Antonia Marsh on Soft Opening — Office

Antonia Marsh
offers an illuminating generation of artists yet another space and platform to explore; free from discrimination and subversive in its own right.

Nestled in the heart of London’s West End, Antonia Marsh’s Soft Opening resides beneath the bustle of the Statue of Eros; just meters from the turnstiles at Piccadilly Circus tube station. Throughout her work, Marsh offers herself as a seamless binary between worlds in London and New York, offering her audiences insight into cross-pollinated art worlds and the informative emerging artists who accompany them. Although based in London, Marsh frequently spends time in New York, whether it be to visit friends, see exhibitions or conduct studio visits.

With inconceivably rapid growth and success, Antonia Marsh’s Soft Opening has housed works from the likes of Frank Lebon, Harley Weir, Wilson Oryema, Grace Ahlbom, Theo White, Louis Morlet and Ryan McGinley. After moving to New York, it was there Marsh made her first curatorial imprint with Girls Only—an artist studio space and residency conceived for vastly under-represented female artists – making cameo appearances throughout the United States and Europe. Looking to the frequent turnover of work she experienced in New York, Marsh explains, “NYC taught me that work and shows and artists need to keep relevant and stay fresh, otherwise spaces begin to feel stagnant and un-exciting”. Working at a similar pace now, Marsh installs a new show every three-and-a-half weeks.

As well as boasting a roster of as many compelling emerging artists, as she does industry elite—Marsh admits that a Soft Opening book is on the horizon. Following her work with New York photographer Grace Ahlbom on her book Dreaming is Heavy Metal, and London-based artist Wilson Oryema on a short-run zine of poems entitled ‘Deux’—the end of her lease will see the release of a book championing the work of the artists Marsh has collaborated with along the way.

Much of Marsh’s success could in fact be owed to her humility and inherent ability to earn the trust of her collaborators. As well as her acute eye for fantastical aesthetic narrative, Marsh offers both her collaborators and audience something she suggests could be lost among galleries today: “To have a good, trusting relationship with an artist, takes work like any other relationship and the best part of my job is maintaining these relationships. Having a gallery is not just about checking boxes.”

Starting with your most recent show at Soft Opening, can you shed some light on the covert missions of Louis Morlet and what drew you to the work, and Louis himself?
Louis and I got to know each other on long morning walks across Hampstead Heath where we’d talk about art and life and love and everything in between. Slowly he’d start pointing out areas in the park where the previous night he’d been secretly digging for clay and then we’d go to his studio where he’d show me what he’d been firing. This process is deliberately drawn-out and bears so much more meaning for the works themselves than if he had simply gone to the art store and bought a load of clay. Louis is thinking critically about the ontology of his work and the materials that make it up, which isn’t something you see an artist doing every day. There’s also a nice moment in showing this body of work in an exhibition space that’s underground, as if his works are being returned to the earth they came from.

Why Piccadilly Circus?
I first found the space because I walked past it, it’s as simple as that. There are lots of empty shop spaces and display cabinets in Piccadilly Circus Underground Station and for months I was fascinated by the fantasy of what would happen if an art object would be placed behind the glass there. As this fantasy developed, I began to think about how different a viewer’s experience of an artwork would be not only behind glass, but underground, in a space of flux and transport, associated with movement rather than a destination itself. The sheer amount of “visitors” - hundreds of thousands per month, is of course also an attraction, but rather than in commercial terms, I think it’s so interesting to imagine what kind of interactions people have with the space… what they think if they see it just out of the corner of their eye, if they stop and look for longer or even if they get totally used to the space as it becomes part of their daily commute. Of course, Piccadilly as an area in itself retains undeniable commercial associations: it’s the shopping and tourism centre of London and of course the majority of the commercial contemporary art galleries also locate themselves there. I love the idea that we are invading that space, cutting straight into the heart of an area that it usually takes a gallery decades to break into, just by thinking about space differently.

Quite obviously, Soft Opening is meticulously considered—other than your aesthetic tastes, can you talk me through the over-arching themes and narratives you find yourself most attracted to in the work of the artists you’ve collaborated with (whether it be as a curator, or member of the audience)?
I always get asked this question and I honestly believe it’s much easier for people to see those themes and narratives that thread through my curatorial work or shows at the gallery from the outside. It’s much harder to see those from within. However, at the moment, I’m looking for artists whose work subverts or reconfigures our understanding of the world around us. There’s definitely a fantastical element in the work I’m interested in, because I think fantasy is where we find our relief from reality and as such these aren’t too far off from one another. The next show, Go, is a group presentation of work from sculptors including Hamish Pearch, Kira Freije, Jamie Hawkesworth and Nevine Mahmoud among others, and each of these artists are examining material in an exciting way. Hamish and I have been curating the show together for a few months, and he’s building metal-look cardboard tables that will resemble airport security conveyors, so the sculptures will feel like they are travelling through the cyclical architecture of Piccadilly Circus station.

I try to think about the programming of the space curatorially rather than politically—as so many galleries do. I don’t show artists because it would be a “good move” but rather present work that I feel is relevant and important, and at a point in an artist’s career that feels beneficial, so that they can freely explore the model of a solo show without the commitment of doing it in a giant white cube space. Each show will engage with and respond to both its predecessor and that which will follow so that the space itself tells a kind of story. I want the programming to feel organic, in the same way that artworks on the wall of a well-curated show do.