Homeless art

At Somerset House in London, some of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary artists aim to tackle homelessness in an unordinary art exhibition. Tracey Emin, Anthony Gormley, Jonathan Yeo, among others, are responding to issues of isolation, property, security and space.

Nathan Coley

In March, The Crisis, Britain’s national charity for homeless people, organized the Crisis Commission exhibition at Somerset House in London. The exhibition offers a unique representation of some of Britain’s finest contemporary artists. Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Gillian Wearing, Nathan Coley, Anthony Caro, Nika Neelova, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Bob and Roberta Smith, Gilliam Wearing and Jonathan Yeo, have produced and donated their very recent works. Yet the entire art displayed at the Crisis Commission is not made by Britain’s finest. Artists who themselves are homeless or in problematic conditions in regards of their housing, have also contributed. Many of them have been trained artists under the Crisis’ own artist programme, offered to homeless people.

Situated in the East Wing Galleries at Somerset House Crisis Commission appears as light and intimate. Because of the fairly small amount of art works exhibited, each work is given a privileged position with plenty of space and air. The political context of the show however creates a peculiar relationship between object and spectator.

Crisis Commission is not an ordinary art exhibition; it is not art for art’s sake. The art is made and exhibited for the sake of charity. A small part of the show was sold at a silent auction during the exhibition. Nevertheless, the largest collection and the perhaps most famous works by Emin, Gormley, Caro, Coley and Wearing, will be auctioned at Christie’s on May the 3rd. Most of the works are valued £3,500 to £150,000 (approximately 32,250–1.4 million NOK). This is money that The Crisis will use to raise awareness about the rise of homelessness in Britain.

Due to the installation of the art Laurence Sillars, curator of the Crisis Commission and chief curator at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, said that ‘I can’t wait to install them in Somerset House for all to enjoy, but also to provoke thought on what it is like not to have a home’.1)

This political ambition makes the Crisis Commission a genuinely excellent project. In a country where the number of homeless people dramatically is growing every month, artists producing art to tackle societal issues, is exceptional.

Tracy Emin: Trust Me (2011)

Making it personal
One of the most celebrated artists at Crisis Commission is Tracey Emin. Emin has become recognized for her personal, intimate and perhaps ‘outlaw’ art installations. In 1999 she was a Turner Prize nominee for her work My Bed, an installation that contained used condoms, dirty underwear, filthy bed linen, cigarette butts, and so forth.2)  These objects make My Bed symbolize a personal space; hence Emin’s personal space. Two years earlier, in 1997, Emin named everyone she had slept with in a tent installation – Everyone I have slept with 1963-1995. The grotesque things involved in the installations and her personal representation of underwear, sexual partners, and so forth, make Emin’s work rather revealing. They create an intimacy with the viewer who, willingly or not, engages with Emin’s personal and ‘unconventional’ life.3)

Her work installed at Crisis Commission appears to have some similar aesthetics. Installed at the middle of the East Wing Galleries at Somerset House, four of Emin’s most recent works are to be viewed. Her pick of four includes two of her body drawings Deep Blue III (2011) and Deep Blue V (2012) and two of her neon light installations Trust Me (2011) and Trust Yourself (2012). The works are created at her East End studio and the drawings were ready only a few weeks before the opening at Somerset House.

Deep Blue III and Deep Blue V are classic Emin works. They are red and blue gouache drawings of the female nude body. Both of them are explicitly exposing their genitalia, and in Deep Blue III the woman appears to be masturbating. Connecting this directly with issues of homelessness becomes difficult, but its representations of the female body and female masturbation certainly touch on concerns of isolation, space and intimacy. Its unconventional view of the sexual female body also challenges the way in which women often are represented in dominant culture.

Emin’s neon lights must be two of the highlights at Crisis Commission. Situated next to the drawings the ‘coral pink’ and ‘super turquoise’ neon lights say ‘trust me’ and ‘trust yourself’. Emin herself has explained the ambition of the lights this way: ‘trust me and trust yourself are words we often say to others and to ourselves. Sometimes such statements need to be reaffirmed. The use of neon makes it all the more positive’.4)

Antony Gormley: Contract (2011)

Sculpture becomes dominant at the Crisis Commission exhibition. British artist Antony Gormley’s contribution to the charity auction is Contract (2011) – a cast iron sculpture denoting a man lying down. In The Guardian Gormley underlines his beliefs in the sculpture’s ability to ‘powerfully evoke the nameless, the voiceless and the placeless’.5)  Contract stimulates all three themes and reinforces a relationship with the spectator who might not only question placeless, but also lack of identification and undetermined silence – subject matters that perhaps homeless people experience everyday on the streets and in shelters.

Another sculptural contribution is Yinka Shonibare’s Homeless Man (2012) – a sculpture of a man who carries his life and burdens in suitcases on top of his back. His head is replaced with a globe and he is dressed in a Victorian Suit of African textiles. The sculpture is vulnerable and seems to tip over any second. This is presumably to symbolize that the distinction between having a home and being homeless balances on a very thin line.

Jonathan Yeo; The Park Bench (2012)

Pastiche painting
In the middle of the East Wing Galleries one can spot Jonathan Yeo’s painting The Park Bench (2012). Referencing Thomas Gainsbourgh’s famous and idyllic portrait Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Yeo provides a melancholic portrait of homelessness in contemporary London by denoting two homeless individuals sitting on a bench in Victoria Park, London.  Contrasting the elite and wealthy couple Gainsbourgh once portrayed, Yeo challenges the status of the traditional portrait. Rather than using it to idealize the sitters, which is one of the ambitions of the portrait, 6) Yeo reproduces the portrait to represent individuals who have fallen outside society.

1)  Sillars quoted in the Crisis Commission press release, 2012. Available at: https://crisis.org.uk/pressreleases.php/472/contemporary-art-greats-unite-for-landmark-exhibition
2) Emin, Merck and Townsend, 2002, The art of Tracey Emin. New York: Thames & Hudson
3) Emin quoted in Guardian, 2012, ‘Homeless is where the art is: the Crisis Commission at Somerset House – in pictures’. Available at https://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/mar/12/homeless-art-crisis-commission-in-pictures#/?picture=387221937&index=3 (accessed 14 April 2012).
4) Gormley quoted in Guardian, 2012, ‘Homeless is where the art is: the Crisis Commission at Somerset House – in pictures’. Available at https://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/mar/12/homeless-art-crisis-commission-in-pictures#/?picture=387221937&index=3 (accessed 14 April 2012).
6)Clarke, Graham, ed., 1992, The Portrait in Photography. London: Reaktion Books.

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