Alumni in Profile: Leopold Thun - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Alumni in Profile: Leopold Thun

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Alumni in Profile: Leopold Thun

Alumni in Profile: Leopold Thun

Leopold Thun (MA 2016) recently opened a contemporary art gallery in London, Emalin, spoke to James Cahill (MA 2007), who is currently finishing his PhD in Cambridge, about the difficulties that emerging artists face in London, his interest for off-site exhibitions and their Professor Sarah Wilson.

Leopold Thun (MA 2016) recently opened a contemporary art gallery in London, Emalin, spoke to James Cahill (MA 2007), who is currently finishing his PhD in Cambridge, about the difficulties that emerging artists face in London, his interest for off-site exhibitions and their Professor Sarah Wilson.



Throughout your studies you have been organising artists’ projects at various sites around London and abroad. How has your time at the Courtauld influenced your curatorial ventures?

 Temporary exhibitions allowed me to run a project space without needing to commit to an actual space on a full-time basis and therefore lay the foundations to later opening the gallery. This meant that during the holidays at my previous full-time position at an art dealership or outside of term – when I didn’t need to be physically present at University – I was able to put together the shows I wanted to. Looking back it’s interesting to see how, once I started my studies at the Courtauld, these exhibitions developed from one or two person presentations into large intergenerational group shows. While I was mainly working with living artists in the context of my previous job, the MA introduced me to a number of historical artists that I found particularly relevant to my curatorial concepts – I began to include them alongside young and emergent artists, often working with artist’s estates and also sometimes getting loans from Courtauld alumni.


You and I recently collaborated on your exhibition ‘FOLLY’, at the Dunmore Pineapple – a marvellous eighteenth-century folly in Scotland – for which I wrote an essay. How did this exhibition come about?

 Throughout my BA, which I completed at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the Dunmore Pineapple was a well-known site amongst my peers. After a Professor brought it up in a tutorial in our first year it became a recurring motif that we tried to bring back into conversation throughout our studies. It embodied so many different aspects – from extravagance and triviality to exoticisation in Western architectural space – which resonated with a set of questions and issues that reached beyond Scottish architecture of the 18th century. When I moved to London after St. Andrews, it came as a surprise that the Dunmore Pineapple resurfaced at the very first studio visit I did upon arriving: Charlie Billingham, a wonderful painter and good friend, mentioned that it had always been a dream to organize an exhibition there. Two years later, over the Easter holidays during my MA at the Courtauld, we organised an exhibition with 19 artists that lasted only three days.


What was the attraction of exhibiting contemporary artists in such an eccentric historical setting?

 I find it fascinating when it is not only the curator and the other artists in an exhibition that shape a singular work, but also the environment it is situated in. Historical settings as opposed to white cubes add another voice, or I like to think of it as an additional ‘actor’, entering the dialogue. The brilliant essay you wrote further deepened the relationship to such a specific environment because you did not limit yourself to tracing back the origins of the Dunmore Pineapple but you created a conceptual shift by including the narrative around William Beckford and his gigantic folly Fonthill Abbey. As a result, the conversation did not limit itself to a singular building alone but also opened up a psychological sphere – or as you put it: “the manifestation of a creator’s bizarre, transgressive temperament.” It was wonderful to see how an artist like Cary Kwok, who initially did not immediately see the relevance of his erotic ballpoint pen drawings to this context, actually went on to create a new body of work focused on eroticised renderings of imagined follies (exhibited in a solo exhibition at London’s Herald Street later that year).


Tell me more about Emalin – how it began, how it has developed, and what your plans are for the future.

 Emalin started as a nomadic exhibition programme that organized temporary shows in settings that were often quite unusual. After the first exhibition, which took place in an abandoned 19th century school house in the Swiss alps in 2014, I decided to organize a week long happening with the Greek/Canadian artist Athena Papadopoulos in a suite of the Landmark Hotel. The exhibition coincided with Frieze Art Fair and, despite being the busiest week of London’s art calendar, our exhibition ended up generating quite a bit of attention. When it was reviewed by the Evening Standard, the hotel manager (who until this point did not know that we were hosting an exhibition in one of the rooms) called us up and gave us the room for an additional four nights for free so that we could extend the exhibition. The shows were always of a commercial nature insofar that they financed themselves via sales of the artworks on show. Nine exhibitions later, which took me from Vilnius, Milan, and Basel to Bahia and Naples, I opened a permanent gallery space with my best friend (who had just completed her MA at UCL) in Shoreditch in September 2016. We are currently representing six artists and although we now work within a more standardised format – with seven/eight exhibitions at the gallery and approximately four art fair participations per year – we are keen to keep the nomadic aspect alive by organizing at least one off-site show in addition to this. We’re also excited to be participating in Basel’s LISTE and Frieze London this June and October, respectively. At Frieze Art Fair, we will be showing a solo presentation by Evgeny Antufiev, a young Russian artist who was first introduced to me by a classmate from the Courtauld.


We’ve both had the privilege of being taught by Professor Sarah Wilson, who for me has continued to be a great support in the several years since I left the Courtauld –

 Sarah is one of the main reasons why I decided to speed things up and open a gallery at such an early stage. Throughout her programme, she cultivates a unique holistic approach whereby she is constantly thinking of creative ways of integrating theory with practice and she makes a very proactive effort to connect you with people who might be interested in what you are researching both within and outside of the classroom. Luckily for her many students, this support and exchange does not come to an end once the degree is completed – if anything, the dialogue becomes even more intense and generative once leaving the academic setting.


You work closely with a number of emerging artists in London. What would you say are the most exciting opportunities – or the biggest difficulties – facing young artists in London at the moment?

Being a young artist in London is very similar to being a young gallerist in London: both need a lot of space and have very limited resources to enable this. You have to be creative, find new ways of positioning yourself in order to survive a very competitive landscape, and most importantly you have to take part in the discourse of what is arguably the most exciting place to be right now. It is hard to find any other city in the world that has the sheer quantity and quality of people and groups interested and involved in the arts. The daily challenge of pushing what you want to do in a city – that, due to its high costs can at times feel like it’s also a barrier to creativity – can and must be turned into an exciting opportunity: if you can make it in London, you can make it pretty much anywhere else. London artists have a tenacity that is hard to find elsewhere.

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