Saturday, December 5, 2009

Piranesi at Blackfriars by The London Archaeologist

I've mentioned my West City consultancy work, the magic shop it brought me to on a corner of Theobold's Road. The junction's with Leather Lane and the market. While there, I'd noticed what seemed to be the kind of framing effects, produced in this instance by the market stalls, that have in the past accompanied occurrences. Passing this time on my way to an exhibition, I set about to capture them.

Work with the camera's often been likened to hunting, an experience I've never had. For me, fishing's always been a clearer analogy. A world without substance, silent and still, purely of vision, devoid of taste, feel, smell, the element into which we peer through the camera is an alien one, in which we could never survive. Staring at the glistening surface, we are aware of things in there of value, and occasionally there are sufficient signs to allow us to draw them near enough to, the arm a line, perhaps, the camera a hook, with patience, waiting till the twitch, pull, snap, catch. Sometimes you draw out a rusting shopping trolley or bicycle, rotting log, sometimes it's a rare fish, and the urban waterway's long been a favoured place for disposing of a firearm.

Uncertain what they were I stocked them away. I say fishing, but of course only a lost archaeologist, strayed into an alien present, would build up the collection of discarded shopping trolleys I suspected they were, the camera no hook but a trowel, the element obscure as earth.

My plan for the afternoon was neither blogging nor work, though. I was hoping to train my eye. I was on my way, first to Sommerset House, where I hoped to illuminate my own process by that of Frank Auerbach's trowelling through paint in imitation of the London subsoil at the bomb sites. If it made sense to him, perhaps it could to me . My next stop was to be the Tate. If anything should arise on the way - as from the market stalls, for instance, I had hoped - so much the better. If they should not, perhaps that would be due to my inability to see into the alien element, and inspecting how pain

ters, who have the advantage, like Auerbach, of working in a genuinely humous medium, might have managed would certainly help me in future.

However, I left perplexed. The Auerbachs, failing to clear for me into the intensity of vision of his portraits, remained as dark, featureless and obscure as the substances they imitated. This was worrying. If my eyes were unable to draw even from these the fauna that were supposed already to have been labelled and logged, how much less so would they do so from the original element, the outside city itself. After a visit to an interesting adjunct they had on about the representation of the ruined city in art, including Piranesi Inventione, I left, I admit, slightly disappointed. Perhaps the Tate would redeem my intention of learning genuinely to uncover, see into the world I believe the previous posts have proved at least to exist.

It was an odd day, light wise, as many have been recently, clouds coming in and draining out all warmth, then parting and leaving a polished gleam, sinking in, clearing. Sometimes I blamed my lack of vision on their presence, or, in their absence, on their absence. Everywhere I could sense the element that this blog attempts to plot, repeatedly, sensing it near, I'd stick out the machine, click, bring up more waste.

Only the Tate would bring refuge, I hoped, its disused chimney a distant beacon.

On the far side of Blackfriars Bridge there was a sign. The footpath to the gallery was closed, the railway bridge was in need of repair, the station was to be expanded from its present building, among the plainest of all London's termini, to something straddling the river, which seemed a pretty impressive feat of industrialism. Impressive feat of industrialism. I was standing, of course, not only on another, but one which was itself the site of a previous other, the present one, designed by Brunel, whose statue I'd passed with hardly a thought on the way (designer of the first Thames tunnel, of course, a link to that at Greenwich), replacing it. Beneath this, I recalled, was a representation of a representation of it by a man who'd never seen it, but who was sufficiently surprised by what he'd heard about it to have copied up still other representations into an impressive print.

In fact, not only had Piranesi never seen Blackfriars Bridge, he'd never been to London. And yet he'd effected - almost indirectly built - the city's architecture more than many who had. The three strands that have fascinated the Brits have been his representations or vedutas, vedute if you prefer, particularly of ruins, where his dramatic sense of contrast and perspective appealed, perhaps via half-sensed ambivalences about imperialism, in the sublime, his imagined documentary realities, enjoyed for their whimsical eccentricity as Capricios, and, most of all, his darkest conceptions, impossible and cavernous penitentiary interiors, the Carceri di Inventione.

There's no space here to go into this, but I've decided to give it a label, surely come back to the places he's influenced, not least since one has already featured here - an acquaintance of George Dance, (the erstwhile) Newgate Prison shows his influence sufficiently for it to remain evident in Islington's (ex-)electricity substation based on it. I've recently come upon an interesting site for this sort of thing, in fact, that I'll doubtless come back to. But not only Dance did he know, but Chambers, too, of course, his fantasy evident no less in the prison than in the latter's Sommerset House. And not only architects had he influenced, of course, but painters, not least David Hepher, whose visionary series based upon them has proved more than anything else to what extent he's embedded himself in the fabric of the city, in that abstract concrete, imagination. That a great contemporary British composer should have rendered the experience into music is perhaps further testimony.

Something certainly was in the making in the way of what I'd set out to look out for. There had been yet another bridge here. Even the relevant Pevsner, a series usually more marked by sober accuracy than intensity of vision, recognises in its remains the piers 'One of the strangest sights in London, marching across the river, carrying nothing nowhere.'

The Tate would have to wait, the collection I sought there permanent. Here, the building work on the bridge would in not long be over, whatever it revealed folded back into the fabric of the city and its impenetrable air.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Roundabout Greenwich by The Windowless Consultant

I thought I'd stopped blogging. Work's been picking up a little recently, and I've had less time or therefore inclination. I'd begun to feel the experiences, a product of indolence alone, would simply prove irrelevant in the new mood, and found myself happy to think I might drop it for the clearer purpose of window design. I don't know if that will ever be possible again.

My journey to Greenwich was by way of research into a nautical-themed display for the window of an upmarket boutique already planning their Spring campaign. I could have gone to the coast, of course, but the expense seemed unnecessary given the village, so I'd at least do this first. Ocular evidence of one's research is becoming increasingly a pre-requisite for expense claims now, the pinched circumstances, even as we might perhaps be emerging from them, leading to increased caution.

The market has long exercised, of course, a powerful attraction over the amateur photographer, and, naively, I presumed that this would make my attempt to produce my own record of the place go unnoticed, but within seconds of my taking out my pocket camera I'd been approached by a market warden warning me that the stall holders objected to photographs being taken without their permission. I thanked her for the information and considered what to do. For proof that I had been there a generic shot of people and stalls was what I'd intended. However, given the number of stallholders I'd have to ask, the difficulty of deciding what really was in the photograph, this would clearly be impractical. Furthermore, if I asked stallholders, I should by rights ask customers too, but since they were so numerous and, given their constant motion, this would be impossible. Instead, then, I approached a single individual trader with the intention of photographing her stall alone.

Where was I from? she wanted to know first. As a question, this was more difficult than she appeared to realise. It would surely be clear from my accent I was from England, and then, how this should be relevant to permission to photograph was unclear. Perhaps she meant which newspaper, permission being dependent on her liking it, but as I was unconnected to a newspaper, this was harder still to answer, the grammar making no room for a negative reply. What's it for? She prompted.

What worried me was that, if I were to suggest that I sought proof that I'd been there looking for ideas, this person would be disposed to hear only 'looking for ideas' and send me packing as some sort of spy, perhaps for the Chinese. Maybe that's what the place question was about after all.

Fearing, then, that if I gave the truth I'd be forbidden to do my work, I tried what I considered a lie: it was, I said, not without trepidation, for a blog. I waited for her to ask me what kind of a blog that was, to be obliged to say that I wasn't sure, that its purpose, for me, was in large part to try to ascertain that; that I, along with some old acquaintances recently re-met, as though by coincidence, but we suspected it was more than that, felt that there were these things happening which, although we couldn't quite say yet what they were, we all felt were of extreme importance if she wouldn't mind just bearing with us.

Blog, came the stallholder's reply, clearly confirming already her suspicion. That's like Facebook, a blog, she didn't approve of Facebook, couldn't see any purpose in that, if she could, she'd do it herself, wouldn’t need me doing it for her, no, sorry, didn't want me taking photographs for a blog.

I could, I suppose, have gone around asking the other traders one by one who would let me include their stall to prove I was there, but I was too confused to want to try. Had I told the truth, that I wanted it as proof in my work as window display consultant, perhaps the woman's suspicions would have been justified, but that it was this lie, its content so innocent, that should have elicited the objection, flummoxed me.

What are they guarding here, I wondered, what are they trying to conceal? Anyone can look at these goods, handle them, even, buy, take them home. What would the camera be able to see, hold, record, that actual physical presence could not, to be allowed to stand, touch, buy, but not to photograph?

I looked around the market, then, again, a place where I would be unable to work, and sought for explanations in line with the blog they perhaps genuinely feared. I recalled, for instance, reading of the Archaeologist's experience on the roundabout at St Agnes' Well, my suspicions at the time that there may be connections between the experience and the form itself. It's true that on my approach, already, in the tunnel, connections to that post could be suspected, but I'd never have thought that Greenwich should harbour a key discovery concerning them.

One hardly thinks of the heart of Greenwich as a roundabout. And yet, of course that's exactly what the market is, when you think about it, albeit one defined, for the most part, by lusciously stuccoed Victoriana, and with the road encircling it ennobled by no less than four independent names: College Approach, Greenwich Church Street, King William Walk, Nelson Road.

I can't be the only person to have realised that the simple need of getting around's insufficient to explain the place of the road in our lives, the almost total control it has over the urban environment, for instance, transforming it into a permanent state of conflict between the foot- and the wheel-bound. The eccentricity of this form of social organisation's nowhere so manifest as on the gyratory, where the apparently innocent path, which the car would share with even the most elementary forms of organisation even down to that of ants in their neat little lines, not only veers brazenly from the logical, but then goes on deviating until it doubles all the way back on itself in a form surely unique.

At St Agnes' Well, I believe, the Archaeologist, perhaps without realising it, began to find an explanation for the eccentricity of the roundabout as social form. At Greenwich, I was beginning to suspect, I might be able to take the explanation a step further.

Greenwich has always appeared something of an eccentric in the London context - if London really is its context, and it seems to do everything it can to suggest that it's not. If, though, that's why I'd repaired there in the first place, little had I considered just how true it was. Mostly, the sense is overdetermined by its position on the river, firstly since the course of the water itself veers so suddenly off the straight to lap the tongue of the Isle of Dogs it leaves the village reeling and lost - on the spine the waterway forms, and yet so far South it might not be the city at all. And then there's the way the water's always steeped the area so deep in naval history no true inland urbanite can possibly feel entirely at home there. But on top of this comes the weirdest thing of all - the Meridian, not only arbitrary in itself as the one zero point that, setting out East or West, the traveller's position grows further away from, until you go far enough and it starts getting nearer again, but which, as a precondition, required an international race to produce the clock that would inscribe it. Here in Greenwich, it appears, no means is permitted to be direct. If it's predetermined, though, that Greenwich should refuse to remain London, the one thing that makes the refusal possible in the present is not this illustrious past, but that road which, veering from the straight, continues to veer further and further off it until it comes back round to itself as the market, the roundabout, which, simply to cross over to its centre, exacts the price from the pedestrian that they must risk their life to gain the heart of the village.

This, then, explained the fierce independence of the locals, their determination to be - that I be - from somewhere else. They needn't be afraid, then. Blog, we know, comes from the marine log, recording a journey in an act of plotting. Its very nature would preserve the village's independence, recording it as the journey that it was.