idea is nothing new in terms of exhibition history. Hans-Ulrich Obrist famously curated his first show in his kitchen. I think that you do behave completely differently in a show in someone’s house because you don't really know how to react. It’s an intimate social reaction, whereas if you don’t know me... how would that inform your behaviour when seeing the art? It’s all an experiment so we’ll see what happens.

You’ve got a great selection of artists for Soft Opening. Frank Lebon has been in the space for the past month, and you’re about to launch the first show, Matt Hilvers’ Whistling in the DarkTell us about Frank and Matt’s shows.

Antonia Marsh: Due to the fact that we’ve had the space since January, before the opening we wanted to warm it up a bit. Frank stepped up like a legend and shot from the inside of the space to the outside where you can see the passing commuters. Taking its title “Daily Commute” from a poem Frank wrote years before, we showed the video hidden behind his signature tracing paper across all the windows bar a small slit next to his poem. It almost ended up like a weird kind of peepshow. I think the viewer immediately becomes unsure as to whether they are also being filmed or photographed, so there’s this fascinating double take that enables Frank to engage with his interests in surveillance. 

By contrast, Matt Hilvers’ show considers God and spirituality. Matt has rented this 0800 number that you can call for “spiritual advice", and the video on the monitors in the space function as a dance-video-cum-advertisement for the number. There’s also an option to speak to Matt directly when the recording ends and the line diverts directly to his own phone. We’re trying to engage with the language of advertising in a lot of the shows because of the nature of the space so the number rental plus the video itself really taps into that.

The best bit is that the show opens on the 15th (February) but we’re not having an official opening – it’s in a tube station after all. Plus, the space is so tiny that it feels nicer for people just to see the work in their own time and have a personal, intimate response to it. People rarely look at the artwork at openings anymore. They just party, which is totally important too but for me, I’d rather create an environment where people actually talk about the work. Sometimes I do love going to openings but it’s just a massive relief that I don’t have to organise one every month. It’s something different; it’s experimenting and playing with something that hasn’t been played with before.

Who are some of the other artists you’ve got on board for Soft Opening?

Antonia Marsh: Theo White is next up. He’s a stylist primarily but he put this self-titled zine out last year that explores the black male, gay experience. He’s about to start putting together the second issue and I think it feels like a good time for him to start promoting it. Not to mention that I think the art direction, styling, imagery of the shoots he works on is fucking amazing. He’s going to put together a bedroom installation and look at the ‘mandem’ and the ‘rudeboy’ with the whole idea being to play with softening tropes of masculinity through clothing. We’ve also got Grace Ahlbom and Ariana Papademetropoulos from LA, and Claire Barrow, whose art I love and avidly collect. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

I’ve also got a spare room at mine, so alongside Soft Opening the artists are gonna stay and do a mini-residency programme in my flat. So that’s another complexity. I already did a residency programme with Girls Only and now I’m doing it again. I can’t stay away. Which is great because it means artists from further afield can really get involved in their work for a show, and get to know the space a bit better before they decide what’s going to go in there. With a space like Soft Opening, I think that’s a huge plus.

How have your previous projects like Girls Only helped to shape Soft Opening?

Antonia Marsh: In terms of my practice more broadly, Soft Opening is the maturing of that radical impetus that was behind Girls Only. In terms of its curatorial methodology, Girls Only was concerned with understanding how a residency programme for young female artists might function depending on what each artist needs from a space or a curatorial initiative in each city. There’s still a drive similar to that with Soft Opening. What do my artists need; what can we break down here; what can we rethink? Even if the project looks different and feels different, it still comes from the same place.

“It’s something different; it’s experimenting and playing with something that hasn’t been played with before” – Antonia Marsh

You’ve got an amazing legacy of female artists and practitioners like Maria Eichorn and Mierle Laderman Ukeles who have both played with the idea of the gallery space. What curators and artists have inspired your practice?

Antonia Marsh: The answer changes all the time. There’s a curator called Alison Gingeras who recently curated a show called Sex Work at Frieze – which was amazing. Marcia Tucker who founded the New Museum in New York is a massive hero, utterly dedicated to innovative art and artists who haven’t yet received significant exposure or recognition. Also, I always bang on about this but Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas did this project called The Shop where they rented a shop on Bethnal Green road and put in all this shit art that was made by their mates and sold it. I love that attitude. You’re not denying the artwork but instead, it’s playing with it and poking fun at it. It’s just a bit of fun.

There are, of course, important and serious questions being raised by a lot of the work, but at the same time, the point of Soft Opening is not about taking ourselves so seriously. It’s meant to be freeing rather than solemn. But with everything, there has got to be a balance. Whilst you have to find a place for contemplation and self-reflection, there’s no harm in doing that with a bit of humour or a little wink. That’s really what Soft Opening is about.

Soft Opening launches 15 February 2018 inside the Piccadilly Circus underground. Whistling in the Dark runs from 15 February – 11 March 2018