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7th July 2017

Anything is Possible: Q&A with Jemima Burrill

Jemima Burrill is the curator and creative mastermind behind experimental art space NOW Gallery. She’s also an artist, performer and maker of videos, copper etchings, photographs and “things with a dark domestic edge.” An interview with Jemima is easy: there’s no shortage of things to talk about. 

Jemima is the founding curator of NOW Gallery. A glistening glass-fronted gallery designed by Marks Barfield Architects (the practice behind the London Eye and the recently opened i360 observation tower in Brighton), the space opened in 2014. NOW Gallery is rather special. Situated on Greenwich Peninsula – the subject of a £8.4bn urban regeneration project that, over the coming 20 years, aims to create a new London district that shall house a community of 34,000 people – NOW Gallery provides artists and designers with an experimental space to develop ideas and create work that they would not usually have the time, space or financial support to develop. The resulting installations are highly immersive and experimental. 

NOW Gallery refuses to limit itself by discipline: the space is not a fashion gallery, nor an art gallery, nor an institution dedicated to design. Instead it is something in between. The gallery presents three major solo exhibitions every year, each curated by Jemima with further exhibitions and NOW Laters curated by Kaia Charles. The line-up of past exhibitors is impressive and includes fashion designers Phoebe English and Molly Goddard; artists Alex Chinneck and Robert Orchardson; and designers Simon Heijdens and Something and Son.

Now Gallery: Molly Goddard
On 14 July 2017, NOW Gallery will open its doors to WALALA X PLAY, an immersive installation by Camille Walala. Described by Jemima as “like a giant zebra rushing across a red desert,” WALALA X PLAY is a three-dimensional, maze that comprises a labyrinthine network of passageways and enclosed spaces, decorated in Camille’s distinctive bold and colourful patterns.

Ahead of WALALA X PLAY launching in July, Zetteler sat down with Jemima to discuss her world as an artist and curator. In the conversation that follows Jemima recalls what stood out about Camille’s proposal, her concerns about escalating tuition fees, and why it’s important not to take yourself too seriously.

Previous exhibitions hosted at Now Gallery have all had an immersive aspect in which the viewer is encouraged to take an active role. Why is this level of audience engagement important? 
Our gallery is part of a community on Greenwich Peninsula, new people are coming into the area all the time as the flats are built around us and we are involved in the local primary school and flag up what we do to the existing community in Greenwich Millenium Village. In this vein we feel that NOW Gallery should be grounded in where is it is. When we ask a designer or an artist to come up with an idea for an installation we ask them to look at their surroundings. What is unique about here, the light, the fact that we are surrounded by water, our industrial history these topics have tended towards more interactive exhibitions. The wonderful thing about the Brick Making by Something & Son’s for example was that the idea of brick-making came from the history of the peninsula, but got everyone coming in and making a brick. People took part, they made an object which was the same as all the others but each looked slightly different. The exhibition changed all the time. This seemed an interesting model and Molly Goddard ran with this theme creating 7 metre dresses which everyone and anyone could embroider on. The flow of people coming into the gallery worked well encouraging people to come to the peninsula, but it also encourage chat. People sat around to sew and took time out of their busy day to do something different, they also had time to chat to their neighbouring sewer too.  NOW Gallery through more interactive installations hopes to produce that opportunity to be in a space and take time, rather than have a quick look, we hope to create an experience.

You’re an artist in your own right, working across multiple disciplines. How does being an artist yourself affect your approach to curation and how you collaborate with exhibitors? 
I draw at home. Drawing is quite a solitary existence, which I enjoy, but I also feel lucky to be able to curate and connect with people. I have always been interested in a diverse approach to creativity and making. I make films and do performances and am aware of the multi-faceted nature of art and making. This is precisely why, when I put in the proposal for NOW Gallery, I specified that it would exhibit the work of designers, fashion designers and artists. We try to exhibit the work of creatives who might not necessarily have the opportunity to make work for a large gallery space. Approaching a fashion designer and saying “here is a space, what do you want to do with it?” has been a revealing experience. 
Swim. Courtesy of Galerie Houg.
NOW Gallery “provides artists and designers with a place for investigation, and space to develop ideas to create an unprecedented artwork they would not usually have the opportunity to develop.” Why is this important?
Everyone needs an opportunity to be creative outside of their own world. NOW Gallery is a place for experimentation and looks keenly at how this opportunity might be made possible.

Do you think the increasing financial pressures placed on creatives is hindering the very creative freedom that NOW Gallery aims to celebrate?
We are lucky at NOW Gallery because we have a developer behind us that really understands the value of art and what it can bring to both placemaking and the community. They also leave us to make the decisions, allowing us to introduce exciting names to the Peninsula.

The greatest sadness for me is at art school level. I studied at both the Royal College of Art and the Chelsea College of Arts and I didn’t have to pay fees. I was 30 years old and decided to change my career and study what I had always been interested in. If I had to pay fees, I would not have been able to afford to have that stimulating and exacting time devouring art and art theory.  Everyone should have the opportunity to follow his or her interests in an educational environment. It is a travesty that we are failing to nurture the talents that can’t afford university fees or secure funding to support their studies.

Is there a certain process you undertake when selecting exhibitors? What are the main considerations when selecting an artist and their proposed installation?
A sense of thinking anything is possible is vital, as well as an understanding of how a budget might work! All the artists that we have collaborated with have been chosen for their view of the world, their sense of purpose and their ability to express their perception of where they are coming from in a fascinating and distinct way. All the artists are very different and that is what excites us. NOW Gallery is a blank canvas and we ask creatives to use their imagination to fill our space in a formidable way.

Spillage with 001. Courtesy of Galerie Houg.
Camille’s installation was up against a number of other proposals, what stood out about Camille’s design? 
What didn’t stand out about Camille’s design? It’s a colourful, patterned maze, what’s not to like? It was like a giant zebra rushing across a red desert: we just wanted to see more. Now we are getting it, in an even bigger and bolder form. WALALA X PLAY will take over NOW Gallery in July. I can’t wait.

Camille’s installation is made up of so many elements: there’s different colours and patterns, walls of different heights, passageways of different widths, dead-ends, suspended elements and mirrored panels. What’s your favourite part of the installation?  
I am eager to see how the mirror will work with all the patterned elements – how the reflections will change the space and encourage people to interact with the maze.

The concept of play is a driving force in the installation. Do you think art and design is sometimes taken too seriously? 
Play is an interesting facet of art and is so often overlooked. Carsten Höller’s slides, installed at both Tate Modern and the Hayward Gallery, were not just playscapes, they made you feel something: joy, fear or exhilaration. The slides connected you to your own internal landscape: they were both playful and thoughtful. I love the work of designer Sebastian Bergne. He produces design that is fun; his dice pencil and balancing carafe are both fantastic. I make funny, dark and quirky films that make the audience (hopefully) look at the mundane in a different way. Humour and not taking yourself too seriously is a central part of my own art practice.

NOW Gallery is unique (and incredible) in that it is free. Have you noticed any direct results of being a free gallery in terms of the audience demographic you attract?
We bring more than 20,000 visitors to the Peninsula and into the gallery each year. This figure is always growing and I hope that by the end of this year, with Camille’s great show, our new fashion commission, and Zetteler’s help, that everyone in London and beyond will know that they can experience stimulating, fun and provocative work at NOW Gallery. Everyone is welcome.

Visit WALALA X PLAY at NOW Gallery from 14th July – 28th September 2017. Find out more via the NOW Gallery website.

Flown. Courtesy of Galerie Houg.
Surf. Courtesy of Galerie Houg.
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