Tate goes to hell

Published in Australian Art Collector, Issue 53, July – September 2010

The Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall descended into anarchy during its recent showcase of independent galleries from all over the world. Melbourne’s Hell Gallery was there to help stir the pot reports Jane O’Sullivan.

How did the founders of a little artist run space from Melbourne find themselves rubbing shoulders with Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan in London? This rags-toriches moment came courtesy of London’s Tate Modern, which invited Hell Gallery to participate in its showcase of independent galleries. Held in May 2010 as part of the Tate’s 10th anniversary celebrations, No Soul for Sale was quickly dubbed the art world’s “Olympics of non-profit groups” by the New York Times.

Melbourne’s Hell Gallery was the only Australian gallery invited, coming to the attention of selectors via the recommendation of Australian curator and writer Rosemary Forde, now based in New York.

As Hell Gallery’s Jess Johnson tells it: “We were feeling a little out of depth and ignored when we were greeted by two animated Italian men who told us how much they loved Hell. All of a sudden a film crew arrived with a bunch of Tate staff, who tried to usher them away. The men refused, saying they’d rather be interviewed in Hell [and] it slowly dawned on us that they were Massimiliano Gioni and Maurizio Cattelan (art superstars and curators of No Soul for Sale).”

Johnson says that while some galleries clearly expected the extra publicity – one New York gallery space had organised a publicist in a slinky black dress to hand out press releases – others were a bit overwhelmed. Some 93,000 people visited No Soul for Sale in just three days. The upshot for Hell was an instant worldwide audience. “We’ve received lots of emails and photos from people who took something away and have since looked us up on the internet,” she says. Hell has even found itself a Belgian Facebook fan page.

Galleries were asked to make their own way there, so tight budgets meant most used the opportunity to simply present information about their projects and artists rather than display original artworks. Hell was no different. Johnson and co-director Jordan Marani recreated the Hell Gallery bar, also crafting cardboard beer bottles and “furburgers,” which flipped open to reveal a drawn representation of artists who’d shown at Hell. The artists, says Johnson, made up the “meat in the sandwich” and she credits selling furburgers to, among others, “Steve McQueen [and] 80-year-old grandmothers” as among her highlights from the three days.

The light-hearted approach paid off. “The public wanted to interact and ask questions, rather than contemplate something esoteric or read publications,” she says. Hell’s handcrafted totem tennis set also got a work out, with Cattelan and Gioni also giving it a spin.

While the Tate came under fire during No Soul for Sale for its lack of financial support for participants, Johnson was more circumspect saying that although it was “a perfectly valid grumble,” the Tate should also be “given its dues in making what I think was a relatively brave choice. It was great to see this bunch of rag-tag spaces from all over the world let loose in such a major institution. It was total anarchy – messy, noisy, chaotic and fun.”