‘What exactly happened, where are we now and what can we create from it?’ — new artists on the post-pandemic world
Ahead of the opening of Un/Sense, an exhibition of emerging artists at Christie’s in London, we talk to the show’s two curators about championing some of the top talents of the city’s next generation
From 20 to 29 July, Christie’s in London is transforming its St James’s gallery space into Un/Sense, a non-selling exhibition for ‘NEXT at Christie’s’ — an initiative dedicated to championing some of the best emerging artists.
It is curated by Sasha Shevchenko and Pia Zeitzen, who met in 2019 while completing their MFA degrees in Curating at Goldsmiths in London, and collaborated on their first project a year later. They were selected from an open call issued by Christie’s last summer.
Together, they chose the theme of ‘absurdity’ for the upcoming show.
Shevchenko and Zeitzen asked for submissions from artists who are London-based, are still studying or have graduated within the past five years, and have no commercial gallery representation. There were more than 500 applications. In the short film above, some of the successful applicants discuss their work in the show.
Supporting Shevchenko and Zeitzen throughout the process has been a group of mentors including Touria el Glaoui, founder of the 1-54 contemporary African art fair; Rose Aidin, chief executive of the charity Art History Link-Up; Boaz Levin, a Berlin-based artist, writer and curator; and Dirk Boll, deputy chairman of 20th/21st Century Art, Christie’s Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Alongside Un/Sense, Christie’s Education is running a programme of public courses focusing on contemporary art, curating and the process of moving from art school to the art world.
In the run-up to the opening of Un/Sense, Shevchenko and Zeitzen talked to us about their curatorial journey.
Tell us about your working relationship.
Sasha Shevchenko: We met over lunch and quickly realised we both shared similar ideas. It’s an ongoing joke that we must have been related in a past life, because we never disagree.
Pia Zeitzen: Some people think that if you’re too close, the creative relationship can become stagnant, but we’re constantly challenging each other.
How would you describe your shared curatorial vision?
PZ: We’re very interested in philosophy, and in conceptualising exhibitions that have a strong theoretical backdrop. Our work is intrinsically site-specific — we are inspired by the context of the exhibition space.
SS: We want to take a variety of arts — such as painting, cinema or literature — and find the best ways to manifest them in a physical space, nurturing connections between them and the audience.
Why did you want to work with emerging artists from London?
PZ: The great thing about London is that there is such a big pool of talent. There are so many artists and initiatives here, and it’s been a real pleasure getting to know the scene. It’s also paramount for us that the show is as inclusive as possible, working with artists from all kinds of social and economic backgrounds.
Being aware that art school is an economic privilege, it was important for us to include artists who don’t have traditional higher-education backgrounds.
Why did you choose the theme of absurdity for Un/Sense?
PZ: We thought it was relevant to the time we live in, in a post-pandemic world. We feel as though we have learnt a lot but aren’t sure how to apply this knowledge, or to evaluate it. For instance, what exactly happened, where are we now and what can we create from it?
We want to compare it with other times in history when there was a similar sort of vacuum and people struggled to make sense of the world — as with the Surrealists in the aftermath of the First World War, for example, when artists were trying to make sense of the collapse of what they thought to be true about humanity.
SS: When you reach the point of realising things don’t make sense any more, you question the very foundations that you live by. But from this state, you can also find freedom and potential, because everything opens up and the rules fall apart.
How did you select the participating artists?
PZ: We wanted to showcase a variety of media, blending more traditional practices, such as painting and sculpture, with newer modes of expression, such as video art and kinetic art.
SS: It was hard, because sometimes their work was great but it just didn’t fit the brief. We ended up visiting lots of artists in their studios to see their processes.
PZ: It’s been exciting having big meet-ups and seeing the artists get to know one another. When we curate group exhibitions it is important for us to shape a sense of community with the artists, because that helps you to express their vision. It’s co-creation — we’re all making something together. This is what helps a show feel cohesive.
How will the show take shape in the space?
SS: It was initially planned for 2021, but got postponed, and we’re now presenting the show in a different space inside Christie’s, not the one originally intended. But in a funny way, these adjustments have mirrored our concept of absurdity, and the uncertainty has helped shape the project.
PZ: We had originally thought of moving the exhibits around the space over the duration of the show, in order to echo the idea of absurdity, but due to the changing nature of the plans, this is no longer possible. Instead, we’ve decided to play with curatorial placements, which has been very exciting.
What has it been like working with Christie’s?
PZ: They’ve given us a lot of control and trust — apart from some health and safety guidelines, it’s been largely left up to us. It has been a great opportunity to learn what’s involved with organising a show at this level.
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Where do you see yourselves in 10 years’ time?
PZ: We will keep working on curatorial projects together and are always on the lookout for new open calls. More and more these days, curators work collectively and on a freelance basis, so we’re hoping to discover more opportunities.
SS: The dream would be to have our own space one day.
Un/Sense is free to visit and open to the public from 20 to 29 July 2022 at Christie’s, 8 King Street, St James’s, London
Follow Sasha Shevchenko and Pia Zeitzen on Instagram: @kollektiv_collective