A great W of light bulbs was hung across a non-descript post-war office building, awaiting the fall of darkness. Earlier this month, it lit up for an extraordinary night. The usually-desolate car park below it filled with people, laughter and beers while inside the building, a young and strangely un-cynical boho-to-media-type crowd drifted through floor after floor filled with all manner of artworks- sculptures, video, drawings, paintings, even a library installation. In an old disused depot nearby, yet more works spread across a floor, and chattering groups climbed dark stairs towards the strange noises of sinister installations in dark industrial nooks above. The Studio Artists Group Show, or S.A.G.S., was almost too much to take in. As the night deepened, a small club room came to life with ginger beer and vodka, and DJs whipped up a dancefloor of those too pissed to be cool anymore. The sense of giddy abandon carried some through to morning’s first light. What an opening party!
It may have been the finest hour of a pioneering independent artist collective. The Woodmill is a unique phenomenon, a sort of art kibbutz that has been a mash-up of creative hub, social experiment, blitz-fast construction-crew and squat, but generating output that has penetrated galleries across the world. S.A.G.S is the Woodmill’s last show at their current home, the Neckinger Depot. After it closes on May 1st, activities should relocate to another Bermondsey location. The Woodmill lives on, but the W will never shine across the car park again.
In December 2009, Emily Hussey was one of Woodmill artists who entered the disused council office block. She sums up the experience: ‘It was amazing!’ No less than 3,600 square metres of abandoned space lay within, and they started converting it straight away. No-one got paid, but 25 artists would move in. Emily recalls that ‘everyone who was getting a studio was asked to pitch in’, and how the days became a ‘constant carousel of boards being passed up’ through the building. A sort of camaraderie soon bound the pioneers as they lived, ate and worked together. In just two months, they had created a studio complex, with project spaces, performance areas, a bar and great swathes of space to stage shows. In February 2010, the first group show, The Devil’s Necktie, opened with a mad mix works by 60-odd resident artists.
The current show S.A.G.S. doesn’t sag in energy levels from the first, but echoes it in the happy randomness of the works, only more so. More floor, more works, more artists- 90 in all.
Emily’s contribution Ready Steady Go stands in the bright strip-lit ground floor- a diagonally cut half-door painted in bold colours, mounted with three ornamental gourdes (they look like lemons but are actually from the squash family and you can’t eat them, she explains), folded in a detached strip-blind. ‘It’s about the relationship between the outside world and the inside world’ says Emily. Its angular shape is ‘slightly like a gravestone, slightly like a shark’s fin. There’s something muted in that…’
It’s almost impossible to survey all the works, there are so many.
The ground floor alone is a feast. A highlight is a work in two parts, Relation and Test Strip. Darren Harvey-Reagan, one of the New Contemporaries in the recent ICA show, again brings simple, super-sharp photography and sculpture together to create a trompe d’oeil, this time with a saw rather than a bird. Enter the next room and you are in a sound and light installation by Laura Buckley and Anghared Williams, images projected through a hanging mobile of mirrored snowflake-like polygon shapes. Anghared refers to it as ‘a symbol for space worship… (reflecting) chaos and tranquillity’.
Turn back down the corridor and you may find a small side room hung with copies of book covers on lines, like washing.This is the last manifestation of the Woodmill’s own library and archive, run by Paul Sammut and Alexandra Terry, called P.A.S.T. Projects. It had been stocked with books selected by the Woodmill residents, but the books have moved on before they did. Now they are evoked, like great albums, by the imagery of covers. ‘We just wanted to display the remnants really’ says Paul.
Return to the Buckley & Williams installation, and a door beyond it leads up metallic stairs which echo with fiendish metallic noise.
The source is at the top of the stairwell: The Singing Airco (2008) by Reinier Kravendonk, who was invited in from the outside by Woodmill artist Spartacus Chetwynd. This sci-fi machine, like a space probe mutated into a viral creature, is suspended by wires and buzzing with electrical energy as if to break free.
Every floor up to and including The Singing Airco’s would stand as a group show in its own right. One of them has a gallery of cartoons, portraits and comics, and sofas to contemplate them on. And then there’s all that stuff lurking in the semi-darkness of the disused depot…
The Woodmill was a dream of artists free to work and exhibit without commercial and official pressures, but reality always catches up with idealism. Last April, inspectors came in and 20 live/work studio spaces didn’t pass the health and safety requirements. The resident artists moved out. Things had to be ship-shape: ‘I had to go on a fire warden’s training course’ says Emily, who is now one of five duty managers there.
The Woodmill, meantime, has built a solid reputation with its college programs, workshops etc. The likes of the Serpentine’s Hans-Ulrich Obrist and the Tate have visited the Woodmill’s Project Spaces.
A new even more official arrangement is awaiting the go-ahead, continuing the structural formalisation that already handles things efficiently through Management, Curation and Education teams. Woodmill is now registering as a charity, so can still be independent. There’s an application in with the Arts Council for a £20k grant. Everyone had to re-apply to be part of the next project, but The Woodmill ideals of a community of artists and cheap studios are still there, and although it awaits confirmation, a new site has been found. Whether the spirit of the collective survives awaits to be seen.
‘The strong friendships formed have been one of the strongest contributions to why the Woodmill works’, says Emily. ‘The feeling that we’re all in this together is such a strong force’. You can feel that force in S.A.G.S. When it’s over, may the force stay with them.
Go see the last Woodmill show before it moves- these are it’s last days!
Address: Neckinger Depot, Neckinger SE16 3Q
Times: Thursday – Sunday 12-6, until 1st May