What do Martin Creed, Peter Doig, Tom Hunter, John Keane, Poppy de Villeneuve, Gavin Turk, Peter Blake, Annie Kevans and Sarah Lucas have in common? They’ve all, at some stage in their prolific careers, shown at the Arts Gallery, often for the first time before moving onto the larger world stage. And now, the gallery – on the grounds of the University of Arts London in Mayfair – has fallen victim to rather indifferent commercial forces; to whit, its demolition around March next year to make way for the expansion of the Bond Street tube station.
To ensure that it goes out with a bang, as it were, the Arts Gallery has commissioned the artist Mike Ballard to stage its final exhibition titled, The All of Everything, Art Will Eat Itself. Working almost entirely with black and white colours, Ballard has covered the entire gallery – from floor to ceiling to walls – with what can only be described as totally immersed artwork. The artistic archives of just about every age have been mined for inspiration and subject matter. And so, there are skeletal Egyptian pharaohs, lunar landscapes, grafittied train-cars, bonsai trees, pulsars, Dan Brown-inspired ciphers and lightning bolts flying from giant fingers; all are locked together – Escher-like – in a gigantic mural that literally fills up the entire gallery space.
The impression is one of walking into a 1950s black and white action hero comic strip. In this frenetic wonderland, the eye is never allowed to rest. Which explains, we think, the first half of the show’s title.
But what makes Ballard’s site-specific work all the more striking is that when the Art Gallery finally shuts its doors to the public on next 28 February, it will – in the best temporary traditions of this year’s Turner Prize laureate Richard Wright – be demolished along with the building. And so, the apocryphal – and studiously unsentimental – second title of the show.
Little wonder that Ballard has described his epic canvas as “defiant to the impending doom”, adding that “as it is the last show at the Arts Gallery, I wanted to go big, to give the gallery a good send off by acknowledging all of its surfaces, preparing the space before it goes into the ‘other world’”.
By any yardstick, Ballard’s achievement has been to create a view-point that is nihilistic, yet sympathetic to modern urban demands. He seems to have no time for schmaltzy nostalgia, but at the same time, it’s clear – as the following interview reveals – that he finds nothing untoward about looking backwards.
What’s the idea behind The All of Everything?
It’s a journey to the no zone layer: a place in between time, it celebrates the present. I have prepared the gallery for its journey returning back to zero. To join all the surfaces of the space in unity, decorated with signs symbols pictures, defiant to the impending doom.
How much pain and manpower has it taken to create the exhibit?
The ceiling took two of us four days to paste up. The rest of the painting took 14 days.
What does it mean for you to have been chosen as the final person to show after such a prestigious line of previous exhibitors at the Arts Gallery?
I feel very honoured to be given the chance to exhibit, and especially as the closing show. The University of the Arts London has been very supportive of my work and I’d like to thank the curator Medeia Cohen for her help in realising this project. Certainly some big names have shown at the gallery in the past, but I haven't really given it any thought until now. I'm just happy that it's turned out good and I think I’ve done justice to the occasion.
The references in this piece are enormous and varied. How did you approach the project?
It's based around the loop of life that forever changes, and how the rubble of the past builds our future. The lines on the walls and floors are rays from the galaxy, projectiles firing across space and rebounding off the walls. Overseeing the gallery are the Guardians of the galaxy, my most influential things, gathering to witness the explosions below and watch as the hands of time run out. The death mask relays the eternal broadcast, the voice of the Savant Garde.
 


How will it feel seeing such gargantuan work destroyed to make way for the expansion of the Bond Street tube station?
I think it's great. I’d love to get a photo of the gallery half knocked down and full of rubble with my painting sticking out, or to film it.
What’s next for you?
I have a show planned at the Horse Hospital in April 2010. It's going to be mainly film, video and collage work. I’m excited; it's going to be next level of my art.
It’s the end of the Arts Gallery, but if you could bring something back to life, what or who would it be?
The bird I shot with an air pistol when I was 10.