Founded in 2018, Leave Of Absence Gallery was created by a group of five friends – Rory Bread, Yu’an Huang, Shona Jones, Kengwu Lin and James Tabbush – who were all studying or working in art in London. Specifically looking at the idea of absences within cities and cultures, the group stages exhibitions where each member nominates artists to make work for the space. Gallery Girl spoke to LOA’s Yu’an Huang about the project.
How did you all come together, and what made you start Leave Of Absence?
LOA came out of an increasing urge for working on a project about London and its changing Cultural Pluralistic characteristic. The urge came about after witnessing the sequence of new policies introduced after 2012 that aimed to systematically reshape the human geography of the UK. Although London has always been a very transient city, I think we all felt some sort of ‘total make over’ was happening. These personal and collective experiences led me to feel that London, where I received most of my art education, is changing rapidly and I wanted to make a project reflecting that process. After moving to Germany in 2016, I realised the phenomenon was global, states everywhere are redefining borders, opposed to increasing access for migrants.
Whether it’s an absence of everyone who has left or an absence of a certain familiarity within a culture, I wanted to give that absence a body. It wasn’t until 2018 that I decided to go ahead with running a gallery as my method for reflecting on this changing process.
We each nominated three artists to consider making work for the space: one friend, one inspiration and one artist that does not have the right to live and work in the UK. Exhibited artists then go on to make their own nominations, creating a self-augmenting network of connected ideas. We look forward to seeing how the nomination rules reflect on the shifting connections of London, especially in the art that is produced.
We were all involved to various degrees and by late 2019 I took over the main direction of the space, joined by an assistant and a business manager.
Video documentation from the LOA’s last exhibition of 2019, Departed (from a place we’ve never been) © LOA Gallery 2019
How have the nominated artists approached the space?
Some of the artists on the nomination list don’t have the right to live and work in the UK (this is changing fast as we know). The idea of the nomination is to try to connect artists beyond where they are locally based. London is particularly exciting because of its high concentration of diverse art institutes that attracts people from every corner of the world.
LOA is small and intimate, hidden away in a gated mews. It allowed us to work closely with the artists. We aim to provide maximum flexibility that works for the proposal put forward.
The three solo exhibitions we curated with Ting Ting Cheng, Alasdair Asmussen Doyle and Vlada Predilina all took on the brief in a very different way. For example, Ting Ting lived in the gallery space for two weeks and created a site specific, audio guided installation that reflects on the gentrification of Dalston, questioning where art stands in that process. With Alasdair we went for the existing piece at the RCA graduation show with an extended body of work. Vlada is a socially engaged artist who had recently moved from London to Rotterdam. We communicated via Skype for two months and she arrived three days before the opening with different options for the video installations. She also hosted a workshop during the exhibition week.
I get the sense that you try to build a community, a safe space, for people who don’t feel accepted or othered in the UK…
I think the space is motivated by an interest in research, representation and identify – covering the wide spectrum of global identities. I hope for LOA to be a contemporary gallery that puts on interesting exhibitions foremost and elevates certain shared experiences through art. What we are trying to talk about touches very different groups of people. Although the concept of the gallery is inspired by the limitations on movement of people, it is not limited to a particular marginalised group that feels unaccepted by the UK. I think there is something more human than political in this. Perhaps something we all share.
The experience of transnational and cross cultural individuals who might be fluid in their identity as refugees, international students, third culture children, second generation migrants and more. One could shift from the protected or even privileged one to the othered and marginalised ones on the spectrum depending on policies, States and the cultural contexts they are in. It is a controversial stand point – I have been challenged often not to align refugee experiences with those of international students, as they are completely different by legal definition and viewed very differently by the society.
However I think it is exactly why there needs to be an art space to allow a complex dialogue to happen. On the subject of fluidity in status, for example, an Uygur Chinese student arrived at the UK as an international student a few years ago, and now her passport is at risk of confiscation if she returns to China. Her family members are stateless and not able to travel. A second generation Nigerian Londoner friend of mine was told by his parents not to visit Nigeria because his mixed raced appearance might upset the extended families there. The designer of the LOA logo lived and worked in the UK for more than 10 years and spent two years appealing for her right to stay. During that time she was not allowed to work and eventually had to move home (by birth). By legal status, they are shifting on the spectrum as a transnational being, yet the nuances of understanding one’s right to exist and belong might overlap. A rejection of existence in anyway changes people. However, to answer your question, LOA is not aiming in building a community in telling their personal stories, instead, inspire a hybrid imagination through their art.
I am also very cautious about not telling a story for a whole generalised group. I hope for LOA to put on enough good shows that we may eventually have the vocabulary to have sharper conversations, to organically define who our exhibitions spoke to and reveals a self identified and imagined community in the globalised age. We must try to avoid over simplifying the subject.
Saying that though, on a personal level, I do try to provide a safe space for individuals who came to me about migration or identity complexity due to shifting cultural context to talk about themselves. I tried to refer literature, films, artists, connections, legal direction and whatever resources were relevant, especially for the visa less-residents asking for advice in planning their life. Over the last few years, I came to notice the increasing discomfort in speaking about one’s limitation of the right to stay. It seems to have become a private matter with a shame attached. Many had to lie to their friends and workplace about their legitimacy in staying at this land. With the hostile environment policies, refugee crises taking place in the past few years, even when facing the most liberal local individuals, both in Germany and the UK, the new immigrants have to really choose their words. But this is what I try to help with privately, not through LOA.
How do you think the seemingly nationalist state of politics in Europe and the US right now has impacted the work of the artists you work with?
Each artist responds to the global political shifting with a completely different approach.
Take Ting Ting’s work for example, her work has always been quite insightful socially, but in my opinion, the language took a turn in terms of the ways she addresses politics in her work. ‘How to get out of London in 30 days’ (2014), was one of the first projects of hers in which I see as a very sharp response to Government policy. I see it as being honest for the rest of us. Her recent works tirelessly collect experiences, go though liberal archives in telling our stories. Her work has become more intimate and inclusive in my opinion.
As an Australian artist with a very minimalistic aesthetic, Alasdair works with a sense of ‘misplacement’, using a research-based method. In The Other Island (2017), he photographed Wallabies – a hybrid kangaroo – on the Channel Isles a result of the Australian colonisation. He has an elevated way of mapping borders that allows viewers to imagine and experience an organic shift of a land defended by humans.
With Vlada, who moved to the UK to join her mother at the age of 12, she focuses on shaping a self identified community. Meeting her and her work reminded me that we now do have a certain freedom to choose where we belong beyond which states allow us to. The imagined community is no longer defined by physical locations.
Do you know anything about the exhibition programme for 2020?
There will be four solo exhibitions form the nominated list. Two group exhibitions curated by a guest curator and myself, and an exhibition from the open call we sent out around the topics of third culture imaginations, cross cultural intimacy, technology and the state. We are also planning on taking part in art festivals in London and Berlin during the summer. In October, which will be the 2 year anniversary of LOA, we are looking to curate a long weekend with various happenings through out the private areas of LOA across three floors.
What are Leave Of Absence’s hopes and plans for the future?
Going into 2020, we hope to bring in more voices, events, academics, fun and new arts, to discuss further on the topics and engage viewers in different ways. The ultimate goal is for LOA to become a word that represents the complex state of transcultural beings.