Why did you decide to create the fig-1 exhibition in 2000?
I came back to London after being told that there were many things happening in the arts here. But when I arrived, all the public galleries used to do five or six shows a year at most. There was a system in place for doing exhibitions which meant that their numbers were limited. So even if there were 100 interesting things going on that year, you could only show five of them. To me, it seemed ridiculous.
I wanted to find a way through which you could show more of the activity and cultural life of London. The only way in which that could be achieved was if things that slowed the system down were cut out. So you would have shorter shows – lasting a week, no shipping and no paper invitations. With this setup, the shows could be quite small and light on their feet – there could even be just one work in a room.
So I had the idea, but no space to do it in. I spoke to a few people who said that the project would be impossible. But then I spoke to my old friend Jay Jopling, who I knew as a student, and he immediately loved the idea. We worked out what we would need for the project, found a beautiful abandoned warehouse in Soho, secured the funding and I rang Richard Hamilton to see whether he would do the opening show.
He agreed. By coincidence, he was working on a painting called Bathroom- fig.1. I said, ‘Oh that’s nice because we are thinking of calling the project fig-1’. It was a perfect fit. Richard was working on the painting but it wouldn’t be finished for the opening week. So we agreed that he would also have the last week to show the finished work. I thought it was fantastic – we had two of the 50 weeks already filled.
For me, one of the most important things about fig-1 was that it was a project outside of the museums and public sphere, and it was completely free of commercial pressure. It wasn’t reliant on sales. So we could do projects that were ephemeral. We could do things that were experimental. We wanted to reflect the energy and the culture of a city at a certain moment.
Was accessibility an important part of fig-1?
Yes. There was a real sense that anybody could turn up to the shows. On Monday opening nights, we would have 200 to 300 people spill out on to the streets of Soho. One week, Kate Moss and Alexander McQueen showed up and they mixed in the crowd of students, artists, writers, designers, architects, everyone.
“For me, it has always been important that anyone – a young student or an established designer – could turn up and discover some great art without a special invitation or to be known to anybody else.”
For me, it has always been important that anyone – a young student or an established designer – could turn up and discover some great art without a special invitation or to be known to anybody else. I think that is how many people get into the art world. For me, that was certainly the case. At first, it seemed to me that getting into the art world was a great mystery and that everything was fixed. But it turned out that that wasn’t true – the art world is not fixed at all. I think it remains one of the most fertile and creative areas which people can dissolve into, become part of it and in which they can make things happen.
What was the impact of fig-1 on the artists who were involved with the project?
We wanted fig-1 to be as appealing to well-known artists as it was to young or new artists. For instance, we showed Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, who were on the point of being thrown out of art school. Their project for fig-1 was their first-ever show. Within a year or two, they had a big exhibition at the Serpentine based on the strength of their fig-1 show. So for some artists, it had a dramatic impact on their standing. For other artists, fig-1 was an opportunity to do something experimental.
Did you envisage fig-2 being created using the model of fig-1?
I have always believed that fig-1 could be done again. It can be done anywhere where there are interesting and creative things happening. For me, it has been wonderful to see that the model of fig-1 has survived and that it has been applied by curators in their own way. fig-2 proves that the model works – it wasn’t just a fluke when we did fig-1.
There have been some variations on the original model. When we created fig-1, I thought it had to reflect the culture of a single city. It seemed impractical – even impossible – to aim to reflect anything bigger because of the logistical restrictions. But I have been utterly amazed how fig-2 has managed to bring artists from elsewhere and show a much wider range of things – for one of the shows, they even shipped part of a sculpture from China. fig-2 has brought things to London from all over the world. As a result, I think fig-2 reflects a different moment in time.
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