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.
Living in a town adjacent to the Thames and with a river running through its centre, people quite understandably keep asking me if I’ve been affected by the recent floods. Have I been plunged into watery despair? Am I wading despondently knee deep in sewage, being accosted by politicians on crucial PR pity visits? No, I answer. Thankfully, that is the truth (Farage and Cameron grinning at me in wellies would no doubt push me over the proverbial water’s edge). As the result of a simple principle which appears inexplicably not to apply to other parts of the country, it was spotted back in the 70’s that we were at risk of flooding and so precautions were put in place. Dartford hasn’t flooded seriously since the late 60’s, a happy statistic our current environment minister seems intent on disproving.
What I carefully neglected to point out to my concerned inquisitors was that last weekend, whilst wandering around Dartford taking the photographs you can see below, it happened that the floods were a momentary blessing to me, bestowing upon my camera some unique shots I do not get to see every day. Passing the much-needed tunnel between our local park and the beautiful yet underrated Brooklands Lakes, I discovered it is currently no longer a tunnel for pedestrians (unless going for a rather cold and boisterous swim) but more of a secondary river with decisively white-water tendencies, the original river spilling over onto the footpath in the manner of a makeshift weir. We can but stand back and concede defeat as nature spits her contempt upon our concrete interventions. It’s a striking sight, and an interestingly microcosmic glimpse into a future decimated by climate change. At the time of writing I believe Owen Paterson, our illustrious Environment Minister, is still in a job. I doubt for very long if the population disagree with his comments implying that climate change is an ’emotional’ response rather than a reality. A news report I read recently hit the nail on the head when it stated that appointing an environment minister who doesn’t believe in climate change is much like appointing a health minister who thinks cigarette risks are exaggerated.
Scientific climate change experts almost overwhelmingly concur that we have been gradually killing our unique ball of gas, with quantifiable evidence in the bag and more to come. I assumed it was a given nowadays. I thought we all pretty much accepted that we are highly likely to be the victims of nature’s wrathful death-throes unless we begin to accelerate very hard in reverse gear (excepting the US bible belt who are all busy polishing their arks, having been significantly forewarned). Sadly, even if Mr Paterson realises his potentially catastrophic error of judgment in the next, say, day or so, we are still 10, 20 or even 30 years too late to put the brakes on the destructive weather changes we see battering the planet and which we were first warned about in 1957. Mitigation is the key at this point; damage limitation. If we act immediately, we might just save the planet from complete destruction. If it turns out that even this is now up for debate, I might just start building an ark myself. 2 cats – check. Now where did I put those spare fence panels…?
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
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.
Brick Lane may seem like a photographer’s dream, but the challenge is in discovering interesting things to capture which haven’t already been photographed by every other tourist with a camera! Huge standout pieces are startlingly beautiful, but my imagination is captured on a smaller scale by chance compositions such as this combination of paint, advertising and graffiti tagging; dwarfed by high-profile street artworks it comes together seemingly unintentionally to create an almost pop-art contemporary work.
Laying on the grass on a sunny day at a festival, I took this photograph of my sister Holly as she danced standing above me. The angle entirely distorts the scale of her actual physique and although naturally tall, it portrays her height as positively monumental. The odd angle somehow expresses her figure and clothing in an almost landscaped manner; undulations of folds appearing somewhat mountainous. The fact that her face is partially obscured only adds to the emphasis of her stance and the vibrancy of the bright colour juxtaposition.
Anyone who has visited Dungeness will remember it by its flat and barren nature. This photograph, taken on the beach through a warm mist, exemplifies the sense of isolation inherent in the seaside town. The parallel stacking of the horizontal linear marks created by the variation in the density of the sand creates an entirely abstract element from which the stark verticals of the windsurfing kart protrude dramatically. The absence of colour in the image adds to the sense of desolation and enhances the geometric nature of the composition.
I am always fascinated primarily by circumstantial compositions which encapsulate a moment, or which seem to have been created or placed by an unseen hand. This photograph, taken at the Blinc Festival in Conwy, wales, captures a hooded figure silhouetted against one of the exhibited pieces around the town. Aside from the pleasing aesthetics (the alternate black against the deep purple and curves against lines portraying an almost space-age like imagery), the connotations struck me as interesting; the attitudes which fuel our modern day witchhunt against ‘hoodies’ imbue this image with a sinister undertone (silhouetted hoodie/unseen face), yet the reality was, of course, entirely different.
Taken in a side street just off Brick Lane, this image captures the humour inherent in much of the artwork around that area. As well as high-end, large scale pieces such as the giant stork, there are hundreds of small individual pieces which encapsulate the tone of the area; figures and characters dotted around, reappearing in various guises and situations and becoming almost envisionings of living creations. In this image there appears a blurring of the boundaries between the real and the imagined. I see the walking man and the graffiti as intrinsically entwined; both part of the fabric of the streetscape and both characters in my created image.
My favourite type of image is one such as this; created by chance, by a combination of weather, nature and human impact and resulting in a beautifully startling moment. As the winter snow started to melt, I spotted this image, the tarmac underneath revealed to create the image of a gaping mouth, the overall effect reminiscent of a Mr Men character. I am a big fan of Andy Goldsworthy and his landscape interventions which produce art in nature using materials found nearby. However, I like to take this one step further and not intervene at all, but to discover; to look carefully and find unusual and artistic compositions such as this which are naturally occurring.
The contrast between the threat of the sharp rose thorns and the purity of the white snow scattered on its tips instinctively brings to my mind the fairytale stories of my childhood; the ever simplistic contrast of good and evil is reflected not only in the materialism of sharp and soft but also in the monochrome tones of the image. Backed by a grey winter sky the traditional beauty of the rose has died; turning the power struggle on its head, the snow, with its seemingly gentle demeanour, has succeeded in destroying the flower’s primary function. The story which unravels challenges assumption and prejudice and forces us to re-assess traditional ideas of beauty.
Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink
John Donne – The Sun Rising**
Last week we embarked upon yet another trip to those strange and barren lands which make up Dungeness and the remote surrounding area. Hoping for some late summer warmth and to avoid the lashing rain typical of this time of year, I knew instinctively it would be tantalisingly free from holidaymakers. The near-deserted desert flanked by a fairly balmy English channel, not by any means tame but thankfully not a roaring fury either, which struck me as appropriately British.
We had brought the bicycles with us, intending to cycle everywhere possible, but forgot to bring the ordinance survey map. As a result, we spent the trip cycling up and down the thankfully expansive stretch of beach at low tide, intermittently halted by treacherous patches of less compact sand and psychotic wasps (are there any other kind?).
The changeable weather, as is often the case, eventually worked in our favour in terms of photographic opportunity. Looking at times apocalyptic, the variety and drama of the cloud formation and tone melded into a perfect storm, with bursts of sun spattering sparkles onto the mudflats as if the gods were hurling around lightning bolts upstairs, in some reckless game unfolding on the Elysium Fields.
I managed to capture an element of this, the extreme contrast between light and dark resulting in existing colour looking naturally over-saturated, its spectrum of pigment creating a beautiful adjacency with the frowning eyebrows of the stormy black clouds. Some images benefited from removing the hue; as we sat on the beach we remarked upon how, no matter how good a camera is, it will never exactly represent what you see through your own eyes, the view undulating microscopically as each millisecond passes, the camera having a limited technical capability and not a patch on nature’s own genius of invention. Transferring the images to black and white instantly recaptured the sense of overbearing impressed upon us by this weather, the immensity of the clouds and fluctuation of density were heightened and brought closer to reality by a slight shift in levels of tone in post-processing.
We initially hoped for clear blue skies. Thankfully we were given much more.
Taken on a Nikon D60 with Nikon 18-55mm VR lens. Minor post-production in Adobe Photoshop.
**The entire poem is carved in wood and attached to the cladding of Derek Jarmans’ former house, Prospect Cottage, located in Dungeness.