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Evening Standard

The real home of avant-garde by Iain Aitch

Anyone who has followed the recent debate surrounding the resignation of ICA chairman Ivan Massow could be forgiven for thinking that avant-garde art is all but dead in the capital. That is what Massow inferred in his now infamous article about the state of modern art in The New Statesman, but had he taken the time to wander a mile north of The Mall to a mews tucked away behind Russell Square Tube station, then he may just have found the very thing he claims that the ICA has long ceased to be.

Striding up the wooden-slatted ramp to the first-floor gallery of The Horse Hospital (which really is a former equine sanatorium), Massow could well have come across work by passionate, obsessive underground artists, challenging exhibitions by foreign newcomers and even art that utilises the "craft" he found so lacking at the ICA. Sure, there is no restaurant, just one toilet and the heat comes from three-bar electric fires, but The Horse Hospital is the current home of London's avant-garde.

Because of its roster of film, art and talks it is often referred to as "an alternative ICA", but The Horse Hospital is privately run by a staff of just three and receives next to no public funding. There is no board of directors and little in terms of a hierarchy - curator James Hollands sells tickets, acts as technician and even sweeps the gallery's cobbled floor, as does its founder, Roger Burton. In the 10 years it has been open it has received just £4,300 in grants and it is still subsidised by Burton's work as a costume and production designer. There has been little cross-pollination between the two venues, but Oliver Payne and Nick Relph premiered their first film, Driftwood, at The Horse Hospital, which was subsequently shown at the ICA - though Payne makes it perfectly clear which he prefers.

"The Horse Hospital is infinitely cooler because it comes from an organic mind-set and doesn't concern itself with any cosmetic bullshit," says Payne. "It doesn't give a f***, it just shows what it wants. Not like the ICA. For example, it would never dream of showing some sh**ty films and then getting Talvin Singh to bang a couple of tablas in front of it and charging 15 quid to get in. The Horse Hospital wouldn't do that, it would do something good, charge you five quid to get in and you'd have a lot more fun. I mean, f*** the ICA."

Not exactly the sentiments you would expect from a young artist whose nomination for the £20,000 Beck's prize means that his work is to be on show at the ICA this month, but Payne doesn't believe he owes them any favours. "Having your work shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, on paper, should be a really great honour," he says. "If it provided the service that it purports to provide then it would be an honour, but it's so badly mismanaged that it's actually something that's just rather embarrassing."

Burton may not be as vitriolic in his dislike of the ICA and still goes to see films there, but he feels it is stifled by its status as a public institution. "The restrictive thing about the ICA is that it has to be programmed so many months or years in advance that it becomes sterile and homogenised," he says. "If somebody came along and said, 'I've got to have this exhibition next week, have you got a space?' then I'd do it."

It was this can-do attitude which led to Burton opening The Horse Hospital in 1992, with the first retrospective of Vivienne Westwood's punk designs. From the opening night, he found himself rubbing the Establishment up the wrong way as visiting representatives from the V&A took exception to what they saw as a less-than-respectful hanging of Westwood's work.

"We designed these body-bags and all the clothes were hung on these from the ceiling, so everything was at head height and you could touch things and smell them," says Burton. "The people from the V&A were horrified, people were smoking and drinking and it was like: 'These should be under special conditions with proper lighting' and they were really angry about it."

Since that nod of disapproval Burton has been putting on shows he enjoys by people he respects, regardless of their position within the art world. He was first in the UK to exhibit outsider artist Joe Coleman, sticker artist Shephard Fairey and also scooped Cathy Ward and Eric Wright's Grimm's fairy-tale forest meets-Tirolean souvenir shop, TransRomantik. He even managed to get Anita Pallenberg to turn the gallery into her living room for a night to screen the Super 8 films she made with Keith Richards. Ever since, more and more art lovers have been adopting The Horse Hospital as their own second living-room and it has developed into an atmospheric salon where it is unusual to not see introductions being made, chairs being pulled up and total strangers conversing - all actions that would win you little more than icy stares in the ICA bar, particularly if your name happens to be Massow.

The Horse Hospital is situated in Colonnade, London WC1.

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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