The reopening of the Whitechapel Gallery after two long years of closure is something to celebrate. Not merely because the elegant new arrangement of the gallery and its lottery-funded expansion into the famous old library next door have been handled impeccably. Good architecture is the least we should expect from this resource-devouring effort. More important than the lovely architectural moments of transition and reclamation you now find here is the raw, crude, lumpen fact that London’s East End has been in serious need of the Whitechapel. Why? For the same sorts of reason that sinking ships need lifeboats.
The East End was once the brightest location in British art. It was where the liveliest artists lived and the liveliest galleries operated. But see how grimly it has aged. These days, the Hoxton-to-Whitechapel square mile is a squalid pleasure zone for the faithless urban slacker. The serious galleries have either moved out or grown unserious. The squalor has become so expensive, only nincompoops can afford it. And, most catastrophically of all, the sense of purpose that was once so tangible here – to change art, change Britain, change the world – has turned into slime like a wrap of cocaine dropped drunkenly into a Brick Lane puddle. The East End has lost it. The Whitechapel is the only hope.
Certainly, the first clutch of shows in the refurbished Whitechapel spaces bodes well for the future. I fully admire the fact that instead of lining up a set of obvious mega-names for the opening – they might, for instance, have gone for Jeff Koons – the Whitechapel has flirted instead with worthiness and unveiled a selection of thought-provoking displays themed loosely around issues of political presentation and architectural impact. There is a cerebral tone to these shows, as if some of the dusty intelligence of the old Whitechapel Library has refused to be evicted from its former spaces and continues to haunt the premises.
That is most true of Goshka Macuga’s anal but impish evocation of a universal committee room. You must know the kind of space I mean. Local councils hold their planning meetings in them. Post-Soviet states have their parliaments in them. The United Nations votes for war in them. Characterised by dull expanses of wood and glass, these creepy decision-making spaces manage to combine a sparse Nordic simplicity, quite close to minimalist chic, with a thick atmosphere of doomy political pretension.
Macuga’s Whitechapel installation is about all such spaces in general, but in particular it is about the Security Council Chamber at the United Nations in New York, where Colin Powell made his infamous call for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq in 2003. When Powell announced that the West had no choice but to go to war because Iraq was hoarding weapons of mass destruction, he should have had hanging on a wall nearby him a tapestry of Guernica, Picasso’s famous antiwar painting, which had hung on this very spot at the UN for 20 years. On this occasion, however, Guernica had been covered with a bright-blue curtain. Someone had decided that its message was inappropriate.
As it happens, Guernica and the Whitechapel Gallery also have a history. In 1939, the painting was shown at the gallery as part of its global tour to raise awareness about the situation in Spain. There is a famous photo of Clement Attlee standing in front of Guernica, making the opening speech. So Macuga, in an act of complex exhibition deviousness, has borrowed the original tapestry that Powell should have seen at the United Nations and made it the focus of a carefully crafted Guernica chamber that seems, at first sight, to be celebrating the painting’s past relationship with the Whitechapel, but actually probes the bleak horse-trading that goes on between art and propaganda.