Interview: Iwona Blazwick

She gave Damien Hirst his first major London show and played a vital role in creating Tate Modern. Now Iwona Blazwick is overseeing the transformation of Whitechapel Art Gallery

At the top of Iwona Blazwick's in-tray when she became director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in east London in 2003 was a contract committing the gallery to an ambitious development programme. The plan was to double the space via the acquisition of the Whitechapel Municipal Library next door, but would require £10m of fundraising and the closure of the main galleries for a year. Blazwick took a deep breath and signed, and has recently announced that the work will begin. Standing in the abandoned reading room of the library, she is surrounded by fallen plaster, broken shelves and peeling posters promoting long-forgotten local events. Yet she is enthusiastically pointing out the dust-laden parquet floor, battered staircases and grimy Victorian glass roof. "Of course it was very daunting," she recalls - but, as she also points out, she has been here before.

As head of exhibitions and displays at the Tate, Blazwick was an integral part of Nicholas Serota's Tate Modern planning team. "I'm no stranger to hard hats," she laughs, "and I now see that the Tate Modern turbine hall was in fact just a rehearsal for this space." She intends for the huge central reading room in the library to be given over to a single artist and a single piece of work for a year at a time. "Among all the hurly-burly of the East End and the hyperactive London art world, I always wanted to create a quiet counterpoint and place you can come back to time after time. This is perfect for it."

The idea came from Blazwick's first trip to New York in 1980. "I was walking up West Broadway and there was a door with just the letters 'Dia' on it. I went into a colossal loft space and on the floor was this breathtaking work of art by Walter De Maria, which is a kilometre of copper rods cut into a thousand pieces and laid out on the floor as if it goes into infinity. It is still there and I pay homage to it every time I go to New York. It is timeless and extends beyond any isms or the Sturm und Drang of what's in or out. And just as important is the fact that it is still there. That commitment is very impressive."

The recent announcement that Tate Modern is planning a huge expansion has caught the headlines. But the Whitechapel has also always occupied its own institutional position in British cultural life - Serota was director there before moving to the Tate - and its expansion is equally instructive as to the current state of contemporary art in the UK. The gallery, founded in 1901 with the aim of bringing "great art to the people of east London", hosted Picasso's Guernica on its only visit to Britain, staged the first major UK shows for Pollock and Rothko, was an early home for British pop art, championed leading women artists from Kahlo to Nan Goldin as well as displaying significant early work from Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Gilbert & George and Richard Long.

"I think for many people in the arts the Whitechapel has at some point played a formative role in their coming of age," Blazwick explains. "There is tremendous affection and loyalty, particularly from artists. The first thing I saw here was Eva Hesse in 1979, which was absolutely mind-blowing. It made me think I want to be part of this world." She also cites Carolee Schneemann redoing her 1964 New York performance piece Meat Joy "live and in person in 2002, which was unforgettable; bodies writhed in paint, wet mackerel and hot dogs flying across the audience. A black and white image in an art history book came alive." So when the job came up, "of course I threw my hat into the ring. It is such a privilege to be part of this story."

Blazwick was born in 1955 and brought up by her architect parents in Blackheath, south-east London. The family name is Blaszczyk, but she later changed the spelling. "I do sometimes regret it, but no one could say my name and it was so time-consuming. Now people in Britain are much more used to unusual pronunciations, but in the 1960s and 70s they just couldn't handle it. I have a prized collection of misspelled envelopes. Fiona Bloodneck is my favourite."

Both her parents painted, and she says she "grew up with contemporary arts. The big thing for them was the Festival of Britain, so we would go to the South Bank, particularly the Hayward Gallery, all the time. I even remember going to an Expo exhibition in Switzerland." She says she always appreciated the link between art and architecture in terms of the exhibition space, and for a time considered architecture as a career. "But I eventually realised architecture was more about planning permissions and sewage than moments of creativity, so I thought I'd be an artist."

After reading English and fine art at Exeter university she took a job as a receptionist with a publisher of pop art prints and books, where she was "surrounded" by artists and their work by day and attempted to make her own art - "a bit of collage, painting and photography" - at home in the evenings. "After a year or so I realised what I was actually doing was making very bad copies of the work that surrounded me all day. I didn't have a strong enough vision or the aesthetic confidence that would enable me to be an artist. And that was a revelation and an epiphany, in the best possible way. I realised what I was better at doing was celebrating artists' work. I was actually more excited about writing about art or presenting it in some way than making it. It was a moment of wonderful clarity and the world was spared a very mediocre artist."

Having been "immersed" in a modernist aesthetic since childhood - her university thesis was on Henry Moore - her first exposure to "non-object based, ideas-based art", when she moved back to London after university, came as a revelation. "I'd never thought art could be a pencil line on a wall, or a word, or a brick. The aesthetic possibilities were suddenly very exciting." She became a junior curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, under the tutelage of Sandy Nairne, who is now director of the National Portrait Gallery. Her first show, Objects and Sculpture (1981), included work by Bill Woodrow, Richard Deacon, Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley.

Did she have confidence in her taste from the beginning? "I was initially terrified when Sandy sent me to interview the artists. But there was a sense of knowing intuitively that these things were exciting. It was then, and still is now, about having a recognition of something that troubles you or that won't go away. Something that is so compelling that you find yourself unable to stop looking or thinking about it. A sense of a zeitgeist, of a sort of cultural moment."

The ICA of the 80s pioneered a series of talks and discussions to run in parallel with the exhibitions. Blazwick says the "emerging non-aesthetic discourses" in anthropology, psychoanalysis, feminism and literary theory provided innovative insights into both the art and the wider culture. "So we'd have Robert Mapplethorpe in the gallery running alongside discussions about 'desire' with Julia Kristeva. There were talks on things like 'identity' and 'the media' way before these things had really taken off. It was exhilarating and, hopefully in a non-didactic way, the institution was able to throw up lots of ideas about the nature of thinking, culture and politics at that time."

Looking at the current intellectual scene, Blazwick wonders where the next generation of young thinkers are. "It would be great if some really feisty twentysomethings came along to rattle a few cages, but I haven't seen it yet. Which is the opposite of the situation in art, where successive generations of very interesting artists have emerged. It has been protean. Absolutely incredible."

While at the ICA, Blazwick gave Damien Hirst his first major public London show, in 1992, and she stresses his importance to the art boom of the past couple of decades. "When he put on Freeze in 1989 the art world was more competitive than collegiate and artists were almost waiting for permission to exhibit. But he showed that you could be entrepreneurial, you didn't need permission to show, you could work with your mates and actually support each other, and you could generate media excitement and sales. He was a pioneer in all this. The art world owes him a lot."

From 1993 Blazwick worked as an independent curator in Europe and Japan, and commissioned a series of ground-breaking studies of artists for Phaidon. She also taught on an influential course for young curators at the Royal College of Art. "I learnt so much from the next generation of curators who might end up being my nemesis. So much work is now done outside of institutions and there are so many different ways of displaying art. There is a reinvention of the form all the time. And even within institutions there is a new and constant questioning of the model."

When she moved to the Tate in 1997 it was to put together a pre-opening programme of community liaison in Bankside for what was to become Tate Modern, as well as planning the installation of the collection and providing a blueprint for an exhibition programme. "We had an absolutely great time and I am very proud of what we achieved. But we really had no idea just how popular the museum would be and we lost money because of that. It was as basic as underestimating how much toilet paper people would use, as well as a conservation bill which was huge because people, quite innocently, were backing into sculptures as they hadn't much experience of going to museums before."

The art boom, she says, has been as much a geographical revolution as aesthetic. "Ryanair and Easyjet, as well as Damien Hirst, have also played their parts." She has recently been to biennales in Istanbul, Venice, Lyon, Turin and Berlin, and found virtually no artists represented at all of them. "The international scene is now so heterogeneous and the geographical boundaries have exploded. I very much admired the work of an Israeli artist in Istanbul and thought it would be difficult making contact with her, but it turns out that she lives in Finsbury Park. Things used to be much more parochial and home-grown in Britain, but all that has changed. Fortunately the increased cosmopolitanism of London has contributed to it maintaining its position as a global arts centre, and the new Whitechapel is perfectly placed to reflect that."

While the gallery spaces will be closed for the whole of 2007, there will be a series of newly commissioned work displayed around the ongoing development of Spitalfields market. And during the redevelopment, all the community and education programmes will continue, as will late-night poetry in the café and events in the auditorium. "And when we reopen we'll be using a newly discovered 'secret gallery'; we'll be able to show work from private collections and from artists' own collections - there has always been a fascinating exchange economy between artists - as well as having space for an archive gallery, which will draw on the extraordinary history of this place. The East End art boom of the past 20 years has been a remarkable thing to behold. But the spiritual home is not White Cube, it is the Whitechapel, and we will be reasserting ourselves."


Kinetics, Hayward Gallery, 1970
Carl Andre, Lisson Gallery, 1975
Walter De Maria, Dia, 1979 to present
Damien Hirst, ICA, 1989
Carolee Schneemann, Whitechapel, 2002


Nicholas Wroe

The GuardianTramp

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