before the flood


BEFORE THE FLOOD

 

It may have been a Saturday morning that we went to a huge old warehouse in Bermondsey to see the exhibition Gambler. We remember standing talking to Damien Hirst about his cowhead and flies work One Thousand Years whilst Nicholas Serota from the Tate Gallery scowled around the space looking at the rest of the show.
Eventually we went into the back-office where we introduced ourselves to Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman.
“We know Art in Ruins,” said Carl “you made that exhibition at Gimpel Fils with the stuffed animals and kitsch objects … with all those old ladies dashing around the gallery. It was amazing … me, Billee and Damien travelled up on the train from Brighton specially to see it. It was the first exhibition me and Billee had ever seen and we just couldn’t believe it … ”
Unsure whether he was being facetious, we responded
“We were going to cover the floor with straw but realised that we didn’t need to with that carpet … so it was more like a furniture showroom …”

We asked them how long they would have the space for and what their plans were. Carl pulled out what looked like an estate agent’s glossy folder for Building One. Billee said that the brochure was to help with fund-raising to keep the space going long-term. Carl handed us a copy. Inside was a pocket containing promotional material including a list of prospective exhibitions.
“What’s this?” we said.
We were astonished to see Art in Ruins listed as a forthcoming attraction at Building One – “an exhibition of a little-known 70s Italian anarchist group from Turin together with Art in Ruins, curated by Jon Thompson.”
“Who are these Italians?” we asked
They both grinned and said “One’s in prison, one committed suicide and the other one … ”
“So you’re planning to do a show of Art in Ruins with a bunch of dead anarchists …” we protested.
“We see you as the punks of the 80s … ” said Carl.
“We’re too old now for all that stuff” we joked “you need to be working with younger artists …”
“No, we’re going to do it.” they said, confidently. 1

A few days later, Billee rang and invited us to a party at their terraced house somewhere in the far reaches of the desolate Docklands. It took ages to get to, and by the time we arrived the house was full of a cross-section of the ‘next new generation of young British artists.’ Billee took us to one side and said “I’m going to sit you next to Matthew Slotover. He has just come into some money and he is interested in starting an art magazine and it would be good if you would talk to him about it.”

We soon found ourselves sitting next to Matthew who explained that he didn’t know anything about art but he knew Billee and Carl and it seemed like a good time to start a new art magazine. The problem was, he said, that everyone he talked to about the idea “was enthusiastic but would not commit themselves to doing anything for it until they had seen a copy … or two.” We laughed.
“How do you start a magazine if nobody’s going to take a risk until the magazine is a success …” he went on “… Billee suggested that I talk to you.”
“Well, we’ll do something for it”
“Maybe an interview?” he asked
“Not in the first issue … we should write something.”
We then told him to tell everyone he met that Art in Ruins were involved with his new magazine and confidently predicted that they would soon fall over each other to contribute to its success.

 

Frieze Pilot Issue Summer 1991 Cover

 

Over the next few weeks we met up with Matthew and Tom Gidley, mostly at the YMCA in Tottenham Court Road, to talk about the magazine. At first, Matthew wanted it to include ‘art for sale’, but we persuaded him it was not such a good idea. He decided to feature artists’ projects instead. We remember we talked about the ‘suburban sublime’ of Richard Prince, décor colour-field paintings with second-hand second-rate jokes. Matthew and Tom came to the opening of Recent History and we introduced them to Critical Décor, Rachel Evans and Mariko Mori. 2

We came up with our ‘conceptual’ review of Art & Language at the ICA, The Seduction of Resistant Virgins; David and Toby documented a bantering sparring-match with Damien Hirst. We don’t recall any actual launch for the Pilot Issue of Frieze but when it appeared sometime in the summer of 1991, we were pleased to find that Art & Language had entered into the spirit of our review, defending their position in response … in a completely unknown context. 3 Sadly however, the ‘chaotic’ interview with Damien Hirst by Critical Décor was replaced by a straight interview by Stuart Morgan.

The next time we met Matthew we commented “we see that Stuart Morgan has taken over the magazine ……?”
“We are taking his advice …” he replied
“So, you won’t be doing an interview with Art in Ruins now” we said. 4
“Of course we will” replied Matthew.

 
 

Art in Ruins went to Berlin and Frieze took off. After a few issues, we met Matthew again.
“It’s just amazing, I now get invited everywhere to be on discussion panels talking about new art … like I’m an expert” he laughed.
“Just another charlatan …” we replied
A few days later we got a phone call from Carl Freedman. He had been asked by Matthew to do an interview with Art in Ruins and so we arranged to meet up in Soho. Sitting at a table on the pavement of a café the following day, Carl turned up looking annoyed. 5 He sat down.
“What have we met here for?” he asked, looking around suspiciously.
“It’s a sunny day” we replied
“I’ve just spent the weekend in the countryside with David and Toby, eating magic mushrooms” he announced, putting on his sunglasses. 6 He was clearly uncomfortable.
“Why does a young hip magazine like Frieze want an interview with Art in Ruins?” he demanded belligerently.
“We have no idea” we replied, and left.

The following day we rang Matthew who was surprised.
“I asked Carl to do the interview because I thought you would get on.” he said.
Shortly after, we got a large sheet of brown paper covered in ranting scribble in the post from Carl. We sent it on to Matthew and suggested that he reproduce it as an ‘artists’ project’ in Frieze with the title “This could have been an interview with Art in Ruins …7

 

Art in Ruins
Photo: Richard Billingham

 

NOTES
1 We have since lost the brochure but are sure that a copy exists somewhere in the archive of Gimpel Fils, as Billee and Carl went to see René Gimpel. He agreed to fund a catalogue for our exhibition, but declined to sponsor the space; something which may have had some influence on Carl’s subsequent attitude to Art in Ruins; since as it turned out, neither the colour brochure nor Billee, Carl and Damien’s enthusiasm was sufficient to persuade enough sponsors for Building One to continue to be viable long term.
2 Critical Décor contributed an artists’ project to the Pilot Issue; Mariko Mori to Issue 1 which also featured Richard Prince: and Rachel Evans to Issue 3.
3 In Lucky Kunst, (Aurum Press, London 2009) self-confessed art groupie Gregor Muir, unwilling to mention Art in Ruins by name, documents his outrage that ‘some people were still arguing about Art & Language’ in the first issue of a new art magazine, and his subsequent complaint to Matthew Slotover; who in response invited him to contribute to Frieze himself. Having thus made the transition to art critic, he then, as a curator, went on to work with … Critical Décor, Mariko Mori, et al.
4 (Almost) everyone’s favourite art critic Stuart Morgan designated Art in Ruins as charlatans very early on and treated us with the contemptuous disdain of a committed dilettante.
5 By this time, Building One had come to an end; Damien Hirst had commenced his artworld ascent and Billee Sellman had disappeared to Los Angeles; leaving Carl Freedman in limbo at this point.
6 Carl became good friends with Critical Décor and went on to include them in Minky Manky at South London Gallery, and Critical Décor were the inaugural show at the Carl Freedman Gallery.
7 We finally did an interview with a random stranger which was eventually published by Occasional Papers with Eva Weinmayr (London 2010) and which soon sold out. See /trust-us/

 

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