catalogue essay for 'house rules', simmons contemporary

“If I think of what is the importance of art for me … I realise that so much of me is constructed out of particular moments of having read something, heard something, seen something; which either acts as a new thought or as a confirmation, a recognition of who I am, so in that sense I have enormous faith in why art of all kinds is completely vital, and isn’t simply a decoration. It is one of the ways in which we construct who we are.” - William Kentridge

For over twenty years, Simmons & Simmons has been proudly acquiring a prominent international collection of modern and contemporary artwork. Regarded as one of the most important and interesting corporate art collections in the world, it expresses great faith in young creativity and provides a strong platform upon which to demonstrate the importance of contemporary art in every environment.

House Rules is the latest in a line of ground-breaking exhibitions within Simmons & Simmons that explore anthropological themes of social relations and societal progression. These exhibitions are unapologetically provocative and intensely engaging, using the firm’s influence, status (in both legal and artistic spheres) and physical space to give a mouthpiece to important, inspiring opinions surrounding global issues that would otherwise go unheard.

House Rules brings together work from two private collections- Simmons & Simmons’ own collection, the bulk of which is usually on permanent display in its various international offices, and work  owned by the curator of the exhibition, Stuart Evans; as well as works lent directly from the artists. If law itself represents justice, then we can assume that House Rules was also born out of a vested interest in promoting social justice, except in this case art is used rather than law. The genesis of the exhibition came from the desire to reflect the law firm’s multi-cultural nature, and its increasing diversification, and an ardent will to realise the firm’s corporate responsibility pledges surrounding equality and social acceptance outside of a business context, on a more human, personal level.

By displaying the artists’ works, Simmons & Simmons provides weight and validation to their causes, but by purchasing them (and the great majority of these works were purchased from artists just emerging at the time, much in need of support in order to create more artworks), the artists are directly benefitted and given a boost in their careers. Simmons & Simmons has an ever-increasing interest in corporate responsibility, particularly in using its influence to fulfil a beneficial role in the community, via the artistic mouthpiece for which the firm has recently come to be known. Interestingly, this is a value that is shared by the exhibiting artists- that creative work is incredibly powerful when it comes to communicating ideas to a community. It is important to consider that by displaying privately-owned work, work that has been purchased, a tremendous statement is made by acknowledging that it and what it has to say is truly valuable beyond mere passing appreciation.

The exhibition seeks to evoke a degree of empathy between the viewers and the subjects of the artworks, and to create an understanding dialogue between visitors and the fifteen artists exhibiting. It explores ideas of social exclusion and taboo, with works that deal with themes which are ordinarily stigmatised in society, from issues relating to the individual such as transvestism and alcoholism, to those affecting entire communities such as apartheid and gender inequality. It brings together artists from around the world with vastly different backgrounds, cultures and personal histories, the majority of whom have never met each other, who find themselves unconsciously unified through exploring the same themes in their work.

It is worth noting both the area of London and the building itself within which House Rules is housed, as these automatically help to set the tone for the exhibition and certainly provide the first impressions of it. Simmons & Simmons’ London offices and their building, CityPoint, which provides the space within which the artworks are presented, are situated in the oldest part of London, just without London Wall itself, and which is therefore also the area that has seen the greatest changes throughout the city’s history, both physically in the city’s layout and architecture, but also in its people, having been an established settlement for nearly two thousand years. It is these changes that brought London to its current incarnation as one of the most diverse and adaptable metropolises in the world, and it is worthwhile to consider that there are many places in the world where it would not be possible to display these works.

The original building (transformed into CityPoint in 2000) was built in 1967, a time when London was the creative hub of the world (as it is again now), finding itself in a state of cultural flux and social reform. The building is architecturally dramatic and unusual, with the structure’s entrance (and also that of the exhibition) underneath a huge “eyelid” of steel and glass. This makes for an imposing and fitting entrance into an art show that seeks to challenge unreconstructed social views.

As one enters the exhibition, the feel is very much that this is not a place where art is left to stagnate or exist in unquantified solitude. It is in a workplace, a hive even, being lived around, and each piece is itself a newcomer in an established community. By placing the artworks into a space whose primary purpose is not for their display, as a gallery or studio would be, they not only change the space that they are in, but also change themselves, taking on new identities and voices in relation to who views them and how they share the space with people. Appropriately, the viewer’s attention is first commanded by Tracey Emin’s Trust Me, in pink neon- a message of reassurance, of abstract emotional communication and also a hint that what will follow may be elusive or unsettled, but positive. From this preliminary message, we know that we will experience an intended  ambiguity, but can and must be reassured by the presence of the people behind the artworks and their constructive, moving voices; ultimately it is a request to allow oneself to be enlightened.

House Rules takes its name directly from one of the pieces included on display- House Rules, by Rose Finn-Kelcey, a miniature circuit board with red LEDs, showing a stream of endless “rules”- “no shouting”, “no running”, “no talking” etc.; sporadically interrupted by a coarse or crude exclamation or outburst undermining the barrage of prohibitions. These spasms of malfunction introduce an anthropomorphic flaw to the piece, creating wit out of what was previously a seemingly unyielding authority, and instantly hectoring turns to humour. The misfit blips in the eponymous “Rules” also serve well as an analogy with the exhibition itself as an unexpected, controversial interruption in the everyday business environment of the law firm as working life continues around it, reminding those who experience the exhibition that behind every working mechanism- be it a circuit board, a law firm or an entire community; there is an unpredictable, yet completely vital element of human disorder.

The artists chosen to be included in this exhibition each tackle concepts of social exclusion, and in doing this poignantly demonstrate that they themselves are included in a subconscious “society” of like-minded thinkers which is not defined by culture, nationality, gender or age, nor is it impeded by the level of education they have received or their access to funds to create their work. It is within this exhibition that this loosely-defined creative “society” and the regimented corporate society of Simmons & Simmons overlap.

Unusually for a corporate art exhibition, House Rules is neither light-hearted nor conventionalised. The works exhibited are intense, honest and substantial, and it is this trinity of qualities that makes the exhibition so enthralling and exciting, a far cry from merely a commonplace display on office walls that may be expected. It is appropriate, therefore, that a good deal of the exhibition’s ethos is directly reflected in the duality between what may be expected of an art show within a law firm and what is actually, proudly shown. However, despite the exhibition’s gritty subject matter, House Rules exhibits alongside its harsh realism a wonderful degree of wit which serves to anthropomorphise the collected works and connect with the viewers on a deeply human level. It is this tangible element of humanity which ensures that, rather than being a demonstration in cynicism, the exhibition becomes a reaffirming journey of empathy and enlightenment.

The room in which House Rules is exhibited is used for events - external, such as less formal meetings and breakfasts with clients, and internally for meetings to discuss changes in the law, for example. It is very suitable then that these events will continue to be hosted surrounded by works of art bringing to light significant civil topics and challenging established community ideals. The Arts Council England states that “social exclusion can be experienced at a range of different levels”- because social exclusion is so complex and multi-dimensional, causes and effects are often interrelated, and so although the works displayed find their origins in very different times or places, or are executed in very different styles, they are linked at the roots in their interests. The artworks are free to be interpreted by the viewer - they are not autonomous, but instead put forward opinions and statements with conviction and a desire to enter into a conversation with those experiencing them. This is not art for art’s sake. These artworks have a distinct purpose as instruments of communication- they have been created with specific intentions, and each time a piece is viewed it carries out the will of the creator. All of the works displayed in House Rules have in common a personifying need to communicate with an audience as a primary function, or risk losing the reason of their existence.

Self-exclusion from society, particularly amongst young people, is an issue that is hard to tackle and commonly dismissed when the most basic, stereotypical example would be the angst-ridden Western teenager absenting his or herself from family or the community, but ought to carry far more gravitas than it is commonly lent when considered that the most extreme example of self-exclusion would be suicide. Because self-exclusion is such an internal, private, self-contained matter, and because it may be justified as an example of exercise of free will, it is difficult to address. If social inclusion is a human right, what about self-exclusion? Communication, outreach, understanding and solidarity. Art and creativity can provide the greatest platform for social solidarity- throughout human history groups of alienated or estranged individuals have sought confirmation through forming groups outside of “the norm”, very frequently resulting in similarity in creative work, giving rise to art and cultural movements, and encapsulating the zeistgeist of the times en masse. Many self-excluding or alienated individuals find solace through self-expression. If interpersonal communication is an issue, then creative output is the perfect vehicle for an interaction with the world that would otherwise not exist. Art is crucial [as an outreach] where normal relationships cease to function. The American filmmaker John Cassavetes put it best: “Films today show only a dream world and have lost touch with the way people really are ... In this country, people die emotionally at 21, maybe younger ... My responsibility as an artist is to help people get past 21 ... [My] films are a roadmap through emotional and intellectual terrain that provides a solution on how to save pain.”

The arts are vital to the maintenance of social cohesion by making accessible a level of subjective communication to the masses that can be interpreted or challenged at will and entirely freely of authority – after all, anyone can create credible work, there is no “right” art. Creating positive work about a subject validates its existence, and the amalgamation of similar works in an exhibition creates a society in itself as a physical demonstration of like-mindedness. In the case of House Rules, the exhibition becomes a catalyst for critical thinking, providing abstract inspiration for new ideas on the topics explored.

House Rules’ most valuable message is that, although upon entering we are confronted at first with subjects we may find difficult to relate to, as we experience the exhibition in its entirety, it gradually becomes apparent that there are, in fact, myriad stigma in the world and that they affect every one of us, either directly, or indirectly due to the nature of human society and our automatic participation in it. Because morality, law and definitions of “the norm” can always be contested or challenged, there is not a single person who is without some form of stigma attached to them, and what better way to challenge abstract ideas than with creativity? Due to the human tendency to reverse-stigmatise and to re-appropriate the terms, artefacts and actions against the groups and orders that we belong to or are affiliated with, it is impossible to be entirely included in every facet of a community. Because of this, no human can live by all of the “house rules”. A society is, in a way, defined by what and who it excludes as much as it includes; the most important notion to bear in mind is the vital importance of communication - communication breeds understanding. Humans are measured by what they do, what they create, and we can only self-assess or define ourselves by relating to and comparing ourselves with others in order to find our place in humanity. Pablo Picasso famously said that “art is the lie that helps us understand the truth”, and it is through understanding that we progress as a society.