Culture Bound: East Wing Collection VII

Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, London

As the East Wing Collection can be overly ambitious, and in the case of their last endeavour, simply unable to come together, I entered the gallery with a sense of slight apprehension. Considered the world’s leading art institution, the biennial exhibition lines the walls of the institute’s halls, stairwells and lecture halls, using them as free space to exhibit. The space is institutional, giving it an academic edge, even though the East Wing mirrors the West, where the Courtauld’s permanent collection is housed. It is a juxtaposition that serves it well. Collection 7’s theme is Culture Bound, which is generously ambiguous, and yet unifying. It claims to explore our boundaries of identity though our perception of culture and, with its vast variety of pieces ranging from photography and mixed media to installations and sculpture, it gives itself the breadth to do so.


I found the experience very personal, and I am left with many pieces impressively engraved in my memory. Gonkar Gyatso’s Pokemon Buddha, 2004,for example, explores contemporary media in juxtaposition with minority culture, and the struggle between the modern world and its conflict with history and tradition. The physically tiny work makes an impressive impact.


Chris Kenny’s floating box collages are also impressive. Cultural Instructions, 2005, manipulates text and word into bizarrely constructed orders. “We are constantly being told what to do,” he comments, “and how to be – by government, media and art.” With their original context lost, the work takes on a personal and imaginative edge.


Layla Curtis’s World Political, 2001, reconfigures national identity and is both challenging and thought-provoking in its apparent simplicity.

The exhibition is a success. It directly tackles such a contemporary theme, bringing in culture, tradition, race and religion with both dignity and respect. It does so without steeping it in a sense of unapproachable superiority, or hiding in theory, something you may expect when a group of art historians from the Courtauld curate an exhibition. Artists rarely think like academics, but there is no such divergence here. Modern art is often glaringly political; a perfect medium for large and brash reactions in society, but Culture Bound is intellectual, grounded, and profoundly effective in leaving its

East Wing Collection No 07 Culture Bound is at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House London WC2. Viewings on Saturdays and Sundays, and by appointment.

- Nicola Crockett