It’s so easy to lose track of yourself. To find yourself morphing into a different type of person with whom you have little in common. Someone who doesn’t look – who doesn’t see the beautiful shapes in a ripped piece of wallpaper, or notice the startling effect of light and shadow cast on a busy pavement. You can very quickly become part of the melee who walk over them, heavy footsteps smashing the composition blindly. But that’s part of what I love about myself. Part of what makes me proud to be me. I notice these things. I find them more beautiful and interesting than most artworks in a gallery. The beauty of man-made nature. The stuff which is so natural to us it may as well be placed in the same category as trees and plants; concrete, tarmac, trains, windows, pavements and doors, shopfront reflections, burnt edges, peeling paint. They’re everywhere. The fact that others don’t notice them gives me a little rush, it makes me feel as if I’ve been treated to a personal glimpse of something. Like the children in the Narnia stories who see the portal to the other world, while others around them see nothing but a wall. My experience isn’t that dramatic of course but it has that same special feeling. It brings me joy. Sometimes I can stand at the edge of the tube platform and see so much beauty and art in form and shape that it makes my heart full. The other side of this coin is when I don’t see it. When my heart is sad and my eyes are down. When I look at the wall and see only degradation and the need for a paint job. I’ve been feeling like that recently and stopped seeing the beauty. But today I saw it again and it’s as stunning as ever.
The animals. That’s how they spot me, the locals I mean. Stroking a feral cat which I am fully aware could riddle me with rabies in a blurred second of diseased saliva on teeth tips; they know I’m English and spot me a mile off, how could they not? But their sad, neglected little faces (the animals, I mean). Their mangy forms hobbling along towards an inadequate patch of ground shaded from the burning sun. It is a familiar and enduring sight of the which I will I never get used to seeing in other countries. But despite my very British show of pet empathy, on my first trip to the Greek ‘Athens Riviera’ in June of this year the fate of these multitudinous weary strays managed to distract me only momentarily from those extraordinary Athenian ruins of classical antiquity which tower over the city, abiding endlessly as lives begin, are lived and end all around them.
The Acropolis remains are overwhelmingly huge, dominating the city skyline in a way that I felt was more powerful than seeing them at close range. In some cases the sculpture is powerfully enigmatic, the guarding Caryatids evoking in me a childhood memory from the Neverending Story of those two stone oracles, their power and character fascinating me then at six as these beautiful, frightening forms do now at thirty. I inherited an interest in history from my mother, although my thirst for knowledge does not extend to the same reaches nor inhabit the same form as her – ie. sitting up late at night head buried in 3000 page epic overviews of Russian revolutions. My own curiosity takes far more of an immediate form; suffice it to say lengthy summaries of fact spattered with anomalous pellets of prose do not engage me for long, but I would still consider myself a history fan, shall we say. I chose my holidays mostly according to whether there are sites to visit nearby. I sketch the ruins and read the leaflets. So why do I always find myself questioning our obsession with preservation?
I suppose I’m playing devil’s advocate to an extent, but do find it disturbing how we actively remove significant objects and artefacts from the public reach, particularly those which were created with the proletariat in mind. It embodies the modern edict of look, but don’t touch. It’s a relatively new phenomenon (in the scale of the lives of these buildings) and one whose aspects I do understand in principle; vast increases in visitor numbers and so the inevitability of damage, the fact that to save these artifacts we have to stop direct visitor engagement at some point so why not now, the advances in technology meaning we can now see in more clarity the damage being inflicted etc. Ergo, we have to preserve these artefacts for the future. But do we? Is modern society a bit over obsessed with preservation and conservation, to the point at which we have almost become hoarders on a mass ideological scale?
Ironically of course our consumer culture evidences quite the opposite, most of us are hesitantly complicit in the growth of plastic mountains and new landfill land masses. On the whole we generally attribute little value to objects. Not in the case of historical value though, this attribution transforming something from disposable to preservable. Uniqueness is often the main factor, or its rarity, but our desperation to ensure that the originals of these objects are not lost have led us to sometimes devalue them through corrupting their original public purpose and right to be used. Walking around the Acropolis was a perfect example of this; barred at every corner from experiencing the structures as they were meant to be experienced, I admit I felt cheated. Public structures built as open areas for the people, for the masses to participate in community gathering, now reduced to purely an externally aesthetic pursuit for all except a privileged few specialists. This restriction tarnishes it, sullies the beauty and purity of the architecture and essentially just isn’t fair. But far from this behaviour being unique to what is now ancient construction, we regularly apply it to new, modern creations. ‘Do not touch’ goes without saying in virtually every instance. In artistic terms it does in fact now seem to psychologically add value to something. To be told we can touch instinctively means so can everyone else and the thing is reduced to consumable as opposed to preservable.
I freely admit I do not have an opposing solution to the issues of why we do preserve and am here merely provoking consideration of a concept we all take very much for granted. You could indeed say that if we gave free reign access to works of art or historical artefacts they would be smashed and graffiti covered, but consider that many have been standing there for over 2000 years, significantly damaged primarily due to brutal wars and not local hoodlums, with do not touch rules only being implemented in the last 50 or so. Speculate on why we feel we need to preserve them in their perfected original form at all. Does not time decay and weather all things? With modern technology we persist in working against natural evolution, to stultify it and challenge its process of degeneration. In this case, to what end? Our ability to further our knowledge through them is limited and can be recorded with a variety of techniques, so why not allow the structures to become communal, as a vast amount of them were intended to be? Laying them open to potential damage is a worrying prospect, but to leave them as they are, alien and untouchable, may be even worse. Perhaps it’s time to allow the public to experience the key to why these structures are so amazing and despite what the brochures may want you to think, the answer isn’t in the gift shop.
I’d heard of the Wapping Project before. As someone interested in the arts in London, it was almost hard not to. Exclamation at it’s evident all-round brilliantness gushed from every source, über-cool reviewers and members of various ‘in-crowds’ chattered excitedly about its innovative programme and siting. But inevitably, like a million other must-sees in and around London over the years, I had always failed to actually get there and consequently, regrettably, allowed it to drift from my subconscious to-do list. In a sadly ironic twist it’s impending closure means that I did finally manage to visit, after receiving last week an email from the project’s deputy director Marta tempting me with the sale of various jugs/bowls/glasses at bargain prices. The reason for the kitchenware sell-off being that the renowned restaurant based there, along with the rest of the project, will be no more after 22nd Dec, with reports claiming that complaints from residents about noise levels has forced the shutdown. Complaints about the complaints have also been voiced in increasing number, with creatives across the city mourning the looming date of its disappearance. On a brighter note of self-interest, this situation did mean that moi managed to swiftly baggsie myself a few cut-price treasures for my kitchen cupboards (every cloud and all that).
And so it was that I found myself, on a damp, dark Thursday eve in December arriving at Wapping, it being an attractively strange place oozing history and character in that nouveau-classy manner of much of the east docklands area; the palpable taste of new money ‘a la Shad Thames refurbed wharf architecture, but it’s modern flashiness still unable to conceal that dark undercurrent, the sense of unease a residue from centuries of rough riverside streets; crime, murder and the nearby Execution Dock instilling an aura of menace in the fabric of the historic maritime area. The breeze from the Thames feels old, almost as though it has been carried along from 1750, the spectre of Jack the Ripper lurking behind each corner, hidden on the dark and wet almost deserted streets which glisten under the subdued glow of the streetlights. I must admit, I loved it.
A 5 minute walk from the station along Wapping Wall brings you to an initially underwhelming industrial gated entrance opposite the famous Prospect of Whitby pub, but a tentative peek through the door reveals the dramatic facade of the old Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, windows emitting that syrupy phosphorescence of low candlelight and allowing just enough contrast with the dark night to give an initial glimpse of the restored machinery-clad interior. Once inside, I immediately enjoyed just being in the space (I’m a big fan of old industrial architecture) gleefully eyeballing the structure and revelling in my dreamy rose-tinted imaginings of its past days. Kitchenware collected, I reluctantly prepared to be on my way, the sense of foolish missed opportunity dawning on me and regret beginning to seep into my consciousness, when deputy director Marta eagerly pointed me towards a small door just off the main hall – “go and see the last exhibition” she said, “before we close for good”.
Stepping through into the dark entrance of the Boiler Room I was struck instantly by the unmistakeable smell of damp and cold; wet on metal and the past still hanging in the air, the pungency of childhood adventures spent exploring places where perhaps you shouldn’t be. Coming to the top of a staircase I saw below me a partially constructed wooden structure set upon a bed of sand, snow and gravel. Shafts of brilliant white light poked through what appeared to be window holes, illuminating the surrounding area and inviting me in and out of the dark cold gloom. Stepping inside felt a little like an intrusion; I was in that rather rare position of being the only person at the exhibition, meaning the suspension of disbelief was thrillingly heightened. It could well have been someone’s house, inside were benches covered in sandy blankets, the accompanying soundtrack intensifying the effect of the drama as you entered the space. One whole wall of the shack consists of a screen projecting the photographic essay shot by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher in Svalbard and (I discovered later) inspired by Ibsen’s play ‘The Lady from the Sea‘. The inside/outside setting of the installation parallels with the movement of the story through interiors and exteriors as it follows the Nordic couple, the quality of photography and direction recording their emotional turmoil visually whilst also relating it to us via physical atmosphere and sound.
I sat there for a good fifteen minutes; a record for me I think. When it comes to moving artworks I usually find myself less engaged than in those which are static, maybe the controlling and over-independent facets of my personality find it jarring to be forced to look at something else, to be told when I have to move my gaze on. This set of photographs however, succeed in delicately achieving an unforced flow, lingering long enough on each image to make you eager for the next, but not so much that you get bored of it; adeptly sufficient in length for the viewer to drink in each lovely drop of it. The direction and curation utilise cleverly our brain’s ability to fill in the blanks; leaving the little shack I felt inherently that I knew the characters well, understood their respective positions, sympathised with both viewpoints and even hoped that they sorted their troubles out in the end. All that emotional response gleaned from 15 minutes in front of a set of still photographs.
On the way home, feeling extremely lucky to have had an unexpected private view of such a beautiful new exhibition, I mused on how I had ended up there. Fate? Was I meant to see the Wapping project at some point, a spurious roundabout kitchenware errand leading me there all along? I like to think that chance is a better bet than fate. Sometimes there occur poignant moments in life which materialise entirely through random fortuitous happenings and, like a cyber-finger enacting the proverbial Facebook poke, never fail to make me acutely aware of the importance of chance incidents within the bizarre rollercoasters of our daily lives. It was a circumstantial moment such as this in which I found myself last Thursday evening; unexpectedly sitting alone inside that cool, damp, wooden shack and revelling in my good fortune.
The Lady of the Sea by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher runs until 22nd December 2013 at The Wapping Project, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, E1W 3SG 0207 680 2080.
For more information on The Wapping Project in its final days contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyone who really knows me is likely to confirm that I am a bit of a hypochondriac, a personality trait I am aware grinds irritatingly on most of them, eyes rolling wearily skyward each time they hear my self-pitying tales of woeful sickness. But it turns out that this trait is not confined to the physical, or even the health-related aspects of my body. It also extends to the creative; that deep little cubby in my mind, dark and cosy, filled with cases of tattered old books and tin cups brimming with red wine. I like it there. So why am I finding it quite a difficult place to be at the moment? My attempts to write resulting in unpublishably bad two-paragraph drafts and my current cosy place being nose-deep in a cringeworthy pot-boiler of a book. The obvious irony here is that I actually am, at this point, writing; hence, you are reading. So, ‘creative hypochondriac’, I hear you snigger, your implication of writers block appears unfounded. But is this, ie. writing about not being able to write (is that a paradox?), what I want to be writing about? This being general musing opinion thingys and the necessary distinction being part of the problem.
As an aspiring writer you inevitably have the pressure of indulging in constant comparison with both your role models and peers. I try hard not to do it, we all have different styles, yada yada, but you do suffer that problem of labelling. Those beautiful societally ingrained cuboids of concept, we must of course all fit in a box; opinion writer, reviewer, critic, novelist, journalist. The modern age tolerates not the jack-of-all-trades. Take our education system. Good at everything but excel at nothing? Sorry love, back down the job centre for you. Brilliantly ruthless investment banker but lacking in every other aspect of personality? Jackpot. You my friend, can rule them all. So here I am, wondering where I fit, if anywhere? I like writing about all different things but keep coming up against the same questioning brick wall – what is your niche? Assessing the (admittedly far-advanced) competition doesn’t help. Admiringly gobbling up columns by Rosamund Urwin or Grace Dent feels much like a personal dressing down, each cleverly crafted witty sentence and sharp one liner being delivered to me via mental monologue, in that masochistically patronising voice of the M&S advert woman and her invisible cruel smirk; ‘I know you want this, but you just can’t have it, you poor deluded thing’ (oh, and there’s the self-pity).
Sitting down to write a non-descript column at this point is a challenge. To try to come up with something worth writing, that’s worth people reading, in a style worth sharing, is a seemingly mountainous task. Easier to read a book, eh. So what’s the answer? How do I discover my ‘niche’ and do I have to? The stubborn part of my psyche stamps it’s foot with a resounding No. And to continue doing what I’m doing (a marketing manager writing an ‘art’ blog), I suppose it’s right, that’s up to me. But to try to take this forward and move it on, to shift it gently or otherwise in a more purposeful direction, I admit I may have to surrender. I might have to assess and analyse and streamline and use all those other horrible soulless business words on myself towards an end point. A point where I can take my wine soaked, candlelit, creative mind-cubby and place it gingerly in a carefully labelled box, like a weird conceptual parallel of Deal or No Deal with my career as the prize and hopefully without the appearance of Noel Edwards. But truthfully, even before I begin this process I know in my gut the end result; sorry Mr Banker, No Deal.
If, as Keats so famously wrote, beauty is truth and truth beauty, surely a pertinent exemplification of this has to be the result of a simple but primordial chemical reaction, the product of which we named Fire. Fuel+O2+Heat incited by pressure, equals. Darkness into light; a way out of the malicious shadows, yet the creation of a state charged with it’s own instinctively vicious propensities. Bearing in mind the hypnotic and electrifying effects which fire continues to inspire in us today, in our info-heightened, over-subscribed, post-hacking world of anti-innocence, it is mind boggling to attempt to imagine the not just life-changing but existence-changing effect the unearthing of this awareness must have had on its discoverer. For unlike today, a Neanderthal person would not have been able to share an enlightening experience with their fellow earthlings across the way. Each community would have had to come to the knowledge in their own time, the technique passed down through generations for millions of years until the fateful day someone invented the match, reducing the skill of fire inception to merely owning opposable thumbs. Have you ever tried to light a fire using just a pile of brush and sheer will, imploring your hands to spin, spin those sticks faster!? It’s hard. I failed. An embarrassingly cliched product of my upbringing and environment, I soon scrambled off to find matches; the enveloping cold air surpassing my desire for that particular scouting badge.
The physical and psychological powers of fire are often tragically underestimated, lending an ominous counterbalance to its intense beauty. So why do we find it so mesmeric? Is it aesthetic? Or, as is more likely, it is rooted in our dependence as well as in our fear. We all know that fear and power hold a certain attraction, despite our protestations of distaste for that fact. Both embody an element of excitement, our adrenaline levels rising to combat a potentially dangerous situation. It’s sexy, it’s kind of taboo, it’s what drives almost every kind of pornography you can think of and despite your protestations dear reader, statistics suggest you are likely to be in some way a consumer of that particular industry. We fear it, thus we are entranced by it, it thrills us; car-crash rubbernecking. It’s also undeniable that we must have an instinctive basic attachment to something so key to our very survival. Although it is powerful, we often, as I said before, underestimate its speed, force and completely indiscriminate nature. We have ‘controlled’ fires, we use it for fun, it warms us and cooks our food; we believe we hold the power. But despite all of this, the visual spectacle of a flame, from the endearing initial flickering to awe-inspiring and terrifying explosion, continues to capture us in a unique way.
To photograph a flame, a fire, is fantastically easy or frustratingly difficult; satisfaction being entirely dependent upon the effect you’re after. A good while ago I gave up trying to portray exactly what I was seeing, when I realised that the outcome of my shots captured less the exact visual image I was perceiving and more the behaviour of the process and material. I now realise how much more interesting this is to me, the frantic jitters of the flames caught in a series of moments; the longer exposure tracing their journey back and forth, up and down, like trapped insects searching for freedom without knowing why. Colour of course plays a part, the brilliant purity of the red and yellow flame providing the ultimate contrast with the blackness of night. The scenes beg to be photographed, painted. As I’ve always said, Nature herself is most certainly an artist.