Glass reviews the lastest phase of artworks at the Town Hall Hotel, Bethnal Green
London’s East End has always been a thriving, creative centre – a home to silk weavers, lace-makers and non-conformists – for several centuries. Not least, now in the 21st century, Bethnal Green is highly regarded as home to some of the most exciting artists and artistic developments in the world. Amid the grit and edginess of this locale, lies a successful marriage of creativity and community, best exemplified by a new exhibition in Bethnal Green’s radically redesigned Town Hall Hotel & Apartments.
The genesis of this building as a focal point for the community of East London began in 1910 as an Edwardian town hall. It was considerably extended in 1937. Through the years, this imposing building housed Bethnal Green’s municipal administration but was victim to numerous modifications insensitive to its preservation. It finally fell out of use and was vacated in 1993. Used only as a location for films and television, the building was left to decay in the intervening years until its purchase in 2007 by Singaporean hotelier Peng Loh.
The reinvention and restoration of the existing building by Rare Architecture in 2010 was driven by intensive research of the town hall’s archive of original design elements and realised by numerous highly skilled craftspeople – bringing the building back to its former glorious grandeur – breathing new life into the interiors by highlighting marble floors, ornate moulded ceilings and, not least, the Edwardian and Art Deco detailing.
Serving as a landmark of local democracy and governance for generations, this building now acts as an unparalleled backdrop for some truly exciting, contemporary artworks. For in 2009, the Town Hall hotel began a collaboration with the East London-based arts producers, ArtsAdmin, commissioning a series of artworks by some of the area’s brightest creative talents, thereby mutually fulfilling a desire to support local and emerging artists.
The traditional 1930s Grade II listed building now houses an array of work by those artists involved in the first phase, including pieces by Peter Liversidge and Debbie Lawson. The Phase I works are “sensitive to the context of the hotel, explore the rich history of the Town Hall building itself, as well as Bethnal Green, and look to the future, embracing the local and the global”, say Manick Govinda and Nikki Tomlinson of Artsadmin.
June 2012 saw the opening of Phase II of this arts programme. Whereas the inaugural series of commissions focused on context, locality and history, the second phase thematically explores works that convey the future, embracing exuberance, desire (material and sensual), and the notion of hotels as transitory and utopian sites of pleasure and hyper-mobility.
The resulting commissions are truly conversation pieces. They are intelligent, thought-provoking works referencing, visually and allegorically, themes of landscape, pleasure, romance and leisure, amongst others.
Following an open submission process, the seven artists selected to install the latest works in the hotel are – Bernd Behr, Bethan Lloyd Worthington, Corinne Felgate, Kristian de la Riva, Michaela Nettell, Sarah Baker and Toby Christian. To attest to this marriage of community and creativity, all artists selected had the prerequisite of living or working in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney or Newham, and had to have been making work for no longer than 10 years.
Some highlights include the The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green and His Daughter Bessee de Montfort, by Sarah Baker, which references Bethnal Green folklore. In her explorations of representation and social status, Baker disseminates her artwork unconventionally to heighten the tension between fabrication and authenticity. There appears to be a conscious blurring of the high brow/low brow hierarchy as these portraits allude to the artifice of celebrity culture. This notion is reflected throughout her projects for Town Hall Hotel.
For the hotel’s Do Not Disturb sign, Baker created a pin up-style photographic image of a maid who, when flipped over, suddenly becomes undressed – indicating house-keeping to “please not disturb”. Sarah also has plans to redesign the cardroom keys by creating a series of images of scenarios taking place within the unique spaces of the hotel.
Kristian De La Riva’s 10-minute animated film Tomorrowland didn’t scream “context” like many of the Phase 1 artworks. Using a technique called Rotoscoping, he constructed animations that cross traditional drawing processes with performative elements. Struck by the difficulties of putting contemporary moving images into such a building at Town Hall Hotel, de la Riva created a series of animations which are visions of the future set within the era of the ‘30s and ‘40s mixing the excitement of technological advancements with perhaps a darkening national anxiety. One such animation, The Sensorama, is highly provocative and leaves an oft shocked viewer completely intrigued. Interestingly, these animations are now accessible on the hotel’s very own night time viewing app, only available to download on the hotel site itself.
Echoes by Michaela Nettell is an architectural response to the physical space and context of the hotel. Edwardian public buildings were not renowned for basking corridors in swathes of light. This piece, however, almost literally responds to such a problem. The artist has created a series of large light-boxes on the lower ground corridor that features areas of light encapsulated from other areas of the hotel. Yet, it is the concertina-like interaction of glass and light as the viewer moves through the space which symbolically, and with potency, alludes to a fleeting moment, a memory, a daydream.
Dreaming, folklore, celebrity and animations that incite nostalgia for a fictitious past, as well as references to classical sculpture – such as Toby Christian’s Finger – all combine to equally enhance both the old and new. They throw light on the history and culture of the East End, whilst essentially stirring our consciousness by provoking and questioning, all the while cultivating this radical building with these innovative artworks. by Kate White
Town Hall Hotel Apartments is located on Patriot Square. For further information visit: www.townhallhotel.com
Artsadmin is a unique producing and presenting organisation for contemporary artists working in theatre, dance, live art, visual arts and mixed media. For more information visit: www.artsadmin.co.uk