The Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition ‘Queer Spaces: London, 1980s–Today’ takes place in a small archive room, the choice of venue alluding to the diminished status of LGBTQ+ cafes, bars, pubs and clubs in the capital’s social life. Between 2006 and 2016, more than half of these venues closed, their numbers falling from 123 to 53 – part of a wider collapse in London’s nightclubbing scene brought about by skyrocketing property prices and rents, laws demanding more stringent (and expensive) security and earlier closing times, and regulations that favour neighbours who make noise complaints.
Amy Lamé – the writer, performer and presenter appointed as London’s first-ever ‘Night Czar’ in 2016 – in an attempt to arrest this decline, has backed the exhibition. It features works by Tom Burr, Ralph Dunn, Evan Ifekoya, Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, and Prem Sahib, as well as cabinet displays about a handful of venues from decades past, chosen to represent the diversity of the city’s LGBTQ+ community spaces. These include the London Lesbian & Gay Centre (c.1984–91); the First Out Café (1986–2011); the Black Cap pub, which existed for 50 years until 2015, when a campaign to save it was unsuccessful; and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern – the UK’s oldest LGBTQ+ pub – which continues to provide a home for London’s trans and queer performance scene after the community rescued it from planned redevelopment.
Of the artworks, several evoke the melancholy of a gay male subculture that has passed – partly due to increased acceptability, meaning that sexual encounters need not be so furtive, and partly because casual hook-ups can now be arranged online. Dunn’s 2004 photoseries ‘Public Toilets’, taken at a moment when the internet was making their usage as cruising sites redundant, shows this melancholy quite literally; Sahib’s Helix IV (2018), a plaster and chromed steel plate inspired by the sauna Chariots, which closed in 2016 after 20 years in the rapidly gentrifying Shoreditch area, uses its winged central figure to recall a gay culture that justified itself through references to ancient Greek homosexuality, an approach that now feels passé.
The centrepiece is Quinlan and Hastings’s The Scarcity of Liberty #2 (2016) – a chalkboard pinned with old magazine pages, which replicates the feel of community noticeboards or classified adverts. Through repetition, it aims to show how a ‘toxic model for what a queer body looks like’ (white, male, hairless and unattainably toned) has dominated LGBTQ+ and, especially, gay culture. More interesting are the scattered marginalia that follow the community’s changing concerns over time, giving information about safer sex, pregnancy and cervical cancer, and charting the increasing prominence of BDSM practices on the one hand and asexuality on the other.
These artworks are more successful than the displays, which offer some information and historical context about London’s queer venues, but little of their vitality. What made people want to frequent these places, under risk of exposure or attack? What made people fight so hard to keep some, while letting others quietly reach an endpoint? Even accounting for the formal limits of an archival display, the lack of space means these questions are only partially resolved, and equally intriguing ones about what an LGBTQ+ nightlife that meets the challenges of gentrification and digitalization might look like are not addressed. Nonetheless, anything which confronts the fact that improved – but still precarious – LGBTQ+ acceptance does not mean that the need for mutual support is over is welcome. The focus on the past, however limited, may yet provide some reinvigorating ideas for the future.
‘Queer Spaces: London, 1980s–Today’ runs at Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 25 August 2019.
Main image: Ralph Dunn, Public Toilets, 2004, photograph. Courtesy: the artist
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.
First published in Issue 205