Alongside the Regent’s Canal in an unpretty part of London sit two of the city’s cultural heavyweights. On Wharf Road, just up from Old Street Roundabout in Shoreditch, are Victoria Miro Gallery, home to artists like Peter Doig, Grayson Perry and Chris Ofili, and next to it, in a former furniture factory, Parasol unit. A dynamo of Contemporary art, Parasol unit has been putting on intriguing shows by under-the-radar artists for ten years now and has quietly become an institution as powerful in tastemaking as some of the major public galleries.
Ziba Ardalan, the space’s soignée, steely founder, came to the London art scene through a route more circuitous than most: from a wealthy Iranian family, she gained a PhD in physical chemistry and then went to New York to study art at Columbia before joining the curatorial programme at the Whitney, which focuses on Modern and Contemporary art. In the Eighties, you may as well have said you were exhibiting paperweights for all the popular attention Contmporary art got, but Ardalan, having ventured into both science and art, understood why the Whitney was relatively empty.
‘Contemporary art is challenging,’ she says. ‘You need to be challenged in science — you are always challenged and at times we are in front of the quantum mechanic equation and you feel stupid, simply stupid.’ Which is a common reaction in front of a fibreglass elephant lying slumped on the ground or a video where a disembodied head is mouthing gibberish, two artworks I have encountered at Parasol unit.
You can have paintings with pretty brushwork, sure, says Ardalan, ‘but it doesn’t correspond to our time: we live in a time where for a century already we have had psychoanalysis and Einstein and quantum mechanics.’ Life is more confusing now, so why shouldn’t art be?
If Old Masters, like simple equations, can be ‘resolved’ with a handbook of Greek mythology and a copy of the Bible, as Ardalan suggests, then Contemporary art is that mass of forces and fields and dimensions we don’t yet understand and indeed may never. Perhaps even the idea of ‘solving’ — fully understanding — Contemporary art is wrong, and we should wallow in the questions it asks us, rather than look for answers.
The questioning content of Parasol unit’s shows is at odds with the unquestioning drive which Ardalan showed in founding the space. With the same determination you find down the road in the miniature Gateses and Zuckerbergs who populate ‘Tech City UK’ around Old Street Roundabout, for the first five or six years ‘I put my head down and I worked and actually I got quite unwell because I worked so much. It was so much stress, renovating the building, putting up shows, not knowing how London works, not knowing anybody in the art world here. I just wanted to do something that I loved.’
Ardalan has the perfectionism of entrepreneurs (‘everything that needs to be done should be done in a perfect way or you shouldn’t do it’) but sees a need for it too: ‘You can be big and mediocre but you cannot be small and mediocre.’ Her aim is to make the artists do their best work by creating ‘a dream show’, and it seems to have worked: she attracts great artists and they ‘fall in love with the space — somehow it’s a very human space’. Critical acclaim waxes, footfall increases.
Her single-minded pursuit of perfection is as applicable to art entrepreneurialism as to any other kind: ‘I didn’t realise that it was hard, except there was something in my head, I wanted to do this and I did it and I wouldn’t listen to anybody, I did it for my passion for art and I didn’t do it for people, I didn’t do it for anybody, I just did it because I wanted to do this project.’
But lest you imagine Ardalan living on baked beans in the early years of Parasol unit, she had the good fortune of a family fortune with which to support her space (although she commends her own hard work and entrepreneurial courage). Currently, she is paying for around half of Parasol unit’s running costs, and in the early years she paid its entire £1.5 million budget. The Arts Council now supports Parasol unit on a project basis, and ‘editions’ of artworks and publications are sources of revenue; she is planning a new café too.
Can one get on in the art world today without money? Ardalan thinks you can, but she also feels acutely — perhaps too acutely — her own struggle: ‘I was fortunate, but I always was unfortunate because it came at a later moment in my life. I started Parasol the moment that people start thinking, “I’ve done enough now, I have to go to the beach for the rest of my life.”‘
Parasol unit has also benefited from philanthropy and institutional support. Indeed, by the time you read this Parasol unit will have held an auction in two parts — at Sotheby’s and online at Paddle8 — with works donated by artists like Charles Avery and Thomas Hirschhorn, big names like Isaac Julien, Luc Tuymans and Yinka Shonibare MBE and art-world colossi like Iwan and Manuela Wirth (of Hauser & Wirth).
Philanthropists are an abused bunch, according to Ardalan, who manages to make generosity sound rather strident: ‘I put £10 million into this project and I could have done something else with it. Often rich people are criticised and they should not be; we have to live in a more cohesive and harmonious and kind world… Without this £10 million I gave, this part of Hackney would be different, so we have to be kind to each other.’
Ardalan’s aim with the auction, grand and pragmatic, was £1 million, to bolster its oversubscribed education programme, to help the next generation ask — and maybe answer — questions.
The money, interestingly, is not to expand the gallery space at Parasol unit. So many other institutions are grasping at philanthropic money for expansion — perhaps, simply, because it is there — but Ardalan is adamant. Five thousand square feet is perfectly adequate for mid-career surveys or ‘a nice group show’.
Size is most certainly an issue for the luxury tower blocks shooting up around Parasol unit. One, right beside the canal, is called Canaletto, but it hardly inspires artistic thoughts. Ardalan is not that impressed with the local swarm of developers, who like having Parasol unit on their doorstep as ‘a good selling-point’ and want the benefit of her connections to commission an artwork for their facile buildings — but have ‘absolutely ridiculous’ budgets for it.
‘I said I could not even disturb an artist to do a project with this. [Developers] visually have the idea that art is something that could decorate and I want to see more respect for the artist among the developers… For the little money I couldn’t even ask an artist to do something. They think they’re asking us to do the project for them to beautify a building and they think we are waiting for that; we are not waiting for that.’
Ardalan is in fact waiting for nothing. She didn’t wait to be known on the London art scene before she started Parasol unit. She didn’t wait for artists to come to her but went to them. And she is not waiting around worrying about the future.
‘There are two theories. There is one thing in my head saying that this could go as long as — you can never say for ever, you don’t know — but for a long time; but another thing is saying you do something but for a number of years and then it’s finished. It’s perfectly fine.’ Compare (grandly) Peggy Guggenheim, says Ardalan, who showed the great Abstract Expressionist artists but then shut up shop. ‘Nothing should be immortal in our time.’
But she could perpetuate it. ‘Even if you leave an endowment, how will Parasol be run? Would I like to have a Parasol that is run in a mediocre way? No, I want Parasol to be on the top.’ Many entrepreneurs struggle to see their businesses without them, and it makes sense for a perfectionist not to want her creation ever to be beyond her control. The last thing she wants is ‘a golden plate saying “Ziba Ardalan” on the desk’.
‘So I should not be sad, upset, if one day Parasol unit does not exist. For that long it helped people — hopefully if it helped, I don’t know — and it brought something to London.’